Schultz’s Crab House in Essex already has a lot going for it: great seafood, terrific servers and an old-time vibe. This year, the family-owned restaurant added another accolade — winner of a James Beard America’s Classics Award.
The prestigious nod recognizes locally owned places that have been around for at least 10 years and have a “timeless appeal” in the community.
The quintessential Maryland crab house certainly fits the criteria. It opened as Schultz’s Cafe in 1950 before being taken over in 1969 by Karen and Bob Mckinney, who kept the Schultz’s part of the name. The Mckinneys’ six children still run the restaurant.
As a native Baltimorean, I relish its throwback ambiance. The wood-paneled dining room, the tables covered with white paper, the linoleum floor and the stuffed fish on the walls are refreshingly familiar.
The food has its ups and downs, with some items being cooked a smidge too long. But the mushy green beans reminded me of my German grandmother’s purposeful cooking, so there is nostalgia at play here.
And when was the last time you saw spiced apple rings as garnishes on just about every plate?
The primal scent of crab seasoning greets you when you walk in the door. Schultz’s has steamed crabs year-round when available, mainly from Maryland and some from Louisiana, said owner Chrissy Burkman in an email.
The crustaceans are cooked to order and take about 30 minutes to be delivered to the table.
“That is a small inconvenience to know you are getting them fresh and piping hot,” Burkman said.
I agree. Nothing is worse than picking through cooled, pre-cooked crabs.
But on a recent visit, we focused on other menu items. The hot, crispy cheese balls, dipped in mustard, were a good snack to start. We also nibbled on juicy, unadorned steamed mussels with drawn butter on the side for dipping. It was all these plump morsels needed.
Granny’s potato soup was a sensational white elixir dressed with cheese and bacon crumbles. It’s so popular that the restaurant advertises it on the outside billboard.
The seafood gumbo wasn’t as successful. The bowl of stew-like liquid had a prevalent beef flavor and no distinguishable seafood that we could find.
We never received a drinks menu, but our cheerful waitress brought us two glasses of house wine and a draft beer when we asked. There’s a large full bar in a separate room.
The restaurant’s crab fluff — a fried, batter-coated crab cake — can be ordered as an appetizer or an entree with one or two crispy orbs. We chose ours as a main dish with a single fluff, which was as big as a softball.
We cracked open the golden exterior as carefully as an egg to reveal a luscious lump crab cake that was moist and flavorful. It came with two sides of our choosing. A basic, mostly iceberg salad and the sweet coleslaw were fresh and well-prepared.
The broiled stuffed imperial shrimp was a fine baked dish with three rotund shrimp draped with a generous mound of crab imperial. The cucumber side salad was picnic fare at its best; the overcooked green beans we already mentioned.
Our broiled sea scallops featured lots of specimens, glistening in a pool of butter, but the seafood should have been pulled out of the oven sooner. They were too chewy. The accompanying broccoli florets were a limp companion.
But carnivores, rejoice. Our sirloin steak was a tender cut of seared, grill-marked beef that had a satisfying supple texture. It paired well with wedges of salty French fries.
Our waitress told us that the desserts were from either the food-service business Sysco or Mrs. Pose, a Baltimore-based bakery known for its cheesecakes.
The two creamy cheesecakes we tried — orangesicle and peanut butter — represented their flavors well. We also indulged in a two-layer lemon-coconut cake that was very good.
Schultz’s Crab House isn’t a place you go to for the latest culinary trend or cutting-edge cuisine. It’s an old-fashioned Baltimore seafood tavern that keeps our humble crab culture alive.
The James Beard Foundation folks knew that. We should, too.
Schultz’s Crab House
Rating: 2.5 stars
Where: 1732 Old Eastern Ave., Essex
Contact: 410-687-1020, schultzscrabhouse.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: Appetizers, $4-$13; sandwiches, $6-$13; entrees, $7-$29; steamed crabs, prices vary, but on a recent day, they were $24 a dozen for smalls, $38 a dozen for small-size mediums and $55 a dozen for heavy mediums.
Food: Seafood, steamed crabs
Noise/TVs: You can expect the thump of mallets, but it’s still easy to hold a conversation; six TVs in the bar area.
Service: Our busy waitress was juggling several tables and still managed to be friendly and efficient.
Parking: Street parking
Special diets: Accommodates when possible.
Reservation policy: Reservations are not accepted, but the restaurant appreciates a heads up for parties of eight or more.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]