If Baltimoreans have a Holy Grail, I once said in a review, it would be the perfect crab house.
It's not just the heaviness and sweetness of the crabs and the perfect seasoning they're looking for. Intangibles like atmosphere, water view and old-fashioned charm play a part, too.
Other factors are important. If you have out-of-town visitors who are only here for a day or two, it may be hard to drag them down to Dundalk to tear apart crustaceans, an activity they're dubious about anyway. So you need to know about a crab house near the harbor, where your visitors insist on spending the afternoon.
I don't pretend to have tried every crab house in the area, so this list isn't a definitive one. Feel free to add your favorite by posting below.
Here are my 10: ...
* Cantler's near Annapolis. A classic crab shack: hard to find with communal tables, a view of Mill Creek, and lots of happy people.
* Captain James Landing between Canton and Fells Point has a crab deck in the summer across the street near the water where you can get crabs and corn on the cob.
* Costas in Dundalk. It may not have the atmosphere of some crab houses or the water view, but this family-owned business has been turning out excellent steamed hard shells for more than 35 years.
* Gunning's in Hanover. This is more of a seafood restaurant than it used to be when its specialties included fried green pepper rings with powdered sugar as well as steamed crabs, but it's on this list because I feel nostalgic about the original.
* L.P. Steamers in Locust Point. The crabs are heavy, the beer is cold, and there's a roof top deck for your dining pleasure.
* Mr. Bill's Terrace Inn (200 Eastern Blvd., 410-687-5996) in Essex. The quintessential crab house. You won't find any tourists here -- it's too much of a hike -- just great crabs steamed with Mr. Bill's own seasoning.
* Nick's Fish House in Baltimore makes a Top Ten for the second week running. It has two advantages: Great outdoor water view seating and, although it's a short drive from the harbor, it hasn't been discovered by the tourists yet.
* Obrycki's downtown. I wanted to include one place near the Inner Harbor where you can take out-of-towners for steamed crabs. You're going to run into hordes of tourists at any of them, but I think this one is your best bet. If you have another suggestion, tell us why.
* Pier Street Marina (410-226-5171) in Oxford. I prefer this Eastern Shore crab house with great water view to the better known Crab Claw in St. Michaels, which is where all the tourists go. It overlooks the Tred Avon.
* Schultz's in Essex. If I'm going to travel to pick hard shells, I go to Schultz's. I can't really say why; I just like the knotty pine walls and the stuffed marlin for atmosphere, and the crabs are good.
(Colby Ware/Sun photographer)