Obrycki helped put Charm City crabs on the map

June 17, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

WORD ARRIVED that Edward Obrycki, once one of Baltimore's best-known restaurateurs and seafood kings, died May 26 in Melbourne, Fla., where he had retired in 1977.

In the Baltimore of the 1960s and '70s, his rowhouse bar and crab house at Pratt and Regester streets, across from the Gold Meadow ice cream plant, near the Yoo-Hoo bottling works and Hagel's bakery, was a huge destination. Many persons thought the steamed crabs here (available only in season) were the best in Baltimore, a tall claim if there ever there was one in a town full of local preferences.

And so too today, under different ownership, the Obrycki name endures and prospers on Pratt Street.

Ed Obrycki was the last survivor of the brothers (Joseph, Mitchell, Henry and Ed) who began in the neighborhood taproom business and whose fabled recipes for steamed crabs and crab cakes put their original seven tables on the map.

Legend has it that they used so much black pepper (never red pepper or Old Bay), salt and dry mustard in their crab seasoning that executives of the McCormick spice company visited the place and used their savvy in the food business to alert Craig Claiborne, food critic of the New York Times. Claiborne made numerous visits to Pratt Street and raved about the crabs he so enjoyed.

When Craig Claiborne praised a Baltimore neighborhood's seafood product, it did not go unnoticed. Baltimore needed all the accolades it could get 35 years ago. And Ed Obrycki and his brothers, who eventually opened their own place in the same neighborhood, made it seem like Baltimore's seafood was sent by the angels.

The original menu was crab cakes, steamed crabs and steamed shrimp. The crabs were local and therefore available only in season. When the crabs went out, October to April, the tavern closed its doors.

Ed Obrycki used to hand-weigh each crab. That is to say, he picked up the steamed crab and hand judged its weight. (There are times during the summer when the crabs are lighter - they've shed their shells and are growing back new shells, but they weigh less. Customers don't like light crabs and they frustrate seafood restaurant owners. The light crabs may look big, but they don't deliver much reward.)

In the old days, the crabs were steamed in blue enamel pots (not too large and definitely not large commercial vats) in a back garage.

It wasn't until the late 1970s that crabs were flown in from other places, especially from Louisiana, so that if you have a hankering for steamed crabs on New Year's Eve, you can have them - sort of. No real Baltimore seafood denizen would go along with this practice.

Ed Obrycki had a house specialty too - the broiled crab. This was a jumbo steamed crab, cleaned, stuffed with lump crab meat, broiled and served with drawn butter.

He got out of the business 24 years ago, but loyal customers still swear by the family name and still visit Pratt and Regester.

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