When summer arrives, crabs hit newspaper-covered tables around Southern Maryland — and at Grinder’s Seafood in Indian Head, their fresh fare has kept diners coming back for 14 years.
Owner Daniel Grinder and manager Shannon Wilt opened their casual restaurant in 2003. Sweethearts of 22 years, the Nanjemoy couple was expecting their second child when the building that housed a former sub shop became available right on Route 210.
A fifth-generation waterman, “Daniel had always wanted to own a crab place,” Wilt said. They set to work on renovations, hauling booths from a defunct Burger King to their new place in Indian Head. A side wall of drink coolers was closed off; the large walk-in refrigerator holding bushels and bushels of crabs is just behind it. They would welcome their first customers — and a daughter, Victoria — by August.
Today, Grinder and son Tyler leave with the daylight to bring in fresh blue crabs, catfish, snakehead and more off the Potomac. Their haul is shared between the restaurant and commercial clients.
The Grinders have a fleet of aluminum boats — Daniel’s preferred vessel. “He’s in his glory when he’s out on the water,” Wilt said, noting that they still fish and pull their gear in by hand. “We call him Peter [from the Bible],” she joked.
Daughter Victoria, now a teen, grew up in the restaurant. Customers remember when the 13-year-old was a toddler. Now she, too, helps out at her parents’ place — when she’s not in school or dancing competitively. Wilt says that, having been around since birth, their daughter knows the business inside and out. “She can tell you everything.”
Grinder’s Seafood closes for the season each November, reopening in April after Easter. Whereas patrons once discovered the restaurant mostly by word of mouth, Wilt said social media now plays a big role in its continued success. Nephew Caleb, a student at Frostburg State University, also works at the business and bolsters their online presence when home from school.
Wilt uses Facebook to keep more than 1,800 followers updated on what’s coming out of the kitchen at Grinder’s, but she also shares personal photos of the family and staff — frequently with crab emojis. It is 2017, after all.
Online fans “ooh” and “ahh” over pictures of salty crabs arriving to customers on scuffed and well-loved trays, the Old Bay thick enough to make a homesick Marylander drool on their phone screen. Grinder’s uses social media to keep in touch with modern, mobile-happy customers, with Wilt responding on the fly to questions about whether crabs are still available.
It isn’t a given — especially on holiday weekends. “Mother’s Day is always our biggest day,” Wilt said. “You’ll see faces you’ve never seen before because customers want to satisfy their mom.”
The restaurant is open Thursday to Sunday, but crabs are often gone before the weekend winds down.
If cracking claws isn’t your style, Grinder’s does have many other options (and cold beer). Homemade crab cakes are popular. Making them from scratch “takes time,” Wilt said, “but it’s so worth it. There’s no comparison.”
Also on the menu are shrimp, oysters, scallops, rockfish and clam strips, all served in baskets with french fries and coleslaw — or split in a combo basket, which lets diners choose half-orders of two items for their meal. Staples like hush puppies and corn fritters are popular, too.
But how about something different?
The snakehead fish is a surly, gnarly-looking invasive species not native to local waterways — one that apparently tickles the tastebuds, for those adventurous enough to try it.
“Snakehead bites seem to be a hit,” said Wilt. “Once customers get past the name, they like it.” The fillet is white and fluffy with a taste some even prefer over salmon or tilapia — but don’t ask the cook to judge.
For all the seafood she prepares in the back of the house, Wilt herself isn’t much of a fish eater. “I do love the hush puppies,” she said, “and the steak and cheese [sub]. We make a mean steak and cheese.”
Having previously worked in child care on base at nearby Naval Support Facility Indian Head, Wilt’s crossover to their family restaurant has been “interesting.” Working with the public requires “a sense of humor,” she laughed. Their friendly, attentive staff members have won over some pretty tough customers. Many have become friends. One choosy diner now sends Wilt cheerful “warning” text messages when she’s on her way to eat — a regular occurrence.
“I always say that I love all my customers. Some when they enter, some when they leave,” she joked.
A booth near the door in the nautical-themed dining room bears a memorial plaque for “Hog,” a longtime customer who once picked crabs there weekly. Grinder’s installed it after his passing.
“Hog ordered half a dozen large every Sunday,” said Wilt. “You learn your regulars, get to know them. And we hold their crabs.”
No small thing on a summer Sunday.
Grinder’s Seafood is open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays at 4665 Indian Head Highway, Indian Head. Call 301-743-7344 or visit them on Facebook.