{sstar}{sstar} (2 stars) Stoney's Seafood House

Oyster House Road (near Broomes Island Road), Broomes Island, Md. 410-586-1888. www.stoneysseafoodhouse.com

Open: Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closes for the season at end of October. D, MC, V. No reservations. Separate smoking area. Limited wheelchair access. Parking lot. Other locations: 14442 Main Street, Solomons, Md., 410-394-0236; Fox Run Shopping Center, 545 North Solomons Island Rd., Prince Frederick, Md., 410-535-1888. Prices: appetizers $4.25 to $15, entrees $7.50 to $17.95. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip, $30 to $50 per person.

There are no obvious markers pointing the way to Stoney's Seafood House, 50 miles southeast of downtown Washington on Calvert County's Broomes Island, but you know you're getting closer as the signs for fresh shrimp, crab, scallops, corn and peaches grow more plentiful along the roadside. Advertised on homemade signs and sold from inside tents or off the backs of trucks by local farmers and fishermen, the edible treasures practically shout "summer!" and inevitably whet your appetite for a meal on the water.

To that end, Stoney's is one of any number of watery directions a seafood lover might take outside the city. This one, named for co-owner Phillip Stone, a Calvert native, has even replicated itself since opening in 1988, with two other locations, in Prince Frederick (1993) and in Solomons (2003).

"Inside or out?" the hostess asks at the entrance. "Out," you should answer if you want the most vivid crab-eating experience. Frankly, a post-hurricane (and ongoing) renovation has left the interior of the Stoney's on Broomes Island with a shiny gloss and "new car" smell, which takes away from the down-and-dirty appeal of a crab joint with some years behind it. Beyond the mounted fish and hanging nets of the main dining room, the outdoor space unfolds on two levels, one of which is a solid deck, the other a wooden barge that creaks and moans as it bobs up and down in the water, gently rubbing against the dock. Add to these sounds the putt-putt of motorboats and the flip-flop of sandals and you've got a fine summer concert to eat by.

The star of the show is crab, of course, which can be sampled almost a dozen different ways: It comes as a dip, as a salad, in bite-size "balls" or in excellent, crusty-edged half-pound cakes the size of muffins. All three of the kitchen's soups have crab in them, and if you order a Bloody Mary, a claw dangles on the rim of the glass. There's a sandwich plump with soft-shell crabs (in season), and then there's the primary reason for my visit: hard-shell crabs, gently steamed, accented with a peppery, brick-red seasoning and served on tables spread with brown paper. (Note: Hard-shells are not a meal for the Felix Ungers of the world.)

The uninitiated can ask a server to show them the ropes, as one of my companions did. With finesse and speed, the waitress broke apart a crustacean, separating meat from shell in less than a minute. "It's a lot of work, but it's pretty good," she said as she completed the task. She had that right. While the price tag for fresh crab -- $36 for a dozen of mixed sizes, $56 for a dozen jumbo-size creatures on my last visit -- reminds me that crab is a luxury, the clean, sweet, sea-scented taste is sensational. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a restaurant so close to its source of ingredients. "Where do you get your crabs from?" one of my tablemates wondered on another visit. Squinting into the sun and pointing at the water, our young guide replied, "They're all coming from the Patuxent River there." Not every employee is as forthcoming as those two, but most of the staff does an admirable job of seeing that you get what you need in a timely fashion.

Plain is prime at Stoney's, where I prefer anything steamed to anything fried. Steamed shrimp (a half-pound makes a nice appetizer for two) with melted butter proves tender and sweet, a first-class introduction to lunch or dinner. Meaty cherrystone clams also taste recently plucked from the water. From the fryer, however, emerge virtually bulletproof hush puppies, stiff battered shrimp and dull rockfish, all of which too closely resemble something you could find in the supermarket freezer case.

Of the soups, I'm partial to the straightforward seafood chowder, crammed with scallops, clams, carrots and potatoes, and dusted with Old Bay seasoning for a little heat. Cream of crab soup is tiresome after a few spoonfuls. And "the old time Stone family recipe" for Broomes Island crab soup, its red broth thick with lima beans, celery, corn and more, tastes too much like something I've had from a can (albeit one with a reliable label on it). Beer is the best partner to much of this food, but for something punchier -- and if you're not the driver -- try the no-holds-barred rum runner cocktail.

A customer doesn't have to eat seafood to appreciate Stoney's. The sleeper on the menu turns out to be barbecued pork, sweet and smoky shreds of which are tucked inside a soft bun and presented as a sandwich with coleslaw. The soft, warm meat and the crunchy, cool cabbage make a winning combination.

The key to success at Stoney's is finding what works and sticking with it. So don't save room for dessert, at least not the strawberry shortcake served here. The confection involves mountains of canned whipped cream and a book-size slab of yellow cake that might as well be Hostess.

Consider picking up something sweet on the way home instead. You can't beat a peach, fresh off the back of a truck, and there are several sources likely to be calling out to you.

Ask Tom

During a recent dinner at Bistrot du Coin in Dupont Circle, Anthony Chowney of Washington requested a typical French condiment -- mayonnaise -- for his french fries. To his surprise, he was billed $1 for it. "Since mayonnaise is after all a condiment, much like salt, pepper and catsup," he wrote in an e-mail, "I questioned the charge." He was told that the mayonnaise was made in-house, and was listed on the menu for $1. He wrote, "As this was an unusual practice (what next, an extra charge for dishes seasoned with sel de mer?) and one I'd never considered, I asked that the $1 charge be removed from the check. No one seemed willing. Even the manager said that there was nothing she could do." Contacted by phone for a response, owner Michel Verdon defended the charge, explaining that food prices have gone up; that the cost of the daily-made sauce is clearly stated on the menu; and that while he could easily charge more for dishes served with mayonnaise, he is reluctant to do so because not every diner wants mayonnaise. But on the few occasions a customer has questioned the extra cost in his presence, Verdon said, he has removed it from the tab. Frankly, I don't object to a restaurant charging extra for made-from-scratch mayonnaise; like fresh wasabi and genuine maple syrup, it makes a meal more special. But the manager should have been more of a diplomat in her response.

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include daytime telephone number.