I remember when the Rusty Scupper opened back in 1982. There wasn’t much else in that corner of the Inner Harbor where Key Highway changes course from East-West to North-South. Historic Federal Hill, once topped with Union army cannons trained on the city center during the Civil War, stood silently nearby. The open park-like space called Rash Field was just to the left of the Scupper, with an occasional warehouse dotting the southwestern edge of the harbor. The Maryland Science Center on the other side of Rash Field was the closest attraction, and the recently-opened and already uber-popular Harborplace was waaaaay down the promenade on the other side of the water.
My Mom enjoyed walking from our home in Fells Point to the Inner Harbor, and on especially fine days would want to stroll all the way to Federal Hill, despite the whining kids (my brother and I) who accompanied her. The Scupper was a fine place to have something to eat before the long walk home, or in many cases, the long wait for Dad to fetch us in the car. (Today, we could take a water taxi.) The Rusty Scupper was also the site of my first experience with oysters on the half shell; I must admit it was somewhat against my will. My beau at the time was a big fan of raw bivalves and insisted that I sample at least one of the half dozen he had ordered for himself. The gray, gelatinous-looking blobs sitting in puddles of their own perspiration held no appeal for me, but if I wanted to eat the shrimp cocktail and crab cakes I had ordered, I’d have to try one. I suppose I could have refused and paid for my own food, but this was the 90s and I was not yet making the beaucoup bucks I’m making now as a food writer. (I’m lying. There are few bucks at all to be made as a food writer.) Plus I didn’t want to be known as a wuss, a foodie poseur, although perhaps I was at the time. I heaped on as much cocktail sauce as I thought the oyster could bear, then slurped the whole thing down without chewing. It wasn’t as nightmarish as my first taste of raw tuna nearly a decade earlier, but a good handful of years passed before I tried a second raw oyster.
The Rusty Scupper’s interior appears much the same today as it did back then, with heavy wooden timbers that evoke a bit of what it must have felt like to be on an old sailing vessel. I say “a bit” because I’ve been below decks on the U.S.S. Constellation over at Pier 4; people in those days must have been much smaller, because the space is pretty claustrophobic for today’s larger humans. The Rusty Scupper is much airier and wide-open-feeling than an actual Civil War-era war ship, with high ceilings and walls of windows that offer a near-panoramic view of the harbor. Those views were somewhat less-interesting when the restaurant opened, but the boom of construction around the Inner Harbor in the 90s and the emergence of Harbor East across the way have made the sights far more attractive. This is true particularly toward sunset, as the last light of day bounces off the water to twinkle in the glass facades of the highrises nearby.
By the way, the Inner Harbor restaurant was actually the third Rusty Scupper in Maryland. The original was north of the City in Towson; the second was in the planned community of Columbia, in Howard County. At one point there were 17 locations across the country. Now there is only one, which makes it special. The restaurant’s menu has always been seafood-forward, and that still holds true today. Though the menu is inspired by the Chesapeake Bay region and indigenous seafood, you’ll also find modern favorites like crispy Parmesan-breaded calamari and coconut shrimp, plus popular fish selections from up and down the Atlantic, like salmon, mahi mahi, and swordfish. The restaurant’s jumbo lump crab cakes are popular and can be had as either a single cake appetizer or a double entree, a sandwich, or part of a combination platter. You can also add one to any entree. On past visits, I’ve very much enjoyed the cedar plank salmon with crab, and I’m quite fond of the spinach salad with pears, candied walnuts, gorgonzola, and blueberries. If you’re not feeling particularly fish-y, the Rusty Scupper has a selection of steaks, pastas, and a lone chicken dish. There’s a burger, too. And don’t forget to order something sweet to finish the meal. The restaurant offers Maryland’s state dessert, the Smith Island cake, in a serving large enough to share, but the Fuji apple bread pudding is my fave.
I will admit that the Rusty Scupper is a little pricey, but if you want to experience the place somewhat on the cheap, check out their Monday – Friday Happy Hour. In addition to reasonably priced featured cocktails, wine, and beer, you can get food items like a crab cake sandwich, coconut shrimp, shrimp cocktail, or spicy seared yellowfin tuna for somewhere between 30-35% off regular menu prices. Ordering a bacon cheeseburger and a glass of merlot, and splitting an order of artichoke and crab dip with a friend will set you back around $20 before tip.
The Rusty Scupper
Minxeats Baltimore food blogger and Co-author of the new book, Maryland’s Chesapeake: How the Bay and its Bounty Shaped a Cuisine, plus Food Lovers’ Guide to Baltimore, and Baltimore Chef’s Table.
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