Bottom of the Bay, the venerable (since 1972) crab joint-cum-seafood restaurant on Route 1 in Laurel, is not easy to describe. It's a one-story, two-room structure that defines what Maine lobster purveyors up "nawth" call "eating in the ruff." That is, shoes and shirts are required (we think), but that's about it.
Boasting about 60 seats, according to manager John Knapp, the main dining room and the bar are roughly equal in size. If you're seeking intimacy, forget it. Individual tables are set up on two sides, against the walls. But in the center, the tables are all lined up, great for crab-feasting groups, what with paper towels on dowels part of the table-top décor.
If you're planning on eating crabs — and you should — they'll issue you a craft-paper table cover. Otherwise, your paper menu becomes your place mat, defining your space.
The bar dispenses basic alcoholic beverages: beer, harder liquor, maybe some mixed drinks, etc. But if you're in the mood for a Manhattan, say, be aware that they "no longer stock" sweet vermouth, or so we were told. So, order a Yuengling (or two) and be done with it.
Back to the main dining room. Well, it's not entirely "rough." A colorful mural dominates one wall, depicting a bright blue ocean, with all manner of whimsical sea creatures frolicking in the water that's lapping up onto the cove beach. The mural is set above bright blue wainscoting. Other walls feature checkered wallpaper (over wainscoting) hung with beer signs and seafood posters.
The ceiling is hung with fan lights; the floor is brick-red ceramic tile.
There's a soft drink beverage bar on the fourth wall. Above that bar is a large television, tuned into "Access Hollywood" (or one of those voyeur shows) on the recent Thursday night we visited. How comforting; just like home.
We got there pretty early that evening. Good thing. Bottom of the Bay filled up fast, with a lot of locals, whom our server knew by name (a la "Cheers"), dropping by. And a lot of carry-out customers accessing the place through the bar/carry-out section.
Our server was quite friendly after a little "misunderstanding" about whether we were going to eat crabs or not. Apparently craft paper is quite expensive and the owner doesn't like to use it for noncrab eaters.
We got half a sheet, actually, because two of our number wanted to try the (steamed, spiced) crabs as an appetizer. Later, our server relented, and put craft paper on the entire table for us.
I mention all this because, despite a few quirks in philosophical approach toward restaurant service, the food here — a lot of it homemade — ranges from adequate (a couple of kitchen glitches) to pretty good, and seems to be as unpretentious as the place in which it is served.
The crabs were another matter. In a word, wonderful. We ordered a half-dozen jumbos (at $77/dozen that evening). They were true to their size: hot, heavy, juicy, perfectly cooked. You can even get melted butter (well, margarine) to go with if you like. We ordered other appetizers, too. There are 11 "official" ones on the menu. And seven soups, which we always think of as appetizers.
So, a cream of crab ($3.75/cup) and a cream of shrimp ($3.75/cup). The soup bases are homemade, the crab soup creamy, mildly seasoned and comforting, with ample crab in it. The latter was basically cream of crab, with shrimp (again, an ample number) substituting for the crab.
As to our other appetizer, we were obviously in a shellfish mode, as we ordered the crab dip ($9.55). A bit overpriced, we think, although there was plenty of hot cream-cheesy dip in a large Pyrex baking dish, and plenty of lightly toasted baguette slices for spreading.
The main-dish platters at Bottom of the Bay come with a choice of two sides. One of them, a small salad, came out with the appetizers, so that served as a first course as well.
Main-dish combos are served on ceramic plates; everything else is brought to you on foam "dinnerware." The salad, which comprised impeccably fresh, cold and crisp iceberg lettuce, carrot shreds, tomatoes, onion, green peppers and more, was in a foam bowl. With mild blue cheese dressing (acceptably creamy/chunky) in a mini-plastic crock on the side.
The Bottom of the Bay menu is surprisingly extensive. Besides the soup and appetizers sections we mentioned, other dishes are categorized with headings such as club sandwiches, homemade salads, hot and cold sandwiches, steamed seafood, sides (aka "extra orders"), even lunch specials.
There are a few sops for landlubbers: a turkey or roast beef club, burgers, a "super ham sandwich special." And in the 24-item entrée combo section, there's a T-bone steak, BBQ ribs and some chicken. But this place is pretty much about seafood.
So that's what we ordered. Lemon-spicy orange roughy ($18.69), fried oysters ($15.99/dozen), soft shell crabs ($18.99/2 medium or 3 small). Our fourth taster opted for blackened seafood kebabs ($12.95) listed on the specials board near the dining room front door.
Plus side dishes, which we mention here. Apple sauce, good, but what can you do to applesauce? Housemade cole slaw was creamy but not overly so, with standard ingredients: carrots and cabbage. Vegetable du jour, in this case, green beans, carrots and zucchini (fresh, steamed), healthy. Baked potato with sour cream and butter (in little plastic containers). That small fresh salad we mentioned. And some batter-fried onion rings, which were crisp, a little oily (we like that), sweet and tender inside, and satisfying.
The lemon-spicy orange roughy was nicely broiled. Two large fillets, tender, moist, lemony and yes, spicy. There were two kebabs on the kebab specials, chock-a-block full of large shrimp, big scallops — both seafood items moist and tender — plus crisp green pepper and onion squares. Paprika "blackened" the food, but not much else. The true spice aficionado would be disappointed.
The kitchen hand breads or batters the ingredients for fried oysters, shrimp, soft shell crabs and more. But someone in the kitchen may have had a couple of moments of inattention when frying oysters and soft shell crabs that evening. While there was a good batter on the outside of each, both seafood favorites were overdone, dark brown, and too crunchy to be able to enjoy the delicate seafood flavors inside.
Our server took $5 off the oyster platter. She also took off the price of a beer, ordered toward the end of the meal, which she forgot to serve.
We failed to notice on the menu that a 15 percent gratuity is included in your check, so the tip we left was unnecessarily generous.
Indeed, Bottom of the Bay is not easy to describe. Except for the prices, which are quite up to date, owner Al "Skip" Soper's Merlynn seafood and crab joint seems to have been beamed from Downee Oshun (of 20 or 30 years ago) ) and reassembled right there on Route 1. Still it's worth a visit or two. Especially if you focus on streamed crabs. If you're also planning on ordering from the menu, we suggest you get those things first, then enjoy the crabs as the grand finale. They'll definitely leave a wonderful taste in your mouth.
Bottom of the Bay Seafood (301-498-1040, 301-498-3540 for carryout; http://www.bottomofthebay.com), is at 9590 North Laurel Road (Route 1), Laurel.