Eating East Coast seafood was a highlight of our family summer vacations. After I grew up and moved to Boston, we continued our summer seafood feasts — driving up to Ipswich for fried clams “with the bellies" or savoring Boston chowder. My parents were dismayed when I moved to Baltimore in 2005. No more clams or chowder, they lamented. Not to fear, I reassured them. We will have Maryland crabs instead.
Before my parents’ first visit to Baltimore in 2006, I was tasked with finding a good seafood restaurant “on the Inner Harbor.” After some Internet research, I settled on Phillips Seafood. I signed up for email updates, printed out a coupon for a free appetizer, and booked a table for three.
My mother had been very sick for a long time, and she didn’t have much of an appetite. But the waterfront bay-windowed dining room at Phillips perked her right up. My dad tried the soft-shell crabs, since he’d never had them before. Mom chose a jumbo crab cake sandwich, and she ate every bit. My father visibly relaxed when he saw her relishing food. We vowed to come back the next summer.
It never happened. That first visit to Phillips was the last vacation with my mother. She passed away the following spring. It wasn’t until 2010, that we — me, my dad and my 18-year-old niece — returned.
No soft-shells — it was too early in the season. Instead, we ordered jumbo crab cake sandwiches. (Here’s a secret: Look at the bottom of the large menu card for “Phillips Famous Crab Cake Sandwich;” it’s one of the more reasonably priced menu items.) I had a coupon for Phillips’ signature crab, artichoke, and spinach dip, a rich, cheesy crabby goodness flavored with Phillips’ house seasoning.
From the window of the big dining room, my niece saw the Phillips mascot — a college student wearing a rubber crab costume — and we ran outside. She to have her picture taken, and me to take the picture.
After lunch, we drove — but you can easily walk — to the American Visionary Art Museum to see an outsider art exhibit, “Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness.” Phillips is convenient to AVAM, as well as the historic Federal Hill and Fells Point neighborhoods.
This summer, during the 100-degree heat wave, we repeated our annual trek. Since it was almost exactly one year since our last visit, there were again no soft-shells. We opted for jumbo crab cakes and fried calamari instead. It was too hot for the mascot, so no photo op. But we were entertained by a guitarist who played Dylan and Beatles covers.
Of course, delicious crabs are available locally. This is Maryland, after all. Lanham’s Jerry’s Seafood is home to the Crab Bomb, more of a crab continent than a crab cake. Greenbelt now has Joe’s Crab Shack, with its neon directive to “Eat at Joe’s” and Electric Slide-dancing wait staff. And the Silver Diner offers local soft-shell crabs and crab cakes.
I regularly patronize all of these establishments, but as long as Phillips serves crabs in that sunny bay-windowed room, my family will make an annual pilgrimage.