Crisfield Seafood Restaurant

A Maryland seafood house that hasn't changed since 1945.

From October 2005

Even in the 1970s and 1980s, when Crisfield was acknowledged to serve the best seafood dishes in the area, people complained about the cinder-block decor that had remained unchanged since 1945.

The looks of the place also gave rise to complaints about Crisfield's prices, deemed high for such plain surroundings. But there seldom were complaints about Crisfield's excellent Eastern Shore fare, which was so good because the Landis family was willing to pay top dollar for the best local seafood. Considering the cost of its ingredients, Crisfield's prices were–and still are–very reasonable.

Between May and August, do not expect to start a meal with oysters on the half-shell–the restaurant serves only local oysters, and only during the months that have an "r." Other good ways to begin are with spiced shrimp or with a cup of Eastern Shore clam chowder. The menu says the spiced shrimp cocktail has seven shrimp, but the countermen regularly include two or three extra.

Crisfield's clam chowder tastes of the essence of clams because it is made with the meat and liquor of just-shucked clams. The result is a remarkable flavor you can't achieve using canned minced clams and bottled clam juice. Once you've tasted it, it's hard to resist beginning every meal at Crisfield with its marvelous chowder. Do not be tempted by the seafood bisque, one of the kitchen's rare failures. At a Sunday lunch, it was underflavored and so overthickened that it could have held a spoon erect.

Crisfield's best-selling main course is its baked shrimp stuffed with crab. To newcomers, the portion of three butterflied jumbo shrimp, each mounded with a small portion of crumb-topped crab, may look like an appetizer. But the dish's natural richness makes it a very satisfying meal.

Shrimp stuffed with crab may be the bestseller, but Crisfield's version of crab imperial–Maryland's greatest seafood delicacy–is its finest achievement. It was created by Lillian Landis, matriarch of the family that has owned the restaurant since its inception. The original crab imperial, created in the late 19th century at a Baltimore restaurant called Thompson's Sea Girt House, was a gratin of backfin lumps with a diced mixture of onions, green bell pepper, and pimiento, all bound in a thick cream sauce. Landis once told The Washingtonian that she found the original version too heavy, that the other ingredients interfered with the gently sweet flavor of the crab.

Her recipe has backfin lumps lightly bound with Hellmann's mayonnaise and flecked with finely minced green bell pepper and an almost invisible dice of onion. It's no longer served in a cleaned crab shell but in a disposable aluminum-foil facsimile of one. It tastes every bit as good as it did in the real one.

Diners spoiled by the jumbo-lump crab cakes served in Washington's best restaurants will be disappointed by Crisfield's crab cakes. The recipe dates back to the 1940s, when it was traditional to mix a lesser grade of crab with fillers to make cakes, reserving the backfin lumps for imperials, gratins, Norfolks, and cocktails. The cakes are expertly fried, but their meek flavor and croquette-like texture are disappointing.

The impeccably fried perch filets are excellent, as is another regional specialty, flounder stuffed with crab. And if you can visit Crisfield without ordering seafood, the kitchen offers authentic Maryland fried chicken, cooked to order in a cast-iron pan. Preparation takes 25 minutes, but have some spiced shrimp and a cup of clam chowder and the wait won't seem long for the best fried chicken you are likely to find in any local restaurant.

The wonderful countermen who were here in 1965–Ned, Georgie, and Captain Huck, pros who treated diners to a speed-shucking contest whenever clams were needed for a batch of chowder–are gone, as is the late Mrs. Landis, the formidable matron to whom you paid your check at the front counter. Outside of that, the only noticeable change at Crisfield is that it now accepts credit cards.