Matchbook #1: Robertson’s Crab House

Thursday June 18th – Robertson’s Crab House – Popes Creek, MD – Dated by Pap ‘FRI June 26, 1970’

I left Durham at 11am, plenty of time to try and find my first matchbook destination then get to the gig at Charm City Art Space in Baltimore by load-in at 7pm.

Many of these matchbooks only list city and phone number but no address. I chose not to do a lot of preliminary research into any of the exact addresses. I was afraid if I started digging into them, I’d find that many no longer existed. I prefer to let any discovery and disappointment or surprise happen while on the road.

I drove to Richmond using I-95. Hopefully it’ll be the only encounter with an Interstate on this tour. After Richmond, I took US-301 which continues to eastern DC and then on to Baltimore. I decided to look into Robertson’s because Popes Creek is just off Route 301 and would not be a detour for me whatsoever. 301 is a real beauty, a great alternative to I-95 (at least up until you hit the Potomac-area).

I did a search for Robertson’s. Yet my phone brought up Capt’ Billy’s Crab House instead. Hmm, kinda strange. Maybe the place was renamed. That would not be surprising. I scrolled down and saw Robertson’s Crab House CLOSED and then I read its address: 11455 Popes Creek Rd, Newburg, MD.

Underneath, the beginning quote of a review:

“Not as good as Captain Billy’s usually has more families and longer…”

Damn it. I immediately put my phone down and shook my head. I know exactly what’s going on here. I’ve seen it over and over. The CEO of a Riverfront Casino wants to set up shop in the area. His son (played by Justin Long) floods the internet with negative reviews of all the crab shacks along the Potomac. As the shacks board up their windows, the magnate buys them for next to nothing. He gets every single one, except for that of our heroes: Mom and Pop Robertson. And he needs THAT property by the end of the month or the deal falls through.

Right next door, he builds a tiki bar and installs an immense ship’s wheel the size of a tilt-a-whirl then blasts dance music so all of The Robertson’s regulars from the past fifty years stop coming while ‘the young college kids’ start going to his place next door. The treasured Robertson’s Crab House is on the brink of foreclosure.

But just in time, their whip-smart single mom daughter (played by Linda Cardellini!) comes back into town. Along with the help of a gruff and mysterious troubadour (played by Colin Firth!), they band together to make sure no sun’s gonna set on The Crab House.

Cue music about being fierce. Let’s go save The Crab House!

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Right off of 301, Popes Creek Road slowly winds through some nice country road to a beautiful low view of the Potomac. At the bottom of the road are two buildings. 11455 is currently called Popes Creek Waterfront. It’s dark and dusty inside, chairs are turned up on the tables and it appears to be no longer in business. The building directly next door to it is Capt’ Billy’s. It does indeed have a ship’s wheel that (I think) lights up. But it’s very tastefully done.

I reluctantly walk towards Capt’ Billy’s to get the scoop. I wonder if the competition actually did shut down Robertson’s Crab Shack. I wonder if it’s a northeast chain I never heard of. Why am I even wondering anything? Why am I looking for an angle? Why am I picking sides and coming up with these ridiculous scenarios?

C’mon man!

I can’t help it. I keep on thinking Capt Billy is Alec Baldwin with an eye patch and I have the feeling as I open the door he’s going to look at me with his one eye and then he’ll smile and show me the contract he just signed. He’ll casually wave the piece of paper that gives him authority to tear it all down and put in an Applebee’s.

He lights a cigar, I move for the pool cue.

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Inside, Capt’ Billy’s is a nice laid-back seafood place with wooden booths and one of those great rotating desert displays up front. There’s a black-and-white tiled floor below and an acoustic tile ceiling above.

One entire windowed wall has a great view of the Potomac. I see a dock outside attached to the property. A small boat pulls up and, after roping it to the dock, a grandmother helps her grandson out of the boat. He skips along, she walks beside him and they take a seat outside.

Before I’m seated, I take a stroll around inside. In the center of one wall is the picture of a middle aged man in the kitchen behind a grill. There are other pictures of the same man at different ages, shaking hands with customers, laughing. Stirring pots. Billy Robertson. There are plenty of newspaper articles from throughout the years, ones about Billy and his business and the positive impact he’s had on the community. There are also sun-bleached stories on local weather phenomena. They all hang among all of Billy’s various community awards, wooden plaques and thank-you’s.

In the corner on the other side of the room is a healthy collection of autographs of Washington sports figures who have come in to eat at Capt. Billy’s.

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In the early days, Billy did a lot of the fishing for the restaurant. He initially opened Robertson’s Crab House and then, a little later in 1947, he opened Captain Billy’s next door. It seems the man really loved being in the restaurant business and that allowed him to do something else he really loved: interacting with the customers.

When Billy passed away a few years ago, the restaurants went to his children: Robertson’s Crab House to his son and Captain Billy to his daughter. Just as their dad did, they continued to get all their seafood locally.

I wondered if it was strange competition between the siblings, a familial one-upmanship that made the holidays uncomfortable. But apparently that wasn’t the case. According to my waitress, the two businesses shared recipes and ingredients quite a bit and it wasn’t ever a big deal.

A few years ago, the son sold Robertson’s to his sister and moved to Florida. She leased the place to another party. My waitress didn’t think the then newly-christened ‘Popes Creek Waterfront’ lasted more than a season. It is currently seeking a lease.

I kinda wondered why Billy had two places next to one another that provided the area with what I’m assuming was the same general menu and atmosphere but after peeking into Robertson’s on my way out, I wondered if it was a dressy coat-and-tie or collared shirt place with a steak option. I thought between the two, that’d be the one my Pap’d chose.

I drove away, on to Baltimore, glad that my first matchbook venture wasn’t bulldozed by Alec Bladwin.

Oh, and by the way Linda Cardellini, the Lump Crab Sandwich is terrific.

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A thing of note: throughout dinner, I asked my waitress a ton of questions but recognized that it was early supper and she was getting busy. I didn’t want to be too creepy with my follow-up questions and clarifications and certainly didn’t want to push the luck of a dude wearing gold boots with spurs. That being said, if you are connected with Capt’ Billy’s or Robertson’s and have some additions or corrections to any of the following, please don’t hesitate to contact me so I can make the corrections.

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