Like Unspeakable Humidity and the Orioles Hovering Below .500, Summertime Means Steamed, Soft Shell, and Cakes
Nonlocals carry a distorted picture of a typical crab house around in their heads. Their crab house is on the water, its floor is wooden, and it’s filled with picnic benches. These setups aren’t unheard of—Captain James Landing, Nick’s Fish House—but so much more common are joints like Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn (200 Eastern Blvd., Essex,  687-5994), just a place on the road. There’s a river is nearby, but no one thought decades ago to develop a business beside it. Regulars know to arrive very early to the Terrace Inn’s big, square dining room and TV-crazy, rambling, friendly bar to pick up a number for the dining room’s first seating. The floor is tile, and the many of its tables are the folding kind. Old Baltimore sports memorabilia, much of it having to do with Johnny Unitas, litter the green-papered walls. It isn’t fancy.
Alongside these walls sit greenish leatherette booths. The place is cheerfully noisy and filled with great spirits. Everyone looks happy to be there and to be with the people they’re with—because everyone’s eating crabs. Our waitress betrayed a touch of surprise when we ordered soups and appetizers: a buttery cream of crab soup ($3.50), a decent soft-shell crab sandwich ($8.75), and a deep-fried hard crab ($13), a kind of culinary Frankenstein monster, in which fried spiced crab meat has been reinserted into the cavity of a crab shell—or something like that. It was weird and very good.
The Terrace Inn is famous for its crabs and their healthy appearance—no broken parts—and the proprietary, evenly applied spice blend, which is far less salty than Old Bay, with faint traces of cinnamon and sugar amid the black pepper. Our party of two paid $46 for a dozen and were very pleased with their size—crabs here are sold by weight—and especially the glut of snow-white, undamaged crabmeat that we easily extracted from the shells. It bothers the hell out of some friends of mine when they see a certain world-famous Baltimore crab house featured in tourist publications. The Terrace Inn is a real place, and it’s real good. It, by the way, is hardly a secret. If you’ve never been there before, you’re only one step in line behind me. But it’s where I’m sending people from now on.
By the Docks Restaurant and Lounge (3321 Eastern Blvd., Middle River,  686-1188) is a nice place, and it’s succeeding in a location where other restaurants have failed. (Do note: It’s not by the docks.) Its parking lot was full when we visited and we waited for our table in the smoky lounge. A nautical theme, liberal use of blue and white colors, and white tablecloths somewhat offset the main dining room’s banquet-hall feel. And from all of this and from the font on the menu you know exactly what kind of croutons will be on the house salad.
I came here for the crab cakes, which I heard were something special. They are, and the way to approach By the Docks is to sit down, order the crab cake platter ($12.95), and be done with it. (Our server told us that most diners do just this.) About the size of Russell Crowe’s closed fist, By the Docks’ crab cake was too big too eat in one sitting. It’s wider on the bottom than on the top, a sure sign of hand-forming. Broiled to a crispy brown finish and deliriously, decadently lumpy, its barely creamy texture allows the full sweet crab flavor to shine through. If anything, it’s underspiced. By the Docks is the last stop on Eastern Boulevard before the Bengies Drive-in—stopping in before a movie and having a crab cake at the bar is highly recommended.
We did try a few other things—a cup of Maryland crab soup ($3.50) that tasted canned, a cup of pasty cream of crab soup ($3.95), and a generous soft crab platter ($18.75) of three large specimens—that more or less confirmed a leeriness about the rest of the menu. The soft shells were too heavily and blandly breaded, obliterating the sweet, squirty pleasure of crunching them in your teeth. On the other hand, the half-rack that came with a ribs and cake platter ($20.95) were superbly meaty and modestly, judiciously spiced. Still, doing one thing very well is probably enough.