Dewey dive dishes up great crab cakes
Baltimore-born Jimmy O’Conor really has no choice but to serve a killer crabcake. After all, very few towns are as militant about their crabcakes as Charm City. Animated discussions - often fueled by beer - will certainly include such names as Gunning’s (huge orbs laced with Old Bay - make mine fried, thank you), Faidley’s (brave the line at Lexington Market for a softball-size behemoth on a fresh roll; then stand and eat it), and, of course, Obrycki’s (now closed, but they dished up meaty cakes since ‘44). Please don’t email me. I know there are at least 3,126 others. And each one is the absolute best. These are my favorites, and it’s my column.
The pocket-sized Woody’s in Dewey Beach is Jimmy O’Conor’s pride and joy. And he has certainly paid his dues. At the tender age of 15, he started working at a Rustler Steak House. By 17 he was flippin’ steaks as the broiler chef.
After 10 years as a bartender and general manager of various Baltimore hot spots, Jimmy finally left food service altogether. For the next seven years, he worked in the mortgage business, owning his own title company in Frederick, Md.
It seemed like business as usual on the day he was asked to handle the mortgage for his friend, Lisa Wheeler, who was buying a house in Dewey Beach. On settlement day, Lisa introduced him to her Realtor, Anne Marie Delle Donne. Sparks flew. It wasn’t long before he was commuting back and forth between Maryland and Delaware. He coos, “Anne Marie was the best commission I ever got!” Little did he know that it would end up saving his life.
Jimmy thought he was finished with the food business, but it wasn’t finished with him. Through the former owners of her new house, Lisa let Jimmy in on a secret: Big Mike’s Frozen Tundra, a little joint tucked away on the east side of Coastal Highway, was about to be offered for sale. Jimmy completed the purchase and moved here permanently in 2009. By the time the licensing and inspection hoop-jumping was done, Highway One LP had opened Jimmy’s Grille across the street, deep-sixing O’Conor’s plan to turn Big Mike’s into Jimmy O’s. And thus was born Woody’s East Coast Bar & Grill.
This paragraph was supposed to be about Woody’s particularly tasty crab cakes and burgers, but after our interview I discovered that in June 2011, Jimmy found himself in dire need of a kidney. In order to overcome donor incompatibility, a Kidney Exchange Program facilitated the donation of one of Anne Marie’s kidneys to a woman in Baltimore. In turn, the woman’s daughter donated one of hers to Jimmy. Now there’s an all-around win-win if there ever was one!
After that heartwarming story, it seems anticlimactic to jump right back into crabmeat and ground beef. But this is The Business of Eating, after all, and that’s why we’re gathered here today. Armed with his brand-new kidney (and irrefutable proof of Anne Marie’s affection), Jimmy is a tireless, hands-on owner. Anne Marie chips in when she can, and if you like the food enough to hang around, you can always buy a house from her.
Though his intention was for Woody’s to be known for the ultimate hamburger, it turns out that the crab cakes consistently pack ‘em in. Both sandwiches benefit from a grilled roll that gently caresses its contents with a fresh, eggy consistency. The harder I pushed to find out where he gets them, the more he dug in his heels.
But you can get them for dinner seven nights, even in the winter, and for lunch on weekends. If you visit in the spring, however, Jimmy and Anne Marie might not be there to greet you. Apparently they have their eyes on an island somewhere south of here as the perfect place to tie the knot. How’s that for merging crabs, real estate and kidneys into a cool love story?