Catonsville has one of those downtowns that looks like it's barely changed in the past 50 years or so. Most of the stores and restaurants are still locally owned, and they crowd against one another along both sides of Frederick Road. Every year since 1946, the street is closed off for a Fourth of July parade of twirlers, marching bands, veterans, politicians and floats.
One place that has changed -- while staying true to Catonsville's character -- is the Ships Cafe and Sports Bar, purchased by Catonsville natives Jim and Sharon Andrews three years ago. The couple -- he's a retired Baltimore County cop, she was in the banking business -- added light and space to an existing bar, converting the 1865 building next door into a sunny dining room with a crab deck up top for when the weather's nice.
They also built a kitchen and began serving Maryland classics built mainly around shrimp and crabs. You can get crab fluff, steamed crabs and crab cakes at Ships Cafe, but that's just the beginning. There's also cream of crab soup, Maryland crab soup, crab balls, crab toast, crab dip, hard-fried crab (in season) and a stuffed soft crab. Shrimp choices include shrimp salad, coconut shrimp, stuffed shrimp, fried shrimp and steamed shrimp.
The rest of the menu is mostly bar standbys like burgers, chicken wings, onion rings and mozzarella sticks. Jim Andrews said Italian dishes like lasagna will be added soon.
The original bar, though cleaner and brighter than before, is still fairly smoky. But the new clean-lined blond-wood dining room is smoke-free and so bright we were almost blinded by the afternoon sunlight pouring in.
As we waited for our appetizers, we wondered: Would the food reflect the addition, bright and clean and even a little dazzling? Or would it be as old-fashioned as the downtown we could see through the large windows?
As soon as our cream of crab soup and oysters Rockefeller arrived, we knew the answer. Old-fashioned all the way. Ships Cafe serves the kind of food that appeals mainly because it is familiar, not because it is particularly great.
I'll give the cream of crab soup credit for tasting of crab, but it would have been better with bits of actual seafood in it. As I dug around in the bowl, all I found was soup so unappetizingly pasty and thick, I was literally able to scoop it out with my fork.
The oysters Rockefeller, with their eggy topping over mounds of spinach, lacked the pizazz that's supposed to make them a treat rich enough for a tycoon. Real oysters Rockefeller have fresh herbs, bread crumbs, rich cheeses and lots of butter. These were the poor man's version.
The crab cakes earned points for their generous use of lump meat, but lost them again for failing to jazz up this bounty even a little. These were perhaps the most minimally seasoned crab cakes I've ever tasted. Shrimp salad was nearly as basic, little more than fresh shrimp cut into large chunks and bound with mayo. Between two slices of rye, this worked just fine.
Though Ships Cafe focuses on seafood, one of the best entrees was the hamburger. The tender, cooked-to-order meat was seasoned just enough to give it some zing without detracting from the taste of the meat. It was served on a good, hearty roll, alongside crisp and flavorful french fries.
Desserts, made in-house, always include a bread pudding with whiskey sauce and a dessert of the day, which was vanilla cheesecake when we were there. Like everything else at Ships Cafe, these were simple and familiar.
The cheesecake was dense and rich, tasting of real sour cream. The bread pudding was warm and sweet and filled with raisins, a treat on a cold day, but the whiskey sauce lacked that taste of alcohol that would have added sophistication.
Ships Cafe and Sports Bar
Where: 828 Frederick Road, Catonsville
Open: Weekdays 11 a.m.-11 p.m., weekends 11 a.m. -12:30 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers $4.95-$12.95, entrees $6-$21.95