A byline on page 55 of today's Weekend section was inadvertently deleted. The story about area crabhouses was written by Marianne Kyriakos. (Published 7/17/87)
IS ALL THIS TALK of crabs conjuring up heady thoughts of the briny deep, but none of getting your kitchen seaworthy? Then it's time to take a summer night's drive to the gentle shores of Bethesda -- or wherever -- for just the place to tie one on (a bib, that is): the crabhouse.
The Bethesda Crab House, one of a couple dozen scattered around Washington, is a 27-year favorite and breath-of-sea-air in this little town that time (and developers nearby) didn't forget.
The first thing you'll notice is the magnificent modesty: A simple, dark-paneled room. No music. Cases of Bud and Miller Lite stacked against the wall. Kegs waiting in line on a table beside the small brick bar. TV sets in all four corners of the room. Judging from the graphic evidence of crustacean carnage all around, it's a safe guess as to who's ahead in the ancient battle between hardshell and Homo sapiens.
Outside, the front patio beckons -- pots of hanging impatiens and fuschia, big picnic tables, concrete floor, yellow-and-white canopy over all (but stay away from that adorable lattice-decorated dumpster unless it's downwind).
Proprietor Henry Vechery, 52, is no stylish butter-tongued Duke, but a hands-on kinda guy. His sad blue eyes, battered clothes and humble demeanor tell you that he's nothing if not a nice man who works hard. He sits down for a moment, rubs his knees. "I spend my time at a restaurant, 18-hour days. Have to, I got five kids that live with me. I mop the floors, I do all the ordering, I do all the worrying. In the wintertime, I take three or four days off, but I can't wait to get back here."
His business is at the mercy of those twists of nature that determine the annual crab harvest. "The crabhouses don't set the prices, the brokers who buy from the watermen do," Vechery explains. "But if we yell loud enough, they drop the prices. I always tell people who are planning a party to wait until after the Fourth of July, because the brokers traditionally drop their prices that week."
And then there are the seasons when no one is in the swim. "During the red tide a few years ago, we couldn't make any money because the death rate was so high." A pause. "For the crabs, I mean, not the customers."
Here, the pounding of mallet against claw is perpetual; Vechery likes to brag that he has crabs to sell when everyone else in town is dry. "We've been dealing with the same people down in St. Michaels for 25 years. They take care of us first." He also owns a crab factory in Louisiana, where he buys year-round from crabbers and ships to other crabhouses.
But when it comes to the method for cooking his product, he passes up another Louisiana legacy: boiling the heck out of seafood. Vechery prefers to steam with plain water, Chesapeake Bay style, and seasons with a cinammon-scented custom blend from a Baltimore spice company. "People laugh at us in New Orleans for steaming crabs," he laughs. No vinegar in the steam -- that leaves a funny smell, he says -- nor does he douse them with brew, because you can do that yourself, further down the line.
At Bethesda Crab House, no printing costs are wasted on the menu. The blackboard sums up why you're here in two words: Crabs. Shrimp. Unless you had a craving for the potato chips. "Let me tell you something," says Vechery, as he unloads the first of 20 leakproof boxes of Maryland's finest, alive and pinching, from a truck at the curb. "If people want a seafood platter, they go to a high-class restaurant, and they don't want the guy at the next table banging away on crabs."
At the next table, Steve and Marlin Perkins of Chevy Chase and their friend Jim McInerny of Atlanta are banging away on crabs. "We're anti-trend," says Steve Perkins, explaining the group's need for a crab feast before noon on a Sunday. "The trendy places? Definitely not. This is a place where you can get down and dirty. And you don't have to wear your collar up -- you can just be sloppy and eat crabs."
"We're not showering this weekend," adds McInerny.
The showering habits of the rest of the clientele are not known, but some of their names are: Bethesda Crab House, believe it or not, is part of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, at least locally, with regulars such as Willard Scott, Sugar Ray Leonard, Maury Povich, J.C. Hayward and Rep. Tom McMillen (D-Md.). "And who is that guy who's gonna be president of the United States?" asks Vechery. "Oh yeah, Bill Bradley. He eats crabs here."
In the steamy little kitchen, it all boils down to this: Vechery manning the pots, gazing hopefully at what is, for him, the color of money: a lovely blue turned fire-orange. "If you don't make hay while the sun shines," he says, "when ya gonna make it?"
