REHOBOTH BEACH, DEL.
The name Big Fish is synonymous with seafood in the Rehoboth Beach and Wilmington, Del. areas. The Sugrue family’s group of restaurants and fish markets include five storefronts in the resort town plus one of the largest wholesale fish businesses in the state. Big Fish’s market on Coastal Highway in Rehoboth Beach is a first-rate seafood shop (where I procure shrimp for our annual boil) and takeaway emporium. Its other Rehoboth restaurants have strong reputations, so our party of 14 opted to try out Big Fish Restaurant Group’s newest entry into the local dining scene.
The Crab House is located just across from the Tanger Outlets Seaside property on Route 1. We called ahead as a courtesy to the restaurant, figuring it’s nice to let them know that we would be crushing their waiting area rather than just showing up. By experience, most restaurants seem to appreciate this gesture. The Crab House was able to accommodate and seat us almost immediately in what appeared to be the restaurant’s overflow dining/party room.
While the menu at Crab House offers a diversity of the seafood, the specialty of the house is crab. Steamed live to order and available by the half-dozen in varying sizes, prices are based on the market and posted on chalkboards throughout the restaurant. The best crab deal on the menu is the Ultimate Crab Feast, a $38 combination platter including a half-dozen medium crabs, two pieces of fried chicken, 1/4 rack of spare ribs, hush puppies, cole slaw and corn on the cob. Crab cakes, soft shell crabs, crab legs and chilled crab claws appear throughout the menu.
Our server was not necessarily outmatched by our large group, but more like she wasn’t really up for the challenge of the group. Our group was split at two tables next to one another. Our menus and silverware were dropped on the table by the hostess when we were seated. Our waitress started taking drink orders from my table and, having heard water from the first three people, proceeded to walk away and get pitchers of water, even though the rest of us were prepared to order from the extensive craft beer menu. During her absence, I distributed the remaining menus and silverware to everyone.
Though she was assigned the entire overflow space, there were less than 20 people in the room spread out over four tables, including our group. She regularly walked past our table, not noticing the empty beer mugs that would have invited refills, particularly after making a point to keep a menu so that our table could have a beer list.
Allegedly, diners at the Crab House are offered baskets of Old Bay-seasoned popcorn to nibble on while ordering. We saw other tables, including the second table from our group, making their way through it. It wasn’t until our beers were delivered that the “water half” of our table received a single, middling basket of popcorn.
Service was really the unfortunate underpinning of the entire trip. The menu has a special callout for “Buck-A-Shuck,” or $1 oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. Our server explained that the restaurant was serving Wellpoint oysters, which she described as mild. I ordered a dozen and used my phone to Google “Wellpoint Oysters,” to which I found nothing. There’s no such thing. Wellfleet oysters come from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Bluepoint oysters are dug in Long Island and Connecticut. When the server made it back, I asked her again what type of oysters were available. This time she offered to check.
I’m still waiting for a response. The oysters tasted fresh, if not a little crunchy from shell fragments due to poor shucking. Served on the half-shell, the mystery oysters came with cocktail sauce, lemon wedges and horseradish. I’m not entirely sure why raw bars in Delaware treat oysters like clams, serving cocktail and horseradish but not mignonette or Tabasco, but this is the second time I have encountered this practice on the Coastal Highway.
On multiple occasions, runners attempted to serve our table food that was bound for other diners.
The Wife split an order of crab balls with another friend, describing them as full of crab meat with just enough breadcrumbs to bind the fish through the deep-frying. These were served without any side sauce. One of our other friends had ordered a side of hush puppies, the southern staple of fried cornbread balls. After biting into the first one, my friend’s wife nudged me to take a photo:
While the remaining pieces were cooked through, this one was served absolutely raw.
Most people ordered crab cakes and there were no complaints. Broiled, not fried, cakes were packed by hand and bursting with crabmeat. The dinners came with two crabcakes and the choice of a side dish, while sandwiches came with one cake on a homemade roll with the choice of a side. The dinners and sandwiches were served with a side of mustard sauce. The Wife noted that her crabcake was dwarfed by the roll, joking that she ordered a brioche roll with a crab cake on it rather than the opposite.
A few of us went for the mix-and-match Chesapeake Platter, which allow diners to choose two or three items from a list of 14, including a single crab cake, 1/2 lb. of steamed shrimp, 1/2 lb. steamed snow crab legs, fried shrimp, clams or oysters, as well as some of the meat dishes. My friend Phil and I each ordered the platter with crab legs and shrimp. The latter seemed slightly overcooked, seeming more like 21-25 count shrimp than the promised 16-20 variety. At least they were peeled and deveined. The crab legs were a little on the thin side in terms of meat, but that’s part and parcel of the snow crab. Both platters were served with ample amounts of fries.
On the upside, the Crab House is child-friendly and has 30 craft beers available, mixing well-known names with offerings from the region. And, for a seafood restaurant in an area where fish is not the dominant dining option (as opposed to, say, Cape Cod or the Outer Banks), the prices are not bad. However, middling value and negligent service plague the Crab House and casts a shadow on the Big Fish name.
The Crab House is located at 19598 Coastal Hwy. in Rehoboth Beach, Del. It is open seven days a week at 4 p.m. for dinner. Reservations are not accepted. Dinner for 14, including three children, was $298.50 before tip.