Downtown Silver Spring has had a nice facelift. But amid all the improving, one landmark is aging gracefully. Crisfield restaurant keeps serving traditional Maryland seafood in an unapologetically simple way. Since 1945, it has sat virtually unchanged on Georgia Avenue near the District line: same sign, same menu.
Crisfield’s popularity stems from more than its fresh seafood. The restaurant is also an ethnic melting pot. Spend an hour at the horseshoe bar and you’ll see what looks like everybody stopping by for a bite. “All people feel at home when they come here,” says co-owner Bruce Mancuso.
When it comes to old-fashioned seafood houses, Crisfield doesn’t have a lot of competition—not anymore. Over the years, plenty of restaurants offered similar fare. In Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Bethesda, there were Fred and Harry’s, the Anchor Inn, and Bish Thompson’s. Today only Crisfield remains. Co-owner Bruce Mancuso doesn’t miss those other places, but he wasn’t thrilled to see them fall by the wayside: “I keep thinking there was writing on the wall for Crisfield.”
Sass from the waitresses? It’s practically on the menu. If oysters are on the specials board, they’re in season. Inquiries about their freshness will often be answered with a look rather than words.
“How’s the rockfish tonight?” asks a newbie at the table next to mine.
“He’s fresh and dead,” says the waitress. “How are you?”
A few of the staff have worked here longer than many customers have been alive. But all of the old-time bartenders are now gone. There was the famous trio who basically ran the joint from the 1950s right up until a few years ago: George Nash, Huck Winn, and Ned Toms.
Nash, down to earth and friendly, died five years ago. Winn, who seemed to shuck oysters in his sleep, died seven years ago. Toms, the last to retire, always found a way to squeeze you into the bar no matter how thick the crowd. He finally hung up his white apron five years ago and now lives in North Carolina with his wife. But for as long as these three have been gone, regulars still come in and ask about them.
Bruce Mancuso recalls a time when those three men were none too happy about having to teach him, then a 17-year-old rookie, the tricks of the trade. “I learned how to shuck an oyster by watching them from a safe distance,” he remembers with a laugh.
Crisfield has been in the Landis family since 1945. Today it’s owned by the third generation. The seven owner/cousins are grandchildren of Lillian Landis, Crisfield’s original owner. An avid traveler, Landis was in the antiques business before she tried her hand at a restaurant. As World War II was ending, she bought the Crisfield name from a local restaurateur. Originally, the place was nothing more than the bar. The dining room was added after the family absorbed the lease of a doughnut shop next door.
Signs of Landis’s past still adorn Crisfield. Beer steins from dozens of travel destinations are shown off on shelves on the walls. In the long dining room is a glass case of antique oyster plates. Among the paintings of old boats are aging photographs of friends, employees, and celebrities. There’s a small “Margaritaville” shrine on the side of the bar where autographed photos prove singer Jimmy Buffett’s love of the place. Everyone from go-go icon Chuck Brown to political satirist Mark Russell has eaten here.
Over the years, suitors have approached the Landis family looking to buy the place. Some offers have been tempting, but none ever made the family jump.
In the late 1980s, Crisfield expanded to a second location. At the busy intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, it was newer, nicer, more expensive—and a failure. What it lacked was the intangible hominess, the sense of being “a joint.”
“It was a case of right place, wrong time,” says Mancuso. “Silver Spring wasn’t built up when we decided to put a restaurant there. If we were there now, it would be a home run.” Today the failed Crisfield at Lee Plaza is home to Ray’s the Classics, a thriving second location of Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington. Diners at the new Ray’s look out and see the striking AFI Silver Theatre. When Crisfield was there, the view was far less enchanting.
Crisfield’s long-term relationships reach from behind the bar to across the Chesapeake Bay. The restaurant has used many of the same seafood suppliers for decades. And whenever possible, Crisfield finds seafood from local waters.