Obrycki's, 1727 E. Pratt St., (410) 732-6399. Open every day for lunch and dinner, April through November. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $4.75-$14.95; entrees, $12.75-$23.95.

The last time I ate at Obrycki's it was still Ed Obrycki's Olde Crab House (although the Obryckis had sold it by then to Rose and Richard Cernak). It was located in a rowhouse at 1729 E. Pratt St.

If you wanted to pick hard crabs in a Williamsburg setting, there was nothing to match Ed Obrycki's Olde Crab House. I never quite understood the reason for the wall sconces and the Colonial costumes, but you couldn't fault the steamed crabs, fried stuffed shrimp or crab imperial. And people loved it: The line would be out the front door on a weekend night.

People still love it, even though now it's just Obrycki's and even though it moved to a location nearby in the late '80s.

The new place has perhaps less soul but certainly more room. It's a cheerful restaurant, done in warm colors with lots of exposed brick. But Obrycki's is no longer pure East Baltimore, the way it once was in spite of the Williamsburg overlay. You get the feeling it could start franchising any minute. You can buy Obrycki T-shirts and Obrycki posters and Obrycki souvenir glasses. You can get the mail-order menu and send crabs and TC crab cakes almost anywhere in the United States.

But who cares as long as the beer is cold and the crabs hot?

It is and they are.

This is the place to take your out-of-town visitors who need to be eased into the Baltimore steamed-crab experience. Here they can order three different kinds of chardonnay by the glass before they have a dozen hard-shells dumped in front of them. Here they'll get bibs. (Picking crabs can be a messy business -- especially for first-timers.)

Here also, I should warn you, they'll pay $42 for a dozen extra-large -- at least when the crabs are brought from Texas. (Prices may have come down by the time you read this.) Unfortunately crab houses have become expense-account restaurants, what with the scarcity of hard-shells.

I don't mean to suggest that Obrycki's is some kind of tourist trap. Plenty of people who looked like locals were having a great time the night we were there. But if your experience is anything like ours, you may find yourself sitting next to a table of Japanese visitors, puzzled but game, pounding away at the backs of their crabs with their mallets.

I stopped watching when our crabs arrived, so I didn't notice whether they finally gave up and ordered something else. If they did, they had plenty of crab dishes to choose from: crab cakes, stuffed flounder and shrimp, crab imperial. All of it made with gorgeous lumps of snowy backfin.

Sometimes the kitchen does right by such fine crab meat, sometimes it doesn't. Obrycki's crab cakes are wonderful: The lumps of crab are lightly bound together, have just the right seasonings and are fried to crisp perfection.

But the hard-shell stuffed crab, a house specialty -- which you'd think would involve the same mixture -- was a disappointment. The crab lumps were just as beautiful, but more breading was involved and I didn't like the seasonings as much. The best part of it was the large hard-shell itself. Not that I didn't have my work cut out for me -- no tools were provided, so I had to pick it with my dinner knife. (Yes, I know I could have asked; but I was curious to see how well I could do.)

Obrycki's stuffs its broiled flounder with a fine crab imperial. But the fish itself was dreadful. It had a faint ammonia taste and the texture of fish that has sat on a steam table.

We started off dinner with the house appetizer for two, a cup of clam chowder and a couple of steamed crabs. The choice of crabs was extra-large or small, so of course we ordered extra-large -- we were only having two, after all. Unfortunately, our nice waitress could remember nothing, and she wrote nothing down. I don't say that lightly; she had already brought the wrong person the wine and forgotten the beer altogether. (That's not a really complicated order.) She went on to bring us the wrong size crabs, gave water to the person who didn't order it and a soda to the person drinking iced tea.

But back to our first courses. The crabs were superb, every bit as good as local ones in the dead of summer. The combination appetizer included fine, fat steamed shrimp; crisp tidbits of tender fried clams, little deviled crab balls (made with lump crab meat) and clams casino overwhelmed by bread crumbs, chopped green pepper, onion and the like. The clam chowder was pretty ordinary.

For dessert, go for the chocolate chip pie, a pecan pie with chocolate chips, served very hot so the effect is like a soft chocolate chip cookie straight from the oven. It was much better than the Key lime pie that tasted of too much bottled lime juice, or the rubbery bread pudding. For an almost perfect meal at Obrycki's, you might try a dozen extra-large steamed crabs, followed by a slice of the hot chocolate chip pie.

There are two other things to remember about Obrycki's. It still closes in November for the season and reopens in April, just like a shore restaurant -- even though crabs are available all year-round these days. And it doesn't take reservations, so be prepared for a wait. Even on a Wednesday night it was packed.

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