Taking the Cake After on too many lumps from the competition, Towson's Crackpot Seafood Restaurant claws back into the black with a heavy duty crab entree.

November 11, 1998|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,SUN STAF

It's late afternoon and you're at a rear table at the Crackpot Seafood Restaurant in Towson when they bring your entree, and immediately you start attracting lots of attention.

It ain't because of your magnetic personality, either. It's because of what's before you, which is a crab cake. But not just any crab cake. This is the biggest crab cake you -- or anybody else -- has ever seen.

This is a crab cake the size of a discus. It sits on a huge platter encircled with crackers and lemon slices, and it looks so good you don't know whether to dig in or start capturing it on canvas.

As other customers pass, their eyes widen. They gaze at your crab cake with a look that borders on reverential.

"It's OK. Come over and look at it," says Neil Smith, the Crackpot's owner, to a woman who has just walked in.

"Can I eat it?" she asks.

You laugh. Smith laughs. The woman laughs, too. But her husband isn't laughing.

He is just staring, longingly, at the crab cake. You can almost see him thinking: "If the wife wasn't here, I could take these two bozos and be out the door with that thing in a heartbeat."

Anyway, what's causing all the fuss is what the Crackpot bills as "The World's Largest Crab Cake." This is 20 ounces of backfin and lump crab meat that they call the Pounder Plus.

It sells for $34.95, which sounds like a lot until you consider the price of seafood, which is like the price of Texas crude, and the fact that two people generally split this monster.

Then again, there's always a hungry cowboy, usually a young guy with a couple of beers under his belt, who insists on polishing off one of these babies by himself to impress his girlfriend.

In any event, since it was introduced in May, the World's Largest Crab Cake has been a huge hit with Crackpot customers -- and a big boost to business. As has the line of specialty crab cakes -- Mexican-style, blackened, smokehouse and the like -- introduced by head chef Tom Lyons.

At the "Taste of Baltimore," a charity event featuring area restaurants and food vendors two months ago at Camden Yards, the line for the Crackpot's food looked like opening night for "Rent."

Call it a gimmick if you want. But behind the Pounder Plus and the new crab cakes lies a story.

It's a timeless story, really. It's a story of great pluck and inventiveness, a story of a small businessman looking for an edge against the omnivorous chain restaurants that seem to spring up like toadstools all over the landscape.

If you're Neil Smith, one day you look up and there's a TGI Friday's going up not far away, and then there's an Applebee's Neighborhood Grill and Bar and God knows what else coming.

At first you ignore them, but sooner or later you feel them.

OK, you're not going to the poorhouse, but at the end of each night, you check the receipts and business is flat again, and you mutter a soft oath and think: "What am I going to do?"

Then, if you have a little fire in the belly, you go do something.

A neighborhood fixture

The Crackpot Seafood Restaurant sits in the Ravenwood Shopping Center, a strip mall at the corner of Loch Raven and Taylor that has seen better days.

Its anchor store is a Giant supermarket. Near the Crackpot there is a dry cleaners and a hair salon. There's a Hollywood Video store across the rutted parking lot that seems too flashy for its surroundings, like Linda Evangelista at a bowling dinner.

The neighborhood is aging; residents and business owners alike complain that a steady influx of "renters" has brought an increase in crime and decay.

Over the past 26 years, though, the Crackpot has been a neighborhood fixture. It draws a healthy crowd of senior citizens for lunch and a diverse dinner crowd from Parkville and Towson. Late at night, students from Towson University and Loyola College stop in to drink beer, eat Buffalo wings and play pingpong.

This is a pleasant, homey seafood restaurant. You want linen tablecloths and expensive chandeliers and a waiter named Andre with jelled hair and a narrow black mustache who recites the entrees like it's the opening scene from "Othello," this is not the place for you.

The 110-seat restaurant has a rich history. It opened in 1972 as a traditional crab house. Ray McLaughlin, Neil Smith's uncle, was one of the original owners.

You could say the joint opened with a great deal of promise, but you'd be wrong.

The restaurant did well at first, so well that the partners opened two more Crackpots in Columbia and Rosedale, and soon opened franchises on Long Island and in Pennsylvania.

But the expansion was overly ambitious. The partners were spread too thin financially, and within a few years the business crumbled and changed hands.

Left with the flagship restaurant and a mountain of bills, new owner Lou Fonti struggled. At one point, he put up a sign on the employee bulletin board that said: "If You Have Any Problems, Do Not Come To Me."

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