They may be "beautiful swimmers," but there are those of us who feel that crabs look best heaped on a platter, their shells crusted with Old Bay seasoning and waiting to be pried or hammered open. Add a frosty pitcher of beer and a view of the sun setting over some body of water and you have a feast for the esthete as well as the epicure.
You can, thanks to modern transportation, eat crabs all year round -- usually from Louisiana. And you can eat them in establishments far from the water's edge, from Georgia Avenue to Gaithersburg. But for a true rite of summer, you have to eat fresh local Chesapeake Bay crabs in a crabhouse from which you can watch the water. Here are seven such, none more that 45 minutes from the District, that serve Chesapeake Bay crabs. Be sure to call in advance to check on the availability and prices, which are subject to natural vicissitudes and market fluctuations. CAPTAIN PETE'S, an unassuming one-story building made conspicuous by the neon eyes on the crab over the entry, sits about 50 yards from the Potomac at Pope's Creek -- once the terminus of a railroad and now mostly a place to eat crabs. We sat at a long table near the west-facing windows -- perfect for viewing the sunset and the Nice -- actually the Governor Nice -- Bridge. When we said we wanted steamed crabs, the waitress promptly unrolled some brown paper on our table.
Before we'd even had time to play the jukebox or the pinball machines, our crabs arrived, steaming. Mallets and knives and beer, we tore into them, some of us adhering to the eat-the-claw-meat-first school and others prying off the apron and attacking the body meat first. The meat was dipped in a sauce made from white vinegar and Old Bay, a southern Maryland condiment sadly lacking in most crab establishments on the Eastern Shore.
The crabs, which averaged about 5 1/2 inches from point to point, were meaty, succulent and obviously fresh. ROBERTSON'S CRAB HOUSE, which placed the big red sign at the intersection, is Pope's Creek's largest restaurant. Its wood-paneled walls are hung with stuffed fish and the windows face west over the wide Potomac.
"Would you like menus or are you having crabs?" asked our large, affable waitress, pronouncing crabs as if it had at least three syllables.
We ordered a dozen large crabs to share, and they were fresh and delicious, perhaps a tad smaller than the large at Captain Pete's, and not quite as warm. They were delivered within five minutes after we gave our order, which made us suppose that they might have been cooked before we came -- not surprising in a large establishment with a lot of crab customers.
An English gentlewoman in our party wondered if perhaps finger bowls might be appropriate, but she was directed instead to a large sink at the entrance to the restrooms. THE OYSTERMAN'S INN and its attached marina perch on the east side of Rockhold Creek in Deale, Maryland, near where the creek flows into Herring Bay, which flows into Chesapeake Bay. Boat people enter the restaurant through the small, porch-like room with tables. Car people enter through the bar. The decor runs to gold indoor-outdoor carpeting, but service and crabs are excellent.
"They're not running real good," apologized the waitress, explaining that only medium male crabs were available. There was no need for apology, as the medium crabs were about five inches from point to point, juicy and very fresh. For dipping, we had a choice of either butter or the vinegar-and-spice combination. We also had two pitchers of beer.
And to make it all perfect, the restaurant faced west so we could watch Rockhold Creek turn pink in the sunset.
On the east side of Rockhold Creek and up a bit, less ideally situated for sunset viewing is CAPTAIN JIMMY'S CRAB HOUSE, with a large flashing neon arrow pointing the way from the road.
Captain Jimmy's turned out to be one of our very favorite crabhouses, maybe because we ate on a picnic table on the porch hung with geraniums and petunias and so close to the water that we could throw all the crackers that came with our crabs to a family of ducks. There is also a large inside room with a bar, decorated with deerheads and dartboards. There's a jukebox and pinball machines, and everyone wears a cowboy hat.
The large crabs, about six inches from point to point, were the best we had -- maybe because big chunks of crabmeat are easier to enjoy than smaller chunks -- and the beer came in mugs. Vinegar-and-spice dip accompanied the crabs. MIKE'S CRAB HOUSE in Riva, Maryland, is a big place and somewhat fancier and less downhome than the other crabhouses we visited. If you get a table by a window you can look out at the South River or at the bridge that goes over the South River and its heavy sail-and power-boat traffic. The only crabs available at the time of our visit were "mediums," but when we got them they measured about six inches across. They were served with vinegar and spice, but we had to keep asking for more vinegar as the first allotment was not very generous. Our only other complaint was that the knives we were given to open the crabs with were plastic -- making a difficult task more tedious. THE RIVERSIDE INN on Mill Creek just outside Annapolis is hard to find, noisy, crowded -- and a great place. Inside there's a big room with tables, a bar, electronic games and a jukebox that blares country music. Outside there's a deck surrounded by a chain-link fence, with lots of picnic tables overlooking the water.
At the time of our visit, only female crabs were available. Even the most ardent feminists don't relish female crabs, since the meat is generally less firm and somewhat fibrous. Females are also smaller. We ordered them anyway, however, and were pleasantly surprised to find that the meat made up in flavor what it may have lacked in texture. The usual dipping sauce was served, but beer was available only in cans, not pitchers.
Many of the Riverside's customers arrive by boat, and its dock is lined with sailboats and workboats. The workboats bring the crabs -- some of which are steamed and some of which are taken to the restaurant's shedding operation, right on the dock. There you can see crabs swimming in shallow bins until they shed their hard shells. As soon as they do, they are put aside for the Riverside's soft-shell crab sandwiches ($3.50).
The best thing that's happened to our own Southwest waterfront since before urban revewal is the newly instituted Wednesday-night crab feast at HOGATE'S, Ninth and Maine SW. Crabs, along with spareribs, hamburgers, hot dogs and oysters and clams on the half-shell, are served from 5:30 to 10 outdoors, under a yellow-and-white circus tent or at tables on the arcade overlooking the marina. There's a party-like atmosphere, a band, casual but affable-service and good, fresh local crabs at reasonable prices.
All the crabs you can eat are $10.95 per person, but less greedy -- or more realistic people -- may order ten crabs for $7.95. According to our waiter, the crabs come from Kent Island. They were obviously fresh-juicy and sweet and served hot with vinegar-and-spice dipping mixture. The crabs varied in size from about three to six inches; some came without claws, and there were some of the less desirable females thrown in. Replacements were brought frequently. Beer was $4.50 a pitcher. While you eat, you can watch the busy activity of the Washington Channel -- houseboat owners toting grocery bags to their floating homes, Washington Boat Lines craft carrying floating parties and long lines of headlights rounding Hains Point.
The Wednesday night club feasts, which are scheduled to continue until October, are popular and crowded. No reservations are taken.