The Chesapeake Soft-Shell Crabs Are Here!

The early harbingers of Spring — the ospreys and rockfish — have arrived, but the season hasn’t officially begun until the feisty rockstars of the Bay strut (or is that scuttle?) into town!

For those fortunate enough to find themselves near the mouth of the Potomac River, a real treat is at hand: Courtney’s Restaurant in Ridge, Maryland, about seven miles north of Point Lookout. There are a number of reviews for Courtney’s on Yelp, Urbanspoon, and the like; ignore the negative ones because those are from gentle city folk, unaccustomed to the brusque ways of authentic Bay watermen and their kind. This particular restaurant is run by a local waterman, Tom Courtney, and his wife, Julie.

Tom, a 60+ year-old native of the area, goes out every morning at 5 a.m. in his small outboard boat and brings back the best the Bay has to offer around here. You name it, he catches it: the famous Maryland blue crabs, soft-shell crabs, rockfish (the iconic Maryland striped bass), perch, croaker, flounder, sea squab (Atlantic puffer fish), oysters, and the like. The list goes on. Tom brings them back and Julie, a native of the Philippines, cooks them in the rustic style of the shore. And what a fine cook she is; everything — and I mean everything — is prepared only by her; she has no helpers or other assistance in the kitchen. The seafood is generally available broiled, fried, or sometimes grilled; don’t bother with anything like beef or chicken… you just come here for the bounty of the Bay.

This brings us to the atmosphere of the restaurant: it was once part of a large oyster-shucking and canning business, and there are a number of other original structures still standing. Wandering into the restaurant, one will find worn wooden floors, chairs and tables with bottle caps on the bottom of a few legs, lots of faded framed photos, pre-1960s era country-western music playing in the background, and various odds and ends from decades of serving hearty meals to an appreciative clientele. It’s almost like going to visit family.

We always seat ourselves and don’t arrive with an agenda or a place to go afterward, as service will amble its way to us in time. We also don’t pay attention to the menu anymore; instead, we just order whatever Julie recommends, then she will retire to the kitchen and cook us a home-made meal to order. If a larger group got there ahead of us, well… we’ve learned to appreciate the company we came with, take in the spectacular view of the Potomac River, have some libations, and relax until our order gets attention focused on it. But it will be expertly prepared — and it will be utterly delicious.

House specialties include some of the best Maryland-style crab soup we’ve ever tasted, superb soft-shelled crabs (we had four of the six that Tom caught last Saturday), and excellent shack-style crab cakes; rockfish so tender it’s a crime, and sea squab, a wonderfully flavored fish that quickly has become a favorite of ours; even the home-made dinner rolls are worth mentioning.