The following are some of the best places to crack your crabs in the D.C. area. (And don't overlook the seafood trucks parked around town all summer. These fishmongers purchase from local wholesale markets and are a reliable, safe source of live crabs. Prices fluctuate according to location and the crab harvest, but are lower than seafood markets or take-out establishments.) BETHESDA CRAB HOUSE
4958 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda. 652-3382. Daily crab feasts begin at noon on weekends and by 4 weekdays, $14.95 with a two-hour time limit, call ahead for reservations. Open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m. to midnight.
THE ORIGINAL CHESAPEAKE CRAB HOUSE
8214 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring. 589-9868. Crab feast $13.95, no time limit. Open noon to 10:30 daily.
CHESAPEAKE CRAB & SEAFOOD SHOP OF VIRGINIA
3607 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 528-8888. Open 11 to 10 every day in summer. Crab feast, $10.95, no time limit. For many years run as a carryout crabhouse by a crusty old waterman, now operated as a restaurant and carryout by a charming Asian family who are the equals of anyone in the Chesapeake region in the matter of steaming crabs.
BOBBY'S GREAT AMERICAN CRAB HOUSE
4231 Duke St., Alexandria. 823-5111. Crab feast $14.95, no time limit. The pride of Bobby's kitchen is a giant old boiler that once heated a 200-unit apartment building. "We can do a lotta steamin', " says manager Paul Kelly, as he adjusts the amounts of beer and vinegar that scent the steam.
8815 Lee Hwy., Fairfax. 560-0060. All-you-can-eat crab feasts are $12.50 anytime. Open Monday to Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday, 3 p.m. to midnight; Saturday, noon to midnight; Sunday, noon to 11 p.m.
ERNIE'S ORIGINAL CRAB HOUSE
1623 Fern St., Alexandria. 836-1623. A local institution in the 1940s, Ernie's is still doing its nightly crab feast from 5 to 10 p.m. ($12.95, no time limit). Open daily noon to midnight.
4611 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 244-1882. No take-outs, crabs sold by the dozen. All-you-can-eat Tuesday through Thursday, 6:30 to 10 p.m., $12.95. Tends to be noisy and populated by local news types from nearby Broadcast Row. Open Monday through Thursday 11 to 11, Friday till midnight; Saturday, noon to midnight; Sunday, 3 to 11 p.m.
BOTTOM OF THE BAY
9590 North Laurel Rd., Laurel. 498-1040. Crab feasts daily; noon to 10 p.m.; $10.95, no time limit. Open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
WHEATON CRAB HOUSE
11210 Grandview Ave., Wheaton. 942-CRAB. Crab feasts 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, $11.95. Open Monday through Friday 2 p.m. to midnight, Saturday and Sunday noon to midnight.
18314 Contour Rd., Gaithersburg. 258-9445. Crab feasts served with crab soup and slaw on the side all day Sunday, and 5 to 8:30 Monday through Thursday (no time limit, $14.95). Open Monday through Wednesday 11:30 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Sunday till 10:30. Take out, too.
CANTLER'S RIVERSIDE INN
Forest Beach Rd., Annapolis. 301/757-1467. (U.S. 50 to the Howard Johnson's, right onto Old Mill Road, right onto St. Margaret's Road; two miles to a U-turn at Sandy's Country Store, next right Forest Beach Road, follow to end.) Hard to find, but the outdoor terraces overlooking Mill's Creek make it hard to forget. Daily crab feasts are $12, 11 to 9 Monday through Thursday, 11 to 10 Friday and Saturday, 11 to 8 Sunday. Open daily 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till midnight.
4103 Baltimore Ave., Bladensburg. 277-9304. All-you-can-eat shrimp and crab feasts are $16.95 anytime. Open 11 to 10 Monday through Friday, 5 to 11 weekends.
MIKE'S CRAB HOUSE
3030 Old Riva Rd. (at the Riva Bridge), Annapolis. 956-2784. Waterfront views and dock facilities; '50s and country bands on weekends; crab feasts Monday through Friday, beginning at noon, three-hour time limit, $12.95. Open 11 to 11 daily; weekends 11 to 2 a.m.
ROBERTSON'S CRAB HOUSE
Popes Creek Road, Popes Creek, south of Waldorf and La Plata near U.S. 301. 301/934-9236. Robertson's is just one of the many crab houses in the tiny community of Popes Creek, where some say the brackish water in this part of the Potomac gives up the best blue crabs in the world. Look for a table by a window, where you can watch the crabbers pull up to the piers and unload the day's catch. Open Monday through Saturday, 11 to 11; Sunday, 11 to 10.