Saying goodbye: Maryland crab cake tribute to an Ocean City icon
The author (center) with friends during a senior trip to Ocean City, Md. in 1989.
-CAROL OF MOON-
By Carol Dzadony-Mancini
I don't know exactly when I fell in love with Ocean City, Md. And quite honestly, I'm not even sure why. It's not the quaintest little beach town – there are cuter. It's not the greatest foodie destination town – there are better. But, like a great lover you can’t quite put your finger on what makes your heart beat faster or your knees to buckle — one whiff of their cologne (or in this case ocean air) and you're swept back to that moment when you just knew… this is the one.
I’d been to other beach towns – Virginia Beach, Va., Stone Harbor, NJ. Huntington Beach, Calif. But like a mermaid, OC lures me with her siren call.
Let's rewind a little, 33 years to be exact (I can't even believe it's been that long). As a graduating high school senior, like most other high school grads, I took a senior trip to the quintessential (in my eyes) beach town – with its nostalgic boardwalk and turn of the century vibe. With six friends by my side, we headed to Ocean City in search of Michael Emerson of “Lost Boys” fame and where laughter and fun would create lifetime memories. Although, 33 years later (geez, it doesn't get easier the more I say that), I can only remember a few memories of that senior week thanks to a few pictures. And sadly, we never did find Michael Emerson – he lived in Santa Carla, Calif. (he-he). But what did resonate with me was the beach life and Phillips Crab House on 21st Street.
We went to dinner at the flagship Phillips Crab House. I completely crushed on that place. I don't know what it was. From the minute I walked in, I fell in love. Was it the Tiffany-style chandeliers that made my heart skip a beat? The Singer sewing machine table bases? The numerous carousel horses that presided over the main/upper dining rooms made my knees buckle? The vibe of the employees? Mostly they were young college men and women in red server aprons and supporting bussing staff in polo shirts – the experienced returning employees donning navy blue to distinguish from the "newbies." The smell of freshly steamed seafood? Or the food itself?
Couldn't quite put my finger on it. Whatever it was, I wanted to be part of it.
Fast forward several months to freshman year of college; friends asked if I wanted to live in Ocean City for the summer. Umm, yes! And where do you think I applied for a job? You betcha – Phillips Crab House. That's where I wanted to work. And guess what? I did! I became a member of the Phillips Crab House family during the summers of 1990 and 1991. I became known as Server Tori because no two servers could have the same name (and there already was a Server Carol) due to the manual checks to the kitchen. I remember entering the restaurant, the city-block-sized building for the first time as an employee. Oh, my goodness! I was excited. Possibly intentional but the minute you walk into the restaurant you are swept back in time and into the antique world of founders Brice and Shirley Phillips.
Opened in 1956 as a small carryout crab and seafood market, the iconic crab “shack” evolved over the decades to a vast complex, featuring five kitchens, each roughly the size of a typical Ocean City restaurant’s single kitchen. The flagship crab house restaurant can seat 1,400 guests.
That original location evolved over the years to become a fixture on the resort landscape. The family opened the Phillips Seafood House at 141st Street and the Phillips Beach Plaza Hotel on the Boardwalk at 13th Street in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the company grew again with locations in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
In the 1990s, uncertain about the blue crab supply in Maryland (they were very forward-thinking, as prices of crab are currently astronomical), Steve Phillips opened crab processing plants in southeast Asia and began producing pasteurized crabmeat and other seafood products.
I – well, Server Tori – was serving in the main/upper dining room the evening when Brice Phillips and his family entertained businessmen. He taught them how to open and clean a Maryland blue crab, the way he always did it. And I watched, and learned, and never forgot how he did it. And I passed on that information to everyone I knew... because the way Brice Phillips cleaned a crab IS the way it should be cleaned.
In the 2000s, Phillips moved into franchising with sites at airports and casinos. Throughout the growth, the 21st Street location remained the cornerstone of the growing empire.
But sadly, after 66 years, the last of the three Ocean City Phillips restaurants closed. In December 2021 it was announced that the flagship crab house would close its doors for good. The property sold and the family, although saddened, knew the time for the icon had come to an end.
Brice and Shirley Phillips left a legacy not only in Ocean City but also with everyone who worked for them. (And the world as you will soon find out with the recipe below.) They treated their seasonal employees as they treated their full-time staff – with respect and like family.
I am a member of the Phillips Crab House Alumni Facebook page and came across a picture of a letter of appreciation to all employees from Brice and Shirley, dated October 1, 1970. As with every generation, most older generations think the nation is doomed because of the youth of “today.” But when you read the letter, that youth is now the 'boomer' generation of today. And even then, they believed in the youth. And yet, here we are...Brice and Shirley were forward-thinking visionaries. This is why they will remain icons for eternity. (On a side note, I believe in our youth of “today” as well. On the whole, they are much smarter than my generation with vision and creativity I only wish I had at 19).
Shirley didn't keep her crab cake recipe a secret. She shares it with the world as it is on the back of the family seafood seasoning tin. (Maybe she leaves out a thing or two, but this recipe is rather tasty, and I use it every time I make crabcakes).
To quote the Great Bambino from the iconic The Sand Lot, "legends never die" and I hope the Phillips family realizes they have created so many memories for people who worked for them as well as patrons who ate at their restaurants. Family summer vacation and college summer work memories last a lifetime. The Phillips family will also last a lifetime even when the last restaurant is closed, but their family recipe lives on.
There isn't much to know about making crab cakes. There are no specific processes to remember. However, since there aren't many ingredients, quality is important.
Crabmeat is at a premium right now. Prices as of December 2021 for one pound of jumbo meat was $47.99 a pound (and this was at Costco). Purchasing jumbo lump crab meat will yield you the best quality crab cake. Jumbo lump is best tasting meat and the crab cake that will most resemble the Phillips Crab House Crab Cake.
Carol Dzadony-Mancini is a former resident of Stowe Township and currently resides in Moon Township with her family. Her hobbies include riding horses, skiing, crocheting, hiking with her dogs, and of course cooking for the people she loves.
Shirley Phillips' Crab Cakes
8 ounces crab meat
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
1/8 teaspoon mustard powder
1 Tablespoon mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoon melted butter
1/2 teaspoon chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon Phillips Seafood Seasoning
1/4 cup bread crumbs
What to do:
1. In a colander, rinse crab meat with cold water. Drain on paper towel and set aside.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients together, except crab.
3. Gently fold crabmeat into the mixture.
4. Portion mixture into equal sizes (I use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop)
5. Pan fry with butter for two to four minutes on each side or until golden brown.
Note: Crab cakes can also be cooked in the oven, 385 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.