Jimmy's crabs draw crowd Fame: William R. 'Jimmy' Cantler's Riverside Inn is known for its crustaceans and for the crusty waterman who owns it.

Catching Up With . . .

July 28, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

MILL CREEK ON THE BROADNECK PENINSULA -- Linda Cantler gives directions to her husband's destination crab house near Annapolis: Hang a hairpin turn at the Crossroads Country Store, then wind through bushy Forest Beach Road and past the "Lost Cat" sign. Cantler's Riverside Inn is hiding out on the left. You're not lost; you only think you are.

In Fells Point, Bertha's has bumper stickers. In Annapolis, Cantler's has bumpers. "People wait in car lines to eat here," Linda says. It would be easier to come by boat, she advises, but that would require: 1. a boat.

We reach Riverside by auto and by luck. It's lunchtime.

Linda is at the bar, eating pizza. Eating pizza seems like an act of treason here. Like ordering a Pete's Wicked Ale. "I'm not into variety -- I'm too busy," says William R. "Jimmy" Cantler. This is big, bad Bud country, but don't be fooled. The unpretentious Riverside Inn and one-time waterman's watering hole has become a $2.3 million a year business.

"Not bad for a dump," Jimmy says.

The restaurant's family-style benches promote togetherness and joint custody of the condiments. Menus hang chalked from the walls, which also feature photographs that could be titled "Men With Big Fish" and "Men With Bigger Fish." The only thing stronger than our burly waiter is the ice tea.

The soft-shell crab is fresh, which is redundant. All you have to do is walk outside and down the steps, and scope out Jimmy's tanks-o-crab. Here are lively crabs in various stages of undress. Peelers personified.

What a strange crab season it has been. The number of marketable adult crabs reportedly is down dramatically, while there's a bumper crop of baby crabs. Cantler's doesn't appear to be at a loss for big or small crabs. Back at the tanks, a kid named Joe shows us how to slice off a peeler's sexual organs without slicing off an employee's index finger. Joe flicks out the limp lungs and then springs the crab's apron. Another soft-shell crab to go, as Boss Jimmy looks on.

Always in motion

A quick case study of Jimmy Cantler reveals he is highly prone to boredom, so he is in constant motion. Type of guy who eats lunch standing up. Doesn't look you in the eye when he talks because he's on the shy side and he's watching the help, the customers and the crabs. He hates golf and loves Dale Earnhardt. Uses toothpicks but rarely ties -- Cantlers are not tie people.

Jimmy has an old gray beard and a young man's tan. The man mumbles. Says he's 57, but it sounds as if he said 67. "Don't make me older than I am. I'm already an old sum-a-bitch." He's got two grown kids who didn't go into the business. He has 17 brothers and sisters, and this neck of Broadneck is crawling with Cantlers.

"Ask him how he got his black eye," Linda says. Fight? Given the rowdy history of this restaurant, it's not a dumb question (dumb questions to follow). Jimmy says he was fishing the other day and caught a hook in the eye. He took the hook out himself, but must have wrecked some blood vessels. Black-eyed Jimmy isn't losing any sleep or business over it.

Dumb question No. 1: Do all crabs shed or molt or peel or whatever?

"They have to shed to grow," says Jimmy, politely. But his expression says: "City boy, have you heard a word I've said?"

What do we have here -- a box jammed with little wood things? The Riverside Inn makes its own crab dowels for the mashing of said crabs. Customers swipe the dowels for souvenirs. Jimmy mentions other odds and ends, such as the V-shape on the underbelly of crabs. Virgins, they're called. And over there in stacked bushels, Chesapeake blue crabs pinch and scratch.

Dumb question No. 2: Do they bite?

"Can bite the hell out of you."

Jimmy tolerates the questions. After all, it's been, oh, five minutes since Cantler's has had a reporter get lost, show up and ask such sophisticated questions. The Cantlers have been on "Good Morning America" and in National Geographic and the London Times and that other Times up in New York. Ollie North dropped by last year. Linda says someone from the White House called to arrange a presidential visit, but that would mean closing streets and putting everybody out. Clinton didn't come, but it's still frightening to imagine the havoc his appetite would commit here.

Regular Jimmy Buffett plugs the place during his Maryland concerts. Cantler's jukebox is stacked with 16 Buffett CDs. Jimmy Cantler's favorite Buffett tune is "A Pirate Looks at 40." Mother, mother ocean, I have heard your call. I wanted to sail upon your waters, since I was 3 feet tall. You've seen it all

"That's your favorite Buffett tune, too? Jimmy asks.

A smile is earned.

Like Forrest Gump

In its reckless youth, the Riverside Inn was nothing more than a shack with shingles, cardboard tables and an attitude: "I used to go in the bar, get drunk. Pool tables, shuffleboard and fights every night. They had music. They'd play until 1 a.m., then fight until 3," Jimmy says. "I never thought of owning it."

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