How you feel about Baltimore probably depends on your proximity to it. TV shows like The Wire and nightly newscasts tell a story of political corruption, a broken judicial system, rampant addiction, and a city on the skids. For those who hold it close, though, it's a place of grit and authenticity, where dilapidation sits next door to Beaux-Arts splendor. It's also where you can get one of the best damn crab cakes in the world, at Faidley's Seafood.
Nancy Devine and her husband Bill have been running Faidley's since the 1960s, but the shop was opened by Nancy's grandfather, John Faidley Sr., in 1886. After leaving the Navy in '64, Bill came to work for John, and eventually he and Nancy became the proprietors.
Faidley's signature item is the "gourmet crab cake," a massive, 6.5-ounce, deep-fried sphere of jumbo lump crab meat sourced exclusively from nearby Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. Created by Nancy in 1987, the cake is lightly bound together by a gently seasoned creamy sauce that Nancy won't describe in too much detail.
According to Nancy, "what you want is the true taste of the crab to come through," and like many (if not most) Marylanders, she's committed to the gospel of the blue crab. While this species is not specific to the Maryland area, crabs from the Chesapeake are said to have their own kind of terroir, which Nancy thinks enhances the flavor of the crab cakes. "Maryland crab meat is hard to describe. It has its own distinct flavor, I think because of what the crab eats and the water it comes from." Her crabs are also steamed instead of being boiled, which, according to Nancy, leads to the fat softening and combining with the cooked meat, rather than draining away with the cooking water.
"The clientele is very diversified," says Nancy. During the days of The Wire it wasn't uncommon to see actors or members of the crew eating the fist-sized crab cakes or slurping down freshly shucked oysters. Now, "I get people from all over the world. It's amazing to me."
Faidley's crab cakes can also be shipped worldwide, although under very specific conditions. Since the cakes are made by hand and are never frozen, overnight shipping in an insulated container is the only available option. Orders are also taken exclusively over the phone, as this helps Nancy and Bill control both quality and production. Nancy says that online ordering could triple their business, but "I'd rather have something special like this than a lot of something that's not special." Plus, Nancy is the person primarily responsible for producing the crab cakes. "My husband says he doesn't want to kill the machine… and that would be me."
Nancy feels that their success is in part because it's the kind of place where people from all walks of life can stand next to each other and have a communal food experience that might not otherwise be shared. Bill is the one who decided that seating should be limited, which was inspired by his days of eating at commissaries in the Navy and at the Pentagon. He wanted a place where people could stand around and have a good time (and where they could fit more customers into their relatively small space).
A big part of the magic seems to be the people who run the stand. Five generations of Faidleys have worked the shop, which right now includes Nancy, her daughter Damye, and Damye's son William. She's had the same employees for upwards of 20 years. Now, Bill is 84 and Nancy is 80, and the restaurant is woven into the lives of their family and their community.
This devotion isn't just salesmanship, either: Dedication to Faidley's borders on the illegal. Nancy recalls a time when, years ago, a family came in and began spreading dust around the dining area. "One of our people was going around with a dustpan and brush trying to get it up. Come to find out it was ashes."
Nancy is humble, though, and says, "I'm flattered, I'm delighted, and it's one of the things that keeps me working." In terms of measuring success, Faidley's has something going for it that's hard to find.
After all, when someone's last wish is for their ashes to be scattered inside of your restaurant, you know that you've achieved something.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.