A Trip to Millers Island Provides Fine Food and Excellent Views
If Baltimoreans are lucky--and we have been this year--summer will linger well into September, urging us to make the most of this golden outdoor time. So we take walks and play softball and, yes, look for spots to eat in the open air, and if that spot happens to be on the water, all the better. Finding decent grub near the waves, however, can take tenacity and a willingness to explore the outer reaches of the metropolitan area, a challenge for some city dwellers who don't venture further east than Canton. But if you drive in and out of the coves of eastern Baltimore County, you'll not only find beaches you didn't know existed, but you'll also discover modest local restaurants with nautical names, mostly seafood menus, and outdoor seating, like Dock of the Bay (9025 Cuckold Point Road, Sparrows Point,  477-8100) on Millers Island.
To be sure, Millers Island can feel like the other end of the world as you pass through Dundalk, then Edgemere, skirting Lodge Forest before turning onto wooded Millers Island Road to the tiny peninsula flanked by Back River and the Chesapeake Bay. But it's fewer than 20 miles from downtown (and probably less by boat--see the restaurant's web site for directions if you choose to arrive via the water), manageable enough for a midweek crab cake and bay fix without heading toward the Bay Bridge.
There's nothing genteel or fussy about Dock of the Bay, located next to its own 105-foot pier (free docking for restaurant patrons). Dining outdoors means picnic tables shaded by umbrellas, with views of Pleasure Island and Craighill Lighthouse in the distance. Inside, a small army of televisions (some with Keno), Maryland maps, and photos of local sports figures, including the boys' and girls' Sparrows Point Pointers high school basketball teams, hang over wood wainscoting, while long windows distract with sights of herons, ducks, and cormorants taking off and landing on the water. You see jeans and Ravens jerseys, pink drinks with umbrellas, and pints of beer (the 80-foot bar that dominates the dining room has a surprisingly broad selection of suds, from Yuengling to Sam Adams seasonal to Guinness).
The food here is straightforward--mostly broiled or fried seafood, steamed crabs all year round, and a few nods to non-seafood eaters in the form of steak, hamburger, and pork barbecue. For starters, the plastic-coated menu lists nachos, wings, and the sort of gloppy cheese-laden appetizers that always sound better on an empty stomach than they actually turn out to be, like the crab pretzel (steep at $13.50), a two-inch-thick round of baked dough blanketed in crabmeat and melted cheese, which was pronounced wryly by one at the table as "great if you're having a lot to drink and need something to absorb it." Nuff said. A cup of tomato-based Maryland crab soup ($3.95) was easier to digest, very fresh, and crowded with corn, limas, and green beans, as well as lumps of crab. And the sportily named Terps Magic ($14.95) turned out to be a generous basket of garlic-sprinkled steamed mussels and meaty shrimp with a side of fried oysters that squirted briny juice when we bit into them. Anyone looking for something to share or something to nibble on in lieu of dinner should consider this.
We skipped salads (including the unusual hot crab salad, described on the menu as "grilled romaine lettuce topped with a warm mixture of homemade salsa and jumbo lump crabmeat") and sandwiches (the usual chicken breast, hamburger, Reuben combos plus fried seafood and seafood salads) in favor of mildly spiced $2 crabs (a Tuesday and Thursday special and more than fair in size) and a couple of entrées. Orange roughy, the catch of the day ($18.95), wore nothing but a sprinkling of lemon juice, allowing the mild flavor of the broiled fish to take the spotlight. Crispy fried crab cakes ($17.50 for one, $25.95 for two) the size of tennis balls impressed with generous lumps of crab. It may be cliché to describe them as all lump and little filler, but that's what makes a good crab cake, and these were just that. Those snowy lumps showed up again in crab and shrimp Norfolk ($20.50), where, surprise, crab and shrimp shared the dish, napped in a lemon butter sauce. None of these entrées were strikingly original, but they were fresh, weren't overthought, and had no distracting artificial spice flavors. Although my usual impulse in casual restaurants like this is to order sandwiches, these entrées did not disappoint. (Although the coleslaw did; try the sour cream-based cucumber salad instead.)
Dinner got drawn out as our crab eater meticulously picked through the carcasses, so we took a pass on dessert. Next time, however, I would try the Jack Daniel's carrot cake ($5.95), which our young waitress told us is the one house-made dessert on the menu.
Dock of the Bay has a mess of specials, from happy hour beer deals to $1 and $2 crab nights. It also has live music and DJs on certain evenings, so check DockoftheBay.net for schedules. As for myself, I'm going to play hooky on a warm fall late afternoon and head east for crab cakes, Guinness, and a maritime sunset.
Open for lunch and dinner daily.