For more than two years, hungry Southwest Waterfront visitors have followed the smell of seafood to its historic fish market, seeking a fried meal fit for the watery view. Their growling stomachs were instead rewarded with limited, light options for anyone feeling snacky: oysters on the half shell, steamed crabs and shrimp, and cups of hot soup.
For disappointed tourists, locals, and Anthem concert-goers alike, that failed quest for a fried bit of sea creature will end this Saturday, February 10, when longtime monger Jessie Taylor Seafood brings back fried fish, shrimp, scallops, and crab cakes to the centuries-old Municipal Fish Market (1100 Maine Avenue SW).
The Evans family — which has owned Jessie Taylor for nearly 100 years — will also introduce broiled crab cakes, scallops, and some fish for those who aren’t feeling fried, as well as regular and sweet potato fries, macaroni salad, and coleslaw.
The newly supersized menu debuts the same day a sea of beard-wearing fans flock to the Wharf for its festive Mardi Gras parade.
Marylouise Evans, Jessie Taylor’s marketing manager and the wife of manager Greg Evans, says all of the fish fry recipes come from the wives of the men who own and manage the market. Sandra Evans, a member of the Smith Island family known for its crustacean-packed patties, handles the Maryland crab cake recipe.
“Chelton Evans’ wife, her crab cakes are just amazing. You’re getting crab meat in that, not a ball with filler,” says Marylouise Evans. “Our seafood is going to be prepared the Smith Island way, I guarantee it.”
The wafting scent of greasy fried fish used to draw long lines to the floating barges tied down to the end of the waterfront. But the fryers shut down in November 2021, when Jessie Taylor’s main competitor, long-running purveyor Captain White’s Seafood, set sail and relocated to Oxon Hill, Maryland following a failed lawsuit against the Wharf’s developers.
As a result, too many guests have had to turn to cups of soup for sustenance at Southwest fish market because they don’t have any other choice.
“You can see that the whole place is tourism now,” says Marylouise Evans. “We’ve noticed that if events go on at the Wharf, people come down and get hot soup because they can’t get anything else. So we have to have something else that we can put in people’s hands.”
The departure of Captain White’s left Jessie Taylor as the sole anchor of the once-bustling fish hub that dates back to 1805. While Captain White’s sold fish sandwiches, hush puppies, and other fried bites alongside live crabs and raw seafood, Jessie Taylor focused solely on the fresh side of the business, offering a wide selection including raw whole salmon, branzino, trout, flounder, and other fish, mounds of cut up squid, piles of oysters, tubs of lump crabmeat, and live blue crabs in every size.
Like most businesses in the underwater world, Jessie Taylor is still run entirely by many generations of one family. The family operation began in the 1930s, when Chelton Evans boated up from Smith Island in the Chesapeake to sell fish off the pier at the waterfront. The descendants of Chelton and his brothers, Fillmore and Stanley Evans, now see fish-mongering as their natural occupation.
Though the Evans brothers grew up on Smith Island, most of the family live in Salisbury and Princess Anne, Maryland, now that the population of the island has shrunk to just over 200 people. The Evans men — and the few women who help out with the daily operations of the business — commute up for one week at a time, living behind the barges and then returning home to Maryland for a week off.
Marylouise Evans credits the Smith Island community and their church for keeping the family united over the business for four generations. The company has managed to thrive, despite the fact that many branches of the family tree now split up the day-to-day operations.
“Our government was our church. We grew up with a different perspective about how people should get along. We grew up very grounded, we were taught respect for one another. The main thing is our family, the Evans family,” she says.
Most of those working and managing today started at the Wharf in their early teens, like Stan Evans. He’s is in his late-30s now, and he remembers — and then dismisses — his few early years of doubt about whether he’d spend his life at Jessie Taylor with a shake of the head.
“It’s a blessing that we’ve been so lucky,” he says on a cold February day, tossing angrily protesting blue crabs into the appropriate bins as he reflects on the decades he’s spent at the fish market.
Business has been good for the Evans family since Captain White’s exit left them a monopoly, with loyal local buyers continuing to travel for fresh fish and the redevelopment of the Wharf drawing new tourists to the area. On the day Stan Evans speaks with Eater, he has to fill an order for hundreds of pounds of salmon for a restaurant just down the block. It’s the kind of order he’s seeing more of every week, as the Wharf’s mile-long scenic stretch continues to fill out its $3.6-billion second phase with a growing cast of dining options.
This year, Jessie Taylor Seafood signed a new 20-year lease with the Hoffman-Madison Waterfront developers and began expanding into some of the space left behind by Captain White. While Jessie Taylor will get new barges, more storage and freezer space for crabs and fish, and fresh signs as part of the expansion plan, the fish market will remain a notable exception from the polish, glitz, and glamor that characterizes the rest of the waterfront.
“They told us that they definitely wanted us there. We are the cornerstone of the marketplace now,” Marylouise Evans said.