In Ocean City, Maryland's long-time seaside resort town, the creations of some of the low-key restaurants, crab shacks and strip mall seafood huts are proving to be just as much a draw as the Atlantic Ocean east of the Coastal Highway and scenic waterfront spots like Isle of Wight Bay and Assowoman Bay to the west.
And while the city, like any beach town, is home to numerous water-inspired eateries of varying quality and price, there are polished proprietors to be found whose stock and trade focuses on the food and not necessarily the view — though watching the sun set over the bay is a nice way to unwind with a beer, a heap of steamed crabs and wooden mallets to crack the shells.
Ocean City has long been a shore destination for those in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. It features numerous hotels, condos, charming motels, mini-golf courses and a colorful boardwalk that's awash in popcorn stands, fried foods and frozen custards.
A destination in and of itself, its dining is something to be experienced, particularly the crabs. Once you've checked in, dipped your toes in the Atlantic and taken a stroll down the beach, travel down Philadelphia Avenue and look for The Crab Stop, a small, sparse but richly decorated shop nestled in a strip mall next to a Chinese takeout. It's been open for nine years and owner and operator Al Catrino, a devout fan of Alabama football (he's not averse to pulling out his signed photo of legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant), steams fresh crabs to order as well as mixes up his wife's crab cake recipe.
"She's perfected it and I won't say what it is," he says, but quickly says the most important ingredient in "Nana's Killer No Filler" cakes is the "fresh Maryland crab." He'll also steam up crab legs and shrimp, too, but those are frozen — a fact he makes sure diners know. Though most people call in an order ahead of time and hit The Crab Stop for takeout, there are a couple tables inside. "We fired the waiter nine years ago," he declares, quickly adding, "That's just a joke. We've never had a waiter."
The crab cakes are soft and melt on the tongue, so much so that if you're not mindful, you may find yourself going through one, two and even three servings before catching your breath. There's the ritual Old Bay seasoning to garnish it, but Catrino's preparations feature the right blend of spices to leave a lasting impression.
Afterward, it's worth strolling down the main drag to the boardwalk, taking in the sights. There's numerous beach-inspired shops selling skim boards, swim suits and hermit crabs.
But one thing that sets Ocean City apart from other beach towns is its charming blend of past and present, of kitsch and culture. Newer, towering hotels and condominiums stand easily alongside motels from the 1950s and 1960s that are still firmly rooted in the community, drawing loyal visitors year in and out.
When you're tired of sightseeing and want to unwind at dinner, head away from the ocean and grab a seat across the street by the bay at Macky's Bayside Bar and Grill.
If you have kids, opt to walk through the restaurant and have dinner on the beach out back. Tables are scattered across the sand offering parents a relaxing view of the sun setting over the bay while squirmy kids can look for hermit crabs along the shoreline and explore the marsh. The food's good, too.
Start with something a bit different in the coconut curry basil mussels. This exotic bath gives the mussels something they didn't know they were missing, and the broth is so good it's worth hanging onto to dip any extra bread you can score. The fresh catch of the day was perfectly blackened.
When it comes time for breakfast the next day, think outside the box — the doughnut box that is. Explore the possibilities beyond chocolate icing and sprinkles with hot, hand-dipped doughnuts from The Fractured Prune. These folks take that mundane circle of dough and elevate it to heavenly standards. Each doughnut is freshly fried and hand-dipped on the spot, wrapped in gooey glory more befitting a dessert.
The Black Forest comes bathed in raspberry glaze and dipped in shredded coconut and chocolate chips that all marry into a warm, rich mouthful not nearly as heavy as cake. The Reese's peanut butter doughnut tastes just like that, only better. And there's no better tasting "sand" than the Ocean City Sand — honey glaze and cinnamon sugar.
But don't let the menu's offerings stunt your creativity. These folks encourage you to indulge your taste buds to mix and match from their dozen different glazes and as many toppings to create your own concoction and satisfy your individual sweet tooth.
If You Go...
THE CRAB STOP: 1511 N. Philadelphia Ave., Ocean City, Md., (410) 289-3020. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Crab-Stop/110567148994165
MACKY'S BAYSIDE BAR & GRILL: 54th St., Ocean City, Md., (410) 723-5565. http://www.mackys.com
THE FRACTURED PRUNE: 2808 N. Philadelphia Ave., Ocean City, Md., (410) 289-1134. http://www.fracturedprune.com