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Crab Shanty hopes to attract new clientele without alienating old

By Karen Nitkin, knitkin@verizon.net

9:06 AM EDT, October 14, 2011

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Crab Shanty, a family-owned Ellicott City landmark since 1978, is changing its menu, its look, even its name.

"The changes had to happen," said William C. King III, who founded the restaurant with his father, William King Jr. "We have to attract a different clientele to stay in business."

Work began earlier this month and is expected to continue through early November. Outdoor seating will be added, the bar area will be made larger, and new colors, chairs and lighting will brighten the inside.

The restaurant will be known as the Shanty Grille, and the menu, while keeping old favorites like crab cakes and New York strip steak, will be overhauled, with small plates and flatbreads among the new choices.

"It has so much value to us," said Eric King, 34, the third generation of the King family to run the restaurant. "We couldn't just let it go."

The changes are meant to attract a younger crowd and entice them to eat at the restaurant frequently, without abandoning the older customers who have become Crab Shanty's mainstay. Somehow, the restaurant has evolved into a special-occasion restaurant, with an unfair reputation for high prices, Eric King said.

On a recent Sunday night, the restaurant was bustling, even though work had already begun and patrons had to follow a sign leading to a temporary entrance on the side of the building. Tommy Bowles, 81, walked out carrying a container of leftovers. The Laurel resident said he's been eating at Crab Shanty about 25 years, typically coming in about once a month.

Asked about the changes, he said he'll continue to frequent the restaurant as long as the King family remains in charge.

Nancy Small, of Ellicott City, whose husband Mike is a bartender at the restaurant, said the outside seating and other changes will be "wonderful," but also recognized that change inevitably will "upset a lot of people."

The King family, as it has done in the past, is changing with the times.

Eric King's grandfather, William C. King Jr., got into the seafood retail business in 1951 when he opened Bay Island Seafood at the corner of Pratt and Monroe streets in Baltimore. He closed it later that decade, Eric King said, and in 1963 opened the first Sea King, a carry-out restaurant in Catonsville. Over the years, several Sea King locations have come and gone, including two at different times and in different locations on Route 40, King said.

In 1978, William King Jr. and his son, William C. King III, opened Crab Shanty, the first and only full-service seafood restaurant owned by the King family. The family also began a barbecue take-out chain, called Pig Pickers, opening one four years ago across the street from Crab Shanty. That take-out, which also sells seafood under the Sea King name, won't change.

Meanwhile, Eric King, who had worked at the restaurant since he was a small child, was getting an education that would prepare him to return to the restaurant. He had considered becoming a doctor, he said, but wound up graduating from West Virginia University with a degree in financing and a minor in accounting. He then attended the prestigious Cornell School of Hotel Administration, graduating in 2004.

He had planned to live away from Maryland for a few years, he said, gaining restaurant experience before returning to take the helm of the family business. But his father asked him to skip that step and come right to Maryland.

When he did, the younger King was able to see the restaurant with fresh eyes. He saw that most of the customers were senior citizens, and they did not welcome changes to a menu that was in need of freshening.

With his father's blessing, King began to make changes. But they proceeded cautiously, so they wouldn't alienate current customers.

Prices were cut, and meals were offered with one side instead of two. A "Chef's Collection" section was added to the menu, giving the kitchen a chance to offer "more exquisite dishes with a more modern feel," Eric King said. The banquet room and bar were updated. The restaurant became more ecologically friendly, using motion-detection lights, reducing waste through composting, and favoring sustainable seafood.

"Unfortunately, it wasn't enough," Eric King said.

The new Shanty Grille menu will include, among other things, appetizers of smoked salmon tartar, sesame seared ahi and fried pumpkin ravioli. A new "small plates" section will have fish tacos, meatloaf wrapped in applewood bacon and Thai-grilled salmon; flatbreads will be offered with fire-roasted chicken, pulled pork, shrimp and crab scampi and more. Most menu items will cost less than $20.

When the work is done, the exterior will have a stone facade; the bar area will be expanded by 264 square feet; and outside seating for about 50 will be added where curbside pickup is now located. There will be about 15 more parking spaces, and most of the nautical decorations will be removed.

The restaurant is remaining open as much as possible during the renovations.

As with other King endeavors, the entire family is involved. While the entryway was being reworked, Eric's mother, Maryann, and wife, Jeanne, walked in with light fixtures they had purchased.

"We really want to bring in the families," Jeanne said. "We want to have it used as a restaurant on a regular basis, not just special occasion dining."