Captain Billy's Crab House and Gilligan's Pier
Offer Crabs and Plenty of Atmosphere
on the Banks of the Potomac.
by Jane Meneely, April 2008
Paul and I had a hankering for steamed crabs one night, and we just happened to be in the vicinity of several fine crabhouses clustered on the Potomac River shoreline west of the Route 301 bridge: Captain Billy's, Robertson's and Gilligan's Pier. We had queried a pair of local gentlemen as to which one we should choose, and Captain Billy's won, hands down. Good crabs? we asked. The locals were noncommittal. "Good as any," they said. Then why Captain Billy's? "Been there longer," they said. What about Robertson's? "Oh they're fine, too," they said. What about Gilligan's Pier? At this our pals recoiled. "Oh no," they said. "That's for the young folks. That's one big party down there. You gotta go to Captain Billy's."
Despite the inference that we were too old to party, we went to the venerable Captain Billy's. "Been there longer," seemed as good a recommendation as any. We were early enough to find a big open room filled with good-size booths and plenty of tables, all covered with heavy brown paper. A large waterfront porch could accommodate even more diners, but we remained inside, out of the evening chill. Our waitress brought us a couple of ice cold Yeunglings--reallyice cold Yeunglings in frosty mugs--while we checked out the menu. Captain Billy's offers pretty standard fare, mostly seafood, with the obligatory steak, chicken and burgers mixed in. Size-wise you can order anything from a basket to a dinner to a feast (two pounds of crab legs, a pound of steamed shrimp and a half-dozen steamed crabs, for example). You can opt for a trip to the salad bar or a couple of sides. And you can top it all off with something from the Captain's list of specialty drinks. We decided to stick with beer, but we ordered a half-dozen steamed crabs, a broiled crabcake and a plate of fried oysters. We didn't get any hush puppies, but we probably should have. We watched basket after basket of these morsels land on just about every other table in there.
The crabs were, indeed, as good as any we'd had lately, the crabcake was fair (it held lots of spice and crab in a flat old-fashioned "patty") and the oysters were terrific. As we ate, diners began piling in. A class reunion marched by, then a troupe of couples and families with small and not-so-small children. Clearly this is a spot that is near and dear to many. Been there longer, indeed. And the proprietors do their best to make sure everyone is comfortable and well fed. No party here; just one big happy family. We'd come back for the atmosphere alone.
The next night we went to Gilligan's Pier, just a step down the road from Captain Billy's. My, my, what a difference. Here the coconut fronds surrounding the ample tiki bar outside, the spacious bar (which took up half the interior), indeed suggested a party atmosphere, but there was a large dining area on the side, where Paul and I settled in. We checked out the menu--seafood, again, with some steak, burgers and chicken. We again ordered a half-dozen steamed crabs, a crabcake and fried oysters, but they were out of oysters, so we ordered broiled rockfish instead. We also couldn't resist the conch fritters on the appetizer menu. Our server brought us small plastic cups of pretty cold beer and a basket nearly overflowing with the fritters--very tasty. I was pleasantly surprised. I hadn't had conch fritters in years, but these were what I remembered: nice and chewy, not overdone. Then came the crabs. Fabulous! They were sweet, moist, lightly seasoned, most definitely fresh and far, far better than any we've had outside our own cockpit of late. Then the crabcake arrived--a big ball of lump crab inside a gently fried exterior. Delectable! The rockfish was fine--a little on the dry side, I thought, either from overcooking or from over-lingering under a heat lamp. But the cole slaw was fresh, crunchy and utterly delightful. Party bar, hah! We'll go back to Gilligan's for the food.
Captain Billy's Crab House and Gilligan's Pier sit virtually side by side (along with Robertson's, the original site of Captain Billy's), on the Maryland bank of the Potomac River just above the Route 301 bridge. Both offer dockage to diners on a first-come-first-served basis. Overnight dockage can be had at Aqua-Land Marina (301-259-0572), located just above the bridge or at Goose Bay Marina (301-934-3812) just up the river. Gilligan's operates a water taxi (in season) for patrons who choose to anchor out. Captain Billy's (301-932-4323) is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday (closed from December through mid-February). Sandwiches and baskets $6-$18; entrees $11-$29. Gilligan's Pier (301-259-4514; www.gilliganspier.com) is open daily for lunch and dinner. Sandwiches and baskets $7-$14; entrees $12-$27. Major credit cards accepted at both establishments.