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Seafood

If you visit either Maryland or Delaware, you'll want to order seafood. With the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean so close, seafood is taken very seriously here. Crabs used to be available only in the summer, but now you can get crab served any which way year-round. Alas, the crabmeat is often imported from southern waters or, even more shocking, from Asia. It's all blue crab, but it isn't all the same.

The good news is that local cooks have come up with the most creative ways to prepare it: soups (white cream of crab or red Maryland crab soups), crab dip, chicken and steak topped with crabmeat, and crab Imperial, a rich crab dish topped with a mayo mixture and broiled.

By far, though, the most popular ways to enjoy crab is steamed or as a crab cake.

Steamed crabs come piled high under a spicy dose of Old Bay Seasoning. Go ahead, grab a mallet and a knife and get your hands dirty. (Someone will show you how to open the crab.) You'll be delighted by the sweet white meat hidden underneath that bright red shell.

If that's too messy, crab cakes, prepared broiled or fried, are the area's most perfect food.

If the month ends in an r, it's oyster season. Fried, swimming in a milky stew, or raw on the half shell, oysters are a seasonal delight that were the cause of "Oyster Wars" a century ago.

Fish lovers await the short seasons for roe shad and rockfish (striped bass) every year. They appear as specials on restaurant menus.

Othe Regional Favorites

Fried chicken fans, though, never have to wait for their favorite dish. Farmers on Delaware and Maryland's Eastern Shore raise thousands of chickens year-round. You'll see Maryland fried chicken on menus, but no one agrees on what that actually is. Often it comes with cream gravy and is deep-fried with a crispy bread coating.

With an international mix of cultures in both states, you'll likely to find any kind of ethnic food you want. Sure, you'll find plenty of Italian and German and Irish dishes from restaurateurs whose ancestors came from the old country. But now, Latino food is growing in popularity with the increase in immigrants from Latin America, especially on the Eastern Shore, in Delaware, and in Baltimore's Fell's Point neighborhood.

Thai, Ethiopian, and Indian foods are appearing on more menus, as well. Tapas and "small plates" may be so yesterday in other parts of the United States, but here, diners are holding on to the concept, thrilled to be able to try so many things without wearing their slacks with the elastic waist.

Diners have become adventurous eaters here, willing to try everything. So restaurants have expanded, improved, and challenged their palates. Nevertheless, show up in a Baltimore diner and you're bound to hear, "What'll you have, hon?" The waitress is asking in the friendliest of ways.

Dining Out

Dining around here is casual -- especially at the seafood houses. In fact, there you can expect to find paper on the table and maybe even a roll of paper towels nearby instead of napkins.

So, unless you're celebrating at Wilmington's Green Room or Baltimore's Prime Rib, you can leave your jacket or cocktail dress at home. "Smart casual" is fine. A pair of clean slacks and polo shirt or sweater is fine for both men and women almost everywhere.

People tend to dine early here. In fact, the most popular time for a reservation in Baltimore is 7pm. At the beach, the lines get really long at no-reservation restaurants at about that time, too. By 9pm, most people have gone home, and the kitchen staff is cleaning up. To skip the crowds, stop on a weeknight or plan on an early or later dinner. You'll get a better table and probably a special deal, too; restaurants are getting creative at finding ways to fill tables during those quiet times.

Lunchtime starts promptly at noon around here, too. By 12:30pm, the crush is on. But lunch is usually served until 2pm or later.

The Ice-Cream State

Visitors to Maryland may think the state is defined by the blue crab. And, yes, that's true. But at $25 a pound for a jumbo lump, we really don't eat crab cakes that much. What we line up for on a regular basis is ice cream. Locally made ice cream. And it seems like every town has its own.

You have a Baltimorean to thank for commercial ice cream. Jacob Fussell, the first to built a commercial ice-cream plant, made ice cream from the leftover cream from milk bought from dairy farmers in York County, Pennsylvania, for his Baltimore customers. His first plant was in Pennsylvania but he wised up and moved it to Baltimore.

Taharka Brothers, 1405 Forge Ave., Mount Washington (tel. 410/433-6800), makes great ice cream (Key Lime is both tart and creamy); look for their carts at Baltimore festivals, too.

Annapolis has Annapolis Ice Cream, 196 Main St. (tel. 443/482-3895). Ice cream is made daily right in their downtown store. They even make the apple pies for the apple pie ice cream.

Western Maryland is home to two creameries. In Deep Creek Lake, order locally made ice cream from the Lakeside Creamery, 20282 Garrett Hwy., Oakland (tel. 301/387-2580). The girls behind the counter also bake vanilla-scented waffle cones. In Cumberland, the choices of frozen custard are limited to three at the Queen City Creamery, 108 Harrison St. (tel. 301/777-0011): chocolate, vanilla, and the flavor of the day. But what flavors -- everything from white Russian to pumpkin pie.

In Ocean City, everybody lines up at Dumser's, on Coastal Highway at 49th and 124th streets and along the Boardwalk (tel. 410/524-1588). Made daily, the ice-cream flavors are traditional, except for the fruity Hawaiian Delight. They must be doing something right; Dumser's has been churning ice cream since 1939.

In southern Maryland, the Ice Cream Factory, 13700 Old Brandywine Rd., Brandywine (tel. 301/782-3444), mixes in 1 of 24 flavors when you order their soft frozen custard.

Oxford is home to the Scottish Highland Creamery, 314 Tilghman St. (tel. 410/924-6398), with perfect ice cream made on-site. Fudge, too.

And lucky for the rest of the world: Columbia, west of Baltimore, is home to the headquarters of Maggie Moo's. This ice-cream parlor at the Mall in Columbia (tel. 410/730-3313) mixes various treats into the ice cream on a frozen granite slab. Other "treateries" are scattered across the United States and even Asia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.