Gabler's, 2200 Perryman Road, Aberdeen. (410) 272-0626. Open Tuesdays to Sundays, closed Mondays except holidays. No credit cards. No-smoking area: no. Prices vary according to availability. *** When Gabler's (pronounced Gay-bler's) turned up on a rival publication's list of the 40 best restaurants in the area, I was amazed. After 20 years off and on doing this job, I haven't been to all the good restaurants around Baltimore; but I thought I had at least heard of them.

With all the crab houses we have -- some of them quite famous -- how did Gabler's make the final cut?

I decided to find out, which isn't as easy as it sounds if you live in the city. First of all, you have to call and make reservations -- both for you and your crabs. Hard shells are steamed on the half hour. Yours will be waiting for you when you arrive; but if you're more than 10 minutes late, Gabler's gives them to some other customer.

So this is a pressure situation. You'll be wandering around in unfamiliar territory knowing that if the traffic is heavy on Interstate 95 north, or you miss one of the several turns, someone could be eating a dozen jumbos that rightfully belong to you.

But when you finally get there, almost at the end of a dead-end road, the stress will slide away. Gabler's is right on the Bush River. A lone heron perches on a dock, looking over the peaceful water. The sun is slipping down through the hazy sky. And your crabs are waiting.

City folk that we are, we had brought sweaters in case the air conditioning was too cold. The air conditioning turned out to be whatever breezes blow up from the river.

Open from mid-April until September, Gabler's is basically one big screened-in porch with a kitchen attached. It's the quintessential shore restaurant, even if, in this case, the "shore" is a river. The wood of the interior is weathered gray, and the tables and chairs are worn with age. (Gabler's has been serving crabs for 50 years or so.)

Someone has arranged seashells and glass bottles on a high shelf around the walls, the way you might at a beach cottage. Ceiling fans revolve slowly overhead. And here's my favorite part of the decor: The dining room has two small sinks where people line up to wash off their hands when they're done picking crabs.

There are other things on the menu, but you come here for steamed crabs. The kitchen mixes its own seasonings, which are great and not as overpowering as usual. Old Bay is obviously one ingredient; will they reveal any others?

"Absolutely not," says Jean Gabler, the third generation of Gablers involved in running the crab house.

The crabs (from the Eastern Shore this time of year) are pressure cooked to order, and the difference is notable: They come to the table hot, heavy and not at all waterlogged.

You'll want beer, of course, or maybe a can of soda. A glass with ice? You've got to be kidding. But these people aren't hicks: Ask for a glass of water and you'll get a bottle of Evian with a straw.

Man cannot live on steamed crabs and beer alone, so order the corn on the cob. Even when it was too early for local corn, it was great -- sweet and not overcooked. And there's no skimping on the important things in life: The corn comes with real butter, not margarine. If you want melted butter to dip your crab meat in, which seems pretty decadent to me, it's 50 cents extra.

While you're at it, get the french fries as well as the corn. I'm not xTC sure why they're so good. They don't look hand-cut, but they have that perfect balance of soft, hot interior and crisp exterior, fried in good oil at just the right temperature so they aren't greasy. Vinegar with them is 10 cents extra.

For those who aren't interested in picking steamed crabs, Gabler's has gently seasoned crab cakes made with big lumps of backfin. They are fried, of course, but I happen to love fried crab cakes. (I also happen to love broiled crab cakes.) I'm not so wild about deep-fried soft crabs; these were a little toughened by being cooked too long.

Other things to avoid include the crab soup, which had a nice amount of crab but a broth that tasted like tomato juice and very little else. The potato salad and coleslaw were sweeter than I can eat them.

There are a couple of other dinners that don't involve crab -- a fried shrimp platter and a fried chicken dinner. You could get a hamburger or a sandwich. But basically you come here for the crabs. If you don't feel like sitting indoors, Gabler's has a crab garden par excellence: You can eat your hard shells at the picnic tables down near the water.

The time has come for dessert. No, the waitress won't bring around a pastry tray laden with cheesecake. The choice, she explains, is any of the candy bars behind the register. But there's a slight problem, she warns you. On a day like today (when it's in the upper 90s) all the candy bars have melted.

Next: Pavilion at the Walters

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