BALTIMORE--There's still time to squeeze some relaxation out of the fading warm season by lounging on a patio in Maryland while digging into a pile of crabs and sipping on a cold beer and watching the boats float across the water.
And because Southwest Airlines is still flying a relatively cheap (about $200 round trip last time I checked) direct route from Chicago to Baltimore-Washington International, it's a good time to get away--before Southwest changes its mind.
The problem, however, lies in choosing the best spots if you're there for just a few days. While crabs are delicious and fairly healthful, it's easy to become sated with them after a few consecutive meals. So it's best to come with a plan.
After reading restaurant reviews online, checking out foodie blogs, looking through guide books and speaking with locals, I finally chose three crab restaurants that offer different specialties, scenery and experiences to fulfill the perfectly well-rounded crab weekend.
First on the list: Bo Brooks in Baltimore.
Bo Brooks, on the waterfront in the Canton neighborhood, is known for its crab cakes and award-winning cream-of-crab soup. Drive straight from the airport to Bo Brooks (2701 Boston St.; 410-558-0202), and just an hour after landing you'll find yourself sitting outside in the sun on the patio of the restaurant, looking onto the sail boats in the harbor, tasting your first crabs.
Apparently, it's a given in Maryland that if you're in Bo Brooks, you should order a cup of the cream-of-crab soup ($5) and the crab cake platter ($28).
The soup was so thick, you could almost stand your spoon in the cup. It probably isn't the healthiest soup you'll ever eat, but it may be the most delicious.
Sweet and savory at the same time, with large chunks of crab, it will fill you up after just a few bites.
But don't miss the crab-cake entree, which comes with two large crab cakes, fries and coleslaw. While many crab cakes taste like moist bread with tiny pieces of imitation crab meat inside, Bo Brooks has the real thing. It's essentially two large, round clumps of lightly fried, shredded crab meat, blended together with a little seasoning.
After a not-so-healthy lunch, hop onto a water taxi and make the quick 10-minute trip to the pier, which is typically filled with families on sunny days There you will find many little shops, more restaurants and benches for people watching.
Just a few minutes from Bo Brooks by car is Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Fells Point, which houses the National Aquarium, the Baltimore Children's Museum, the Science Center, many tiny boutique shops and antique stores. It also boasts some of the prettiest views in Baltimore, and it's easy to spend hours wandering around the pier, snapping pictures of the boats and water and otherwise just people watching.
Don't get too carried away that you forget to stop in at Obrycki's Crab House & Seafood Restaurant (1727 E Pratt St.; 410-732-6399) for dinner. One of Baltimore's most famous crab shacks, it was cited in the book "1,000 Places to See Before you Die" and has been written up in numerous magazines and newspapers for good reason.
The crab house has been around since 1944, and the menu has four pages of crab-related dishes, including the crab potato skins ($11), crab marinara ($21) and even a crab bloody Mary ($8).
But most people don't come for the crab-infused dishes; they want the real thing.
A dozen large crabs ($48) are perfect for two people, and they come covered in Obrycki's special seasoning (the actual seasoning is a secret). The waiter dumps the crabs onto the paper-covered tables, and after a short demonstration on how to open and eat the crabs, you'll be a pro.
The crabs here are sweet and incredibly fresh, and the seasoning makes them very spicy but not so spicy that two of you won't be able to down the dozen. Plus, it's really fun to pound away at the crabs with the little hammers and knives they supply, and the sound of crabs cracking throughout the casual restaurant really ups the atmosphere.
You may be crabbed-out by now, but don't leave Maryland without stopping at Gunning's Seafood (7304 Parkway Drive; 401-712-9404). Order the mini crab feast special (call ahead to see if it's on the menu, because the restaurant runs out of the special quickly), which includes everything you'd want for your last crab meal--crab soup, crab cake and steamed crabs ($27.99).
Almost immediately after ordering, your meal will arrive, starting with a thick soup filled with loads of vegetables and small crab chunks. The crab cake is extra large, and while it has more filler than Bo Brooks', the crab flavor and crab meat are still the shining stars. And crabs at Gunning's aren't covered in seasoning, which allows diners to really taste the flavor of the large, meaty crustaceans.
Three large crab meals in two days will hopefully create enough memories to last you through another Chicago winter--or at least until your December vacation.