Here we are, the four of us, standing in line waiting to get on the most popular ride at Disneyland.
Nope, check that. We're waiting for a table at Phillips Harborplace in tourist season.
The boisterous crowds are about the same as you'll find at the theme park (maybe slightly fewer kids). As is the general air of bonhomie, punctuated by the cheerful honky-tonk piano in the background. The staff is young, sweet-natured and efficient; and the dining rooms have that stage set look: rooms within rooms, with faux Tiffany lamps and fake windows that open out onto other dining rooms.
What's good about this space is that it can all be opened up to the outdoors, so that even if you can't get a table on the terrace, the breeze off the harbor blows in your "window" and you have the illusion you're sitting outside.
For those new to the area, Phillips is to Ocean City (but never quite to Baltimore) what Book-binders is to Philly and Legal Sea Foods is to Boston: The quintessential local seafood restaurant, family owned and operated. Since its first crab house opened 40 years ago, Phillips has expanded every which way, with locations in Ocean City, Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington. The Inner Harbor operation opened in 1980.
In Harborplace's early years, the complex housed fancy seafood restaurants like Mariner's Pier One and the Black Pearl. Those have come and gone as Harborplace has downscaled and oriented itself more to the tourist trade.
Every visitor to the Inner Harbor who asks a hotel concierge where to go for a real Maryland crab cake within walking distance probably gets the answer "Phillips." And with that crab cake -- traditional or, for a few dollars more, premium -- the visitor can have a Phillips margarita in a souvenir hurricane glass to take home.
Let's dwell on those crab cakes for a moment; they're one of the house specialties. (Phillips, by the way, pioneered the practice of importing crab meat from faraway places because Maryland no longer produces enough to supply such a large kitchen year-round. )
The fried seafood platter comes with a traditional crab cake, which can be upgraded to a premium one for $4.99 more. That's surprising because if you get a crab cake platter, it also costs $4.99 to upgrade, but you get two crab cakes. But what's really interesting is that nobody at our table could tell much difference between the fried traditional (original 1956 recipe) and the premium broiled. Both had pretty good seasonings, the lumps in the premium were only a bit larger, and, frankly, it seemed fried as well. The lower-priced crab cake was definitely the better buy.
This is very much factory-style dining, which has its ups and downs. The assembly line feel is mitigated by the warmth of the servers, and the food arrives quickly with the help of many hands. But small things gave us pause, like the waitress asking us to keep our forks for the next course -- dessert.
Most noticeably, everything from the traditional Eastern Shore food to the trendy specials came with the same accompaniments: a mix of broccoli, carrots and red peppers for the vegetables, and roast potatoes coated thickly in dried rosemary for the starch. And does no one think it's odd to have a specials sheet for oysters "with oysters now in season"? After all, it's not an "r" month.
It's a sign of the times that the fillet on the fried seafood platter is tilapia -- a fish most people hadn't heard of a decade ago -- not flounder. It was fresh but without much taste. Scallops, shrimp and a fat little lobster tail handled the breading better than the delicate fish.
I went in thinking that traditional dishes were the way to go here, but I was at least partly wrong. The Maryland crab soup, for instance, with its overcooked vegetables and shredded crab, was OK but no better than other versions. Clams casino were incredibly tough and gritty. But spiced, steamed shrimp cooked with onions and served with Phillips high-voltage cocktail sauce were excellent, and small mushroom caps topped with lump crab meat and a rich imperial sauce made everyone happy.
Oddly enough, the best of our entrees were quite fashion forward. The kitchen takes sushi-grade tuna and sears it quickly, slices it and serves it one degree beyond raw with soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger. (And, of course, mixed vegetables and rosemary-laden potatoes.) Even better was a gorgeous fat orange roughy fillet lightly encrusted with herbs and accompanied by a jazzy apple chipolte chutney. Both of these daily specials aren't exactly Eastern Shore specialties.
Desserts are pretty much what you'd expect, with the possible exception of a chocolate Orioles cake with bright orange icing. Oddly enough, items like the hazelnut torte and key lime pie looked absolutely dreadful on the pastry tray, but were quite acceptable when they arrived at our table. Still, I'd vote for the hot fudge sundae with a few bing cherries thrown in, unless you're a purist.
It's hard to be too grumpy about our meal at Phillips. After all, the chain makes a lot of people very happy, and given the volume of business the kitchen and staff are handling, they do remarkably well. Just like Disney, Phillips is an expert at crowd control.
Where: Light Street Pavilion, Harborplace
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $5.99-$16.99; main courses, $14.99-$29.99
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *