In June, TV crews descended upon Al’s Seafood in Essex. The Sun reported that producers wanted volunteers with contracting experience and people to eat dinner. My inbox was filled with a seemingly endless stream of confused readers attempting to make reservations for dinner.
It was all part of the Food Network series “Restaurant: Impossible,” in which host Robert Irvine helps transform restaurants on the brink of failure into thriving establishments, all with a budget of just $10,000.
At least that’s the idea. In reality, the track record is mixed. Georgia Boy Cafe, a Hagerstown restaurant that got the Irvine treatment in 2013, closed the following year, according to the Hagerstown Herald-Mail.
The episode featuring Al’s won’t air for another few months and owners aren’t allowed to talk about what happened. But we were curious to see the results. So we drove out to Essex for a crab feast.
First impressions: No sooner had we swung open the door to Al’s Seafood than two servers welcomed us in enthusiastically. I find few things more irritating when you go out to eat than having to wait around waving your arms like a drowning swimmer at the beach to get someone’s attention. (If a restaurant can’t be bothered to meet me when I walk in the door, what am I to expect for the rest of my meal?) We were asked if we planned to have crabs (we did) and were seated at a table already lined with paper.
Must-tries: Any crab loving Marylander will enjoy Al’s steamed crabs, seasoned with their own special blend manufactured by Halethorpe-based J.O. Spice. Mallets, wet wipes and a trash can are provided. A starter of clams casino topped with bacon and melted cheese, according to an old family recipe, was pleasing and at $9, economical. But don’t dig in right away: they stay warm atop a sophisticated plating of salt, and will burn your mouth if you don’t give them substantial time to cool down.
Special touches: Following the makeover, the restaurant’s the original captain boat theme of the restaurant looks almost hip. A big backlit Al’s Seafood sign adorns the back wall, as if to say to fans of the decades-old establishment: “We’re still the same, just a little bit cleaner.” With a coat of paint, those dated wood panels look like they’ve been visited by Chip and Joanna Gaines. Is that shiplap?
Pro-tip: The menus rotate weekly and the kitchen is continually testing out new items. Some are more reliable than others. The broiled softshell stuffed crabs imperial were downright inedible; my dining companion and I each took a bite--one was enough. Perhaps it was an off night: servers said they had not had complaints about the dish from earlier customers. But at $28, you don’t want to take chances.
Bottom Line: Laying aside my journalistic skepticism for a moment, it’s inspiring to think that this restaurant makeover was made possible by the very people who patronize it. While the restaurant still has some kinks to work out (hello, softshell crab) staff seem receptive to feedback and eager to make improvements. We hope that the same community members who helped renovate Al’s Seafood while the film crews were in town will come back to eat crabs now that they’re gone.