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Excerpts by Henry Lane Hull

Across the Potomac River in Southern Maryland, one of the most well known abiding landmarks is Captain Billy’s Crab House. Going north on the new 301 bridge at night, the bright lights of Captain Billy’s shining on the shore about a mile above the bridge are for many as much of a welcome sign as the official one on the highway.

The restaurant is a short distance below the site of John Wilkes Booth’s crossing of the Potomac in his flight south from Washington after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Captain Billy’s is the enduring legacy of the late George William Robertson, a native of Baltimore who began crabbing in the Potomac and Port Tobacco Rivers when he was nine years old. When he was 19, he opened his first restaurant, Robertson’s Crab House in Newburg, Md., that was next to another crab shore, Captain Drinks, which he later acquired and now is the home of Captain Billy’s.

Captain Billy was great with crabs, but he was even greater with people. He greeted everyone who came to the restaurant, which was an important part of the ambience of the dining experience. When crabs were in short supply elsewhere, he always had them. He attracted wonderful employees, who carried on his personal approach to each customer. 

To this day, Captain Billy’s offers an extraordinarily broad menu of seafood dishes, all of which are the products of the in-house chefs. Many years ago, Captain Billy concocted a vegetable crab soup that remains a staple of the menu, along with cream of crab soup. Patrons can toss a coin to see which one to order, as both are spectacular. 

Reading Captain Billy’s menu is akin to looking for the word crab in a dictionary, for the listings of the variety of ways in which the crustacean can be served cover every manner imaginable. In the end, Captain Billy’s steamed hard crabs are the reason the restaurant exists. They always are large jimmies, cooked to the exact moment they are done, and served hot. Each table has a shelf full of condiments, allowing the patrons to prepare the picked meat as desired. Everything the restaurant serves is the best of its kind, whether one speaks of the apple cider vinegar on the table or the sumptuous layer cakes available for dessert.

Early in 1999, Captain Billy was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. For over a year he went back and forth to Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore for radiation treatments, while still running the restaurant on a daily basis. In March 2000, Captain Billy succumbed to the disease.

Although he was not a Catholic, his funeral service was held at Sacred Heart Church in La Plata, the largest ecclesiastical venue in Southern Maryland. Hundreds of people attended, after which his funeral procession of 200 cars wound its way to the cemetery in Newburg. Captain Billy was more than a local businessman; he deeply cared for his community and served in many civic capacities, as witnessed by the turnout for his final send-off. On his tombstone is a bronze ship’s wheel surrounding a crab, and on top of the stone is another crab carved in granite. 

Today Captain Billy’s remains the vibrant dining experience it was in his day under the management and guidance of his daughter, Celene Graves, who understands the dynamism of tradition that is his legacy from greeting the patrons to serving the best seafood on the block. To dine at Captain Billy’s is to relive a significant Southern Maryland cultural experience. 

Bon appetît!

Rappahannock Record Staff
Rappahannock Record Staff
From the Rappahannock Record news team

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