Whacking a pile of spice-crusted steamed crabs with a wooden mallet is pretty much what a summer meal in Maryland is all about. And Gunning's is as fine a place to do it as any, as long as you don't crave a water view.
Like other crab houses, Gunning's knows that Maryland's beloved seafood is the opposite of elegant. Even when the crabs cost close to $80 a dozen, they belong on rough brown paper. Who can be dignified while hammering at shells and picking out meat and licking fingers and creating a giant mound of crab gunk?
That's why the best crab restaurants are casual, yet with atmosphere and service that are good enough to justify the inevitably high bill. Gunning's, founded by A. Gunning Sr. 40 years ago, has that balance down to a science.
Now run by his son, A. Gunning Jr., the restaurant moved about a dozen years ago from Hanover Street in Brooklyn to a location off Route 100 in Hanover. The restaurant's sprawling dining area, its walls thankfully free of fishing nets and starfish and other sea-related kitsch, surrounds a large bar. Early on a recent Wednesday night, it seemed to be a place where every patron was laughing and eating and having a great time.
In addition to crabs, Gunning's serves the usual baked, broiled or fried seafood, topped with crab imperial if that's what you want, plus steaks and burgers. But if the "mini crab feast" is on the menu, why would you get anything else?
The $27.99 special includes a bowl of Tabasco-tinged crab soup, a sizable crab cake, four steamed crabs, three onion rings and a vegetable of the day.
Service at Gunning's is almost frighteningly efficient. As soon as we ordered, the food started arriving. I suspect the kitchen is a bit of an assembly line, churning out classic Maryland food that's perfectly acceptable but lacks flair. (Not that anyone goes to Gunning's for innovative cooking - crab house meals are all about re-creating the memories of previous crab house meals.)
The crab soup got us off to a good start. It was thick with tomatoes, green beans, celery and other veggies. I didn't expect big chunks of crabs and didn't get them, but there were enough little pieces. Then came the crab cake, nothing special, maybe a bit too much filler, but a nice mix of lumps and backfin. Giant onion rings were less than perfectly crisp, but tasty enough, and the vegetable we chose, mashed potatoes, impressed us by tasting homemade.
Last came the crabs, which take the longest to cook. Our waitress told us they were mediums, but they had a good amount of meat. The spice coating the crabs at Gunning's is less salty than at other places. You might like it that way - I prefer my crab seasoning so strong it nearly hurts my tongue.
We tried a few other things at Gunning's. The "waterman's platter" featured so-so fries, nice crunchy coleslaw in a mildly sweet dressing and fat slabs of fried haddock with a crunchy, grease-free coating, but too dry to be fabulous. We also had the crab dip, gooey, warm and a little tangy, but with hardly any crab bits. Get the crabs.
Desserts at Gunning's include an ice cream sundae or the famous eclair, an enormous chocolate-iced pastry filled with rich vanilla cream. It was a few degrees too cold, but otherwise quite satisfying.
Though some of the food had room for improvement, the big picture is that Gunning's is exactly what it's supposed to be - a Maryland crab house without a lot of frills but with many happy, well-fed customers.
Where: 7304 Parkway Drive, Hanover
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m. and Sunday noon to 10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4.99-$12.99, entrees $5.99-$32.99
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Diners Club
Food: *** (3 stars)
Service: *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)