As the number of visitors to Baltimore surges, so does the appetite for steamed hard-shell crabs.
Hordes of tourists are descending on the city in search of the fabled Baltimore crab house and its specialty, steamed hot `n' spicy and traditionally served in heaps on papered tabletops with this town's equally famous how-ya-doin'-hon hospitality.
"We ate them yesterday in Silver Spring, but I want Baltimore's - the super crab," said Silke Hensel, 37, a visitor from Germany who toured the Inner Harbor recently with her family.
They want local flavor, said Mike Pietryka, director of visitor services for the Baltimore Convention and Visitors Association.
"It is like going to New Orleans and asking for gumbo or going to New England to ask for lobster."
Although many of the city's old-time neighborhood crab houses have closed, the hunger for hard-shells has prompted replacements to sprout along Baltimore's trendy harbor shoreline.
Bo Brooks, a Northeast Baltimore institution, is scheduled to open its relocated operation Friday along the harbor promenade in Canton.
And Crabby Dick's opened June 9 in Fells Point, the first full-service crab house in the historic waterfront community since Gordon's crab house closed there in the early 1990s.
"It is kind of the new generation of crab houses," said Jimmy Rouse, the head of the Historic Charles Street Association and a son of the late developer of Harborplace. "Their time has come."
The crab craze also has spurred at least one swanky downtown hotel to replace linen tablecloths with paper and include wooden mallets with the place setting in its lounge one night a week. And an increasing number of bars and restaurants - particularly in Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton - are featuring steamed crabs on the menu as a summertime staple.
Tourism officials estimate there could be 15 million visitors to the city this year, up from 13 million two years ago, and watermen and seafood wholesalers say the demand for crabs is following a similar path.
Pietryka said most visitors are in town for business or a weekend getaway, and they simply want to add picking hard crabs to their overall experience. But hotel workers say more and more guests are telling them they travel to Baltimore just to eat crabs.
None of it comes as a surprise to Cheri Cernak, part-owner of Obrycki's, which is among the city's best-known restaurants and a spot whose crabs have been touted by both Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey on their television shows.
"It has always been that way," Cernak said. "When people come from out of town, they look for steamed crabs."
Though the restaurant, in the 1700 block of E. Pratt St., is blocks from the waterfront, demand for Obrycki's crabs in the past 15 years has forced the restaurant to double its capacity to 240 seats from 120 seats, Cernak said.
Area crab house owners estimate that tourists account for about half their business in the summer, and wholesalers say they are scrambling to meet the demand.
"Baltimore is definitely the hottest market," said Joe Spurry, owner of Bay Hundred Seafood, a wholesaler in St. Michaels that supplies the Eastern Shore, parts of Delaware, Pennsylvania and Washington.
Inner Harbor and Fells Point restaurateurs and shopkeepers, as well as downtown hotel concierges, said that on many days they are overwhelmed with queries about where to go for a traditional meal of steamed hard-shell crabs.
Until recently, tourism officials said visitors seemed miffed to learn that there were no authentic crab houses near the waterfront and instead were directed to the shrinking number of crab houses elsewhere in the city.
"I think there is a market, and the market is downtown right now," said Herman Hannan, the owner of Bo Brooks.
John P. Buchheit III saw the market demand for crabs, based on the tourists' reactions to his "Crabby Dick's" T-shirts and merchandise sold at retail stores at Harborplace and in Fells Point.
"The No. 1 question people ask when they come in the store at the harbor is, `Where is the crab house?'" said Buchheit, who said there has been a one- to two-hour wait on weekends to get seated in the new crab house in the 600 block of S. Broadway.
There is debate over whether the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population can meet the increased demand.
Environmentalists and some state officials say the crab population is running dangerously low, and they urge further restrictions on the number that can be harvested.
But the state's watermen contend the population is healthy and predict this year the crabs will be larger and more plentiful than in years past.
"We are ready to feed these tourists this summer," said Larry W. Simms, president of the Maryland Waterman's Association.
Doug Lipton, a University of Maryland College Park economics professor who has studied the crab industry, said about 85 percent of watermen's summer harvest now goes to the hard-shell crab market, where they can get the highest price, rather than to the commercial picking houses.
"They are going to go where you can sell them for the most - the tourist areas," Lipton said.
Steamed crabs usually cost $20 to $50 a dozen retail, depending on size and availability.
At the Hyatt Inner Harbor, Mairead Hennessy, food and beverage director, said the hotel began offering crabs in an effort to keep tourists - and their money - from traveling elsewhere.
Hennessy said often the first question visitors ask when they check in is, "Where can I get crab?" So, the hotel started its Friday night crab feast two years ago.
"I thought it was weird at first, for a hotel, but it is convenient," said Carole Ecton, of Hagerstown, who was in town with her husband on a weekend getaway. "When you think of Baltimore, you think of crabs."
"Downtown needs a nightlife, and this will draw people down here because people love crabs," said Susan Ireland of Northeast Baltimore. "That is what we are all about."