Philly loves its spaghetti and crab gravy, not to mention crab cakes. But steamed whole crabs? I’ve got some go-to spots like Port Richmond’s venerable Bonk’s Bar. But when I really want to savor an afternoon of shell cracking, beer drinking and licking Old Bay spice from my fingertips, there’s no better place than a paper-covered table in Maryland, where the summer ritual of steamed blue crabs are a way of life. The beauty of it is that some of the best destinations are really not that far from Philly for an easy day trip. One of my longtime favorites, River Shack at the Wellwood in Charlestown, is just an hour-and-15-minute drive from Center City.
The Shack is the more casual, seasonal annex to the Metz family’s clubby Wellwood, perched beside a marina that caters to the Chesapeake boat crowd just south of North East, Md. Its sandy picnic table patio has a laid-back, beachy vibe, but it’s the all-you-can-eat crabs and fried chicken special that draws devoted crowds from May through the end of September. They’ve done a solid job with social distancing this year, but this little restaurant and bar, with 25 picnic tables, still sells nearly 4,500 crabs over the course of a weekend. I enjoy River Shack’s proprietary spice blend, which is similar to classic Old Bay, but uses a coarser salt that makes the spice paste cling easily to the sweet, white plumes of plucked meat.
The fried chicken, in fact, was introduced many years ago as a strategic “filler to slow eaters down,” says third-generation operator Larry Metz Jr. But the chicken is so good, with a thin but well-spiced crust over juicy flesh, that it’s become nearly as big a draw as the crabs. Add in a steady flow of sweet hush puppies with honey butter, boiled corn, a refreshingly tart can of Sea Quench from Dogfish Head in nearby Delaware, and I got myself into quite the crab-picking groove. Granted, I displayed nowhere near the epic appetite of a regular known to staff only as the “no seasoning guy,” who can polish off three dozen in a sitting. But I ate my share for $48.99.
Plus, I wanted to save room for a platter of the cheesy oysters Rockefeller broiled with the restaurant’s own oysters, the Wellwood Gems farmed by the Hooper’s Island Oyster Co. in Cambridge. They’re cheesier and with less spinach than the New Orleans classic, but bacony, creamy, and good.
Steamed crab purists may note that the all-you-can-eat crustaceans are not especially huge, typically 5-6 inches across. River Shack, though, offers larger, heavier crabs à la carte, from “mediums” (up to 6.5 inches, $80 a dozen) to “larges" (7 inches, $110 a dozen), and “extra-larges” (over 7 inches) when available.
— Craig LaBan