River Watch Restaurant and Marina, 207 Nanticoke Road, Essex, (410) 687-1422. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. Prices: appetizers, $5.95-$8.95; entrees, $10.95- $26.95. ***

Nothing says summer is here quite like that first whiff of Old Bay. It doesn't matter that the crabs are still being shipped in from Louisiana, that it's an unseasonably cool evening and too chilly to eat on the River Watch's covered deck. You know it's summer when the waitress slides those fragrant 36s in front of you, so blazingly steamy hot you have to wait to handle them. Or should I say manhandle? (For those of you not from the land of oh-so pleasant living, 36 refers to the price of a dozen large hard-shell crabs, as opposed to -- say -- a dozen mediums for $26.)

At the River Watch Restaurant and Marina, you get the best of several worlds. It's a crab house, serving fine, heavy hard shells freshly steamed to order with exceptionally fiery seasonings. (Weaklings will want to get their crabs rinsed.)

The River Watch is a singles bar. The night we were there, the porch with the Tiki Bar on it was so crowded you had to wait until somebody fell off before you could get a drink there.

It's a place to go dancing, with Top 40 bands on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and island music on Sunday afternoons.

And it's a family restaurant -- a bit more lavishly and comfortably appointed than many, but lots of families with kids do eat here. You can order sandwiches and salads any time.

What the River Watch Restaurant and Marina is not, surprisingly, is a seafood restaurant. Oh, you'll find fish and shellfish on the menu, but no more than you do in any restaurant in Baltimore. Beef, veal and chicken are all well represented.

This is pleasant American food -- good-quality ingredients, for the most part well prepared. The exceptions, to get them over with, were a cream of crab soup that was thick, floury and short on crab meat, and the chicken Mount Washington. The latter wasn't a disaster: The boneless sauteed chicken breast wasn't overcooked, and its topping of sauteed peppers, mushrooms, green onions and crab meat appealed. The problem was the thick coating of melted mozzarella, which my husband ended up scraping off.

Otherwise, everything pretty much worked, down to the details. For instance, when one guest asked for melted butter with his steamed crabs (how decadent -- don't try it, you'll get hooked), what arrived at the table was real butter, not melted margarine.

He followed his lumps of crab meat dripping with real melted butter with the fish du jour -- the only fish available other than flounder. This was an enormous hunk of very fresh salmon; the waitress called the dish salmon St. George. That meant it had a slightly sweet bourbon glaze with sliced almonds -- I'm not wild about sweet sauce with fish, but everyone else at the table loved it.

I can wholeheartedly recommend the River Watch's crab cakes. We didn't specify broiled or fried; they came broiled. These were bursting with big lumps of crab meat, and very little was done to interfere with the crab's fine flavor. A bit of fresh minced parsley, a little seasoning -- otherwise the snowy lumps were allowed to stand on their own.

The River Watch has filet mignon with bearnaise sauce or au poivre with a Madeira sauce (neither being your typical marina meal). If beef tickles your fancy but you feel you should eat seafood this close to the water, try one of the several River Watch combinations: a 6-ounce filet with broiled stuffed shrimp, lobster tail, seafood Norfolk or crab cake.

The beef was a fat little tenderloin, good but without much zip because it wasn't char-grilled and had no sauce. (It came medium rare as ordered, though.) Beside it was a little casserole dish of lobster lumps, small shrimp and crab swimming in a fTC quantity of garlic butter -- too much butter, actually. Either the beef or the seafood would be a meal in itself for most of us.

If you order shrimp alone you'll get jumbo ones -- we had them wrapped in bacon and broiled as a first course. The combination is great, but if the kitchen isn't careful the shrimp end up a bit overcooked while the bacon is getting crisp, which is what happened to ours.

The best of our first courses, if you don't count the steamed crabs, was the clams casino. They weren't weighted down with a heavy coating of bread crumbs. Instead the succulent clams were topped with a confetti of chopped pepper, a curl of crisp bacon and melted butter delicately flavored with garlic. Delicious.

The River Watch had fresh green beans as the vegetable of the day, as well as the usual coleslaw, baked potatoes, fries and stewed tomatoes. Choose one of them rather than the house salad, which the kitchen smothers in whatever dressing you choose. Even if you get the dressing on the side, the salad is short on lettuce and long on croutons.

The River Watch makes several of its desserts, including a fine rice pudding studded with fat raisins, a modest but delicately creamy cheesecake, and an apple pie with a tart, fresh-tasting filling and an uninteresting crust.

OK, the food was a little uneven, although certainly a cut above what I expected from a marina. But the service was just about perfect. Everyone -- from the busboy to the hostess and most especially our waitress -- went out of his or her way to make sure we had a great time.

Next: Pierpoint

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