Jim and Sharon Andrews own the Ship's Cafe in Catonsville,… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
Catonsville's business district does not seem to change much. Large-scale development has skipped over Frederick Road and left the core of the 19th- and 20th-century shop fronts facing the old turnpike and streetcar route alone. It's clean and orderly, but not gentrified or given to a faux-Nantucket boutique treatment. The street has never surrendered its small-town feel, and the residents like it that way.
I spoke with Lynn Tawney Street, who is a big believer in the small-town charms of the neighborhood where she has lived her entire life. Unaffiliated with any group or business, she and her husband, Jim, just enjoy its quiet ways and its now well-established restaurant renaissance. They like the foods that tradition-conscious Baltimoreans hold dear, foods that we just automatically order. She escorted me on her Catonsville food tour.
It was just 10 years ago that restaurateurs Jim and Sharon Andrews bought the old 828 Bar at the corner of Winter's Lane and Frederick Road. They opened with a bar and four outside picnic tables. Soon the demand for an authentic Baltimore neighborhood seafood house outpaced the original space.
At first they steamed crabs in a shack in the backyard; then they enlarged the place to incorporate the old Grimm's bakery property, an 1860s stone turnpike house next door. Now there can be an hour's wait at Ship's Cafe Restaurant and Crab House to get seated on a summer night when returning customers get that taste for hard crabs and beer.
"People have to understand that crabs take longer to eat," Sharon Andrews said. "And when you go out for crabs, it's a social event."
She described their crab seasoning as "sweet and spicy, not black pepper and no garlic — and not real hot." Lynn Street's verdict: "The crabs are beautiful."
"I thought we were taking a big chance," Sharon Andrews said, as she described the restaurant scene in 2002 along Frederick Road. While there were remaining — and popular — well-established taverns like Jenning's Cafe with its traditional Maryland thoroughbred racing decor (a nice break from the ubiquitous NFL-themed sports bars), Catonsville was not recognized as a destination for foodies.
I also learned why steamed crabs are not available at all restaurants. Health department regulations demand that steamed crabs must be housed in their own separate section of a kitchen, away from other seafood. Not all kitchens have the space or the steaming equipment.
The Ship's Cafe serves the kind of food that Baltimoreans celebrate that would seem little known elsewhere, like the fried hard crab.
Jim Andrews said he put this on his menu because he remembered having them at the old Bankert's, an old seafood house-beer garden. He also recalled that the fried crabs once were a staple of Tangiers Seafood. His menu lists a "soft crab" in proper Baltimore parlance, not "soft-shell." An upstairs room is decorated with an excellent collection of photos of the Nos. 8 and 9 Catonsville streetcars. It also proudly serves stewed tomatoes as a side dish.
Across the street from the crab house is Ned Atwater's main bakery. This is the mother ship of his baking (breads, pies, cookies) enterprise. Like the rest of Catonsville, it's pretty low-key and polite, a place for a cup of coffee and a cookie or cupcake.
Catonsville does not advertise its Baltimore culinary traditions. But there in Atwater's refrigerated case was a dessert labeled the Pimlico Cake. This confection traces its ancestry to the old Pimlico Hotel on Park Heights Avenue. Its chocolate icing and egg custard filling rest gently on white layers. I thought it had disappeared entirely, but I found it in Catonsville.
My Catonsville guide, Lynn Street, also directed me to Duesenberg's on Mellor Avenue. A popular breakfast and lunch destination, it also has that quintessential quirky Baltimore food item, sour beef and dumplings, plus other German dishes, served Wednesday through Saturday nights. I am told the portions are bound to please a thrifty Baltimorean.
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