The secret Fenwick Crab House crabcake recipe is locked away in a safe at an undisclosed location.
The dish has been named “The Perfect Crab Cake” by the New York Times, voted Delaware Today’s Reader’s Choice “Best Crab Cakes” three years running and “Best Crab Cake in Delaware” by state-wide publications, among other awards.
But while that recipe hasn’t changed since 1988, only two people know just exactly how it reads.
With owners Scott and Cathy Fornwalt now ready to pass the torch, new owners Pat McArdle and Todd Hays are ready to take on protecting that secret recipe and the Fornwalt legacy at the state’s most historic crab house (est. 1962).
“The traditions of this place were incredible,” said McArdle. “We’re going to continue Scott and Cathy’s, but we also want to add to ours. We want to look out for their reputation and create our own. Our big thing is satisfy the customer, no matter what it takes.”
Even though he’s recently retired, Fornwalt will stay on to continue making his famous crabcakes, with McArdle now serving as the new face of the business.
A long-time local, McArdle got his start in hospitality working at Embers in Ocean City, Md., during college. It’s there, he said, that he realized his dream was to one day own his own restaurant, while developing an appreciation for the industry.
“When I worked at Embers, I had the most fun I ever had. Everybody that works in a restaurant becomes family,” he said. “I like people. I’m a people-person — always have been.”
When it came time to raise his six kids, however, he wanted a business where he could keep an eye on them while making a living at the same time, so he launched Golf Down Under in Fenwick Island.
Hays has been involved with projects including the Lazy Lizard in downtown Ocean City, Md., as well as brewing private-label beer for local restaurants.
With the restauranteurs’ different experience and background, they decided to team up after they were approached by the Fornwalts when the business went up for sale.
“Now this is the dream,” McArdle said. “I used to eat here all the time. I used to come over from Golf Down Under when I needed a break, and I’ve known Scott for quite a while. It was something that we had been talking about.”
“Pat’s got a great personality. He loves his business. He’s a people-person, and he’s not shy,” Hays said of the partnership. “That’s what people like at restaurants.”
While staples such as the crabcakes, award-winning baby-back ribs, fried chicken and other fan favorites aren’t going anywhere, McArdle and Hays are putting their own unique spin on the menu and the atmosphere.
They’ve already added four new steamers and a new carryout area around the back of the building for crabs to-go, amped up the Happy Hour menu and the wine selection, are now offering pitchers of beer for table-service and even brought in head chef Ted O’Donnell from Washington, D.C.
“We are very fortunate to have Chef Ted. He’s putting out just incredible dishes,” said McArdle, noting O’Donnell’s extensive seafood background from running kitchens in the D.C. area, including The Dancing Crab and Steamers in Bethesda, Md.
In addition to $2 drafts, some of the new Happy Hour choices include crabcake sliders, “Black & Bleu” filet sandwich sliders, shrimp cocktail, crab cocktail and more.
Other O’Donnell offerings on the menu include cream-of-crab soup, seafood chowder (full of scallops, shrimp, lobster and crab), crab imperial, steamed lobster (always 1.5-pounders, but call ahead for larger sizes), softshells, an array of new sandwiches and tacos, and, of course, steamers.
“Our crabs are different than the rest,” McArdle said. “Ours are bigger than the rest. You’ve got to be fair to people. We’re all about giving people the value.”
Right now, their hauls are coming in largely from local spots in Maryland, with the jumbos being delivered from Louisiana.
The word of the wide selection and commitment to customer is already starting to spread, as made evident by a pre-Memorial Day El Niño-avoiding trip to the shore by some new customers looking to find out what all the hype was about.
“We had people drive down last weekend just to have dinner, from Washington D.C.,” McArdle described of the incident that he had been particularly taken by.
“They were craving crabs, with the weather and not getting outside, and had heard that our crabs were better than any other place on the shore. So they came down and ate crabs, then drove back to D.C. That was pretty cool.”
And it’s not just the newcomers flocking to Fenwick. Even long-time customers have been impressed with the place’s new vibe, including Dr. Mark “Doc” Brown of Bethany Dental Associates.
“The staff is wonderful. They always have been. Right from Scott, the previous owner, to Pat, the new owner, I feel like home when I’m here,” said Brown.
Those with firmly instituted Fenwick Crab House traditions will be glad to know that, while there are certainly some new faces as well, that same friendly staff is still around, and, yes, the train still runs.
As for the future, the restauranteurs have big plans.
Not only will renovations get under way at the end of the season, to expand into the next building and add another 80 to 100 seats; not only have they added the separate carryout wing around back for customer convenience; they’re even opening up another carryout location in the Bayville Shopping Center on Route 54 across from Mallard Lakes, set to be ready to go in the next few weeks.
Other future plans include private label beer, rooftop and outdoor seating, and even a possible distillery in the works.
“We’re gonna put booths all down the side, and then this bar is gonna be a horseshoe. It’ll be an island bar,” Hays said of the interior renovations set to take place this winter. “We’re gonna keep mixing it up. We’re gonna have some fun here.”
No matter what the future holds, however, for McArdle, Hays and the rest of the Crab House crew, it’s still all about the people.
“It’s teamwork. It takes the Fenwick Crab House family to take care of a family coming in. That’s the way we look at it,” McArdle said. “People can eat anywhere. We want them to come here and have not just a dining experience, but a fantastic time, too.”
The Fenwick Crab House is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, and is located at 100 Coastal Highway in Fenwick Island, on the bayside, just south of the Village of Fenwick and north of Viking Golf.
The restaurant does not take reservations, but large parties can call ahead to be accommodated. For carryout, call (302) 539-2500. To have crabcakes or other menu items shipped nationwide, visit www.crabcakeexpress.com.