Atmosphere: Strictly casual, relaxed.

Price range: From 95 cents for a hamburger to $13.50 for two lobster tails. Most dinner entrees in $5 to $7 range.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Monday.

Special facilities: Persons in wheel chairs accommodated; big parking lot; "out-door" dining room open in warm weather.

Reservations: Accepted from large Parties.

Credit cards: Visa, Master Charge.

The Cracked Claw is typical of scores of crab houses - an old wooden building illuminated by colored spotlights, pilings flanking the front foor and the smell of frying fish and bay seasoning drifting into the night air. But this salty and welcoming place is nowhere near a beach,it is on a stretch of country road between Galthersburg and Germantown.

The decor runs from nautical to personal. Mingled among the harpoons, fish nets and seashells hanging on the walls are ballons left from a party, family photographs and lots of Rotary awards and letters of commendation (including one from President Kennedy) to owner and cook John Poole for his good deeds in the community.

We felt right at home. It's a fine place to take a young children because nobody cares how much of a mess you make with your crabs and shellfish. Besides, the tableware is disposable. The waitresses, dressed in jeans, are friendly, competent and intrepid.

We skipped the appetizers - crab soup, $1.25; 21 shrimp in a basket, spiced shrimp, or oysters on the half shell for $2.25 - and plunged right into the entrees.

The choices were not easy given all the palate-pleasers, such as broiled flounder stuffed with crabmeat, lobster thermidor, crab Norfolk or a New York strip steak. Our 9-year-old daughter took the path of least resistance by having a seafood platter, $3.50, with fried oysters, scallops and shrimp.

The seafood platter was pretty standard, but my husband picked a winner with his crab imperial, $5.95, one of the evening specials. The back-fin bubbled in a mayonnaise mixture, only slightly seasoned to preserve the flavor of the crabmeat. The amount of bread used to bind the mixture was miniscule.

I chose another special, scallops in wine and lemon butter for $4.50, altogether satisfying, but in this case a little flavor. All the meals came with two vegetables, including items like onion rings, breaded mushrooms, corn fritters, applesaauce or cole slaw.

A salad from the salad bar costs $1.25,but you can build a mountain of greenery tooped with chickpeas, pickles, bacon bits, olives, grated cheese or whatever turns you on. Our 11-year-old did this while waiting for her steamed crabs to arrive.

Odering crabs is chancy at any time and especially before they start running in the Chesapeake Bay in June. Sizes and peices fluctuate, and taste depends on whether the crabs are fresh or frozen and how they are cooked.

Since children don't worry about computing all these possibilities, our daughter simply said she'd like three large crabs. Luck was on her side.

The Cracked Claw gets its crabs from Louisiana and they're fresh. Prices the night we were there ran $22 for a dozen jumbos, $16 for large and $10 for medium. Our daughter's large looked like jumbo to me, and in fact, she needed help in finishing off the last one.

At any rate, they were excellent.We were told that they were some of the best crabs the restaurant has gottne all season. Poole had done a nice job of steaming them, neither setting them on fire with spices or overcooking them.

The fact that no desserts are listed on themenu did not deter our crowd from finding out that you can get cheesecake with strawberries, blueberies of cherries. The four of us split two pieces.

Children's portions are ot on the menu either, but htey are available for the asking. People who don't like seafood or cracking crabs can get hamburgers or BLTS.

Our dinner, with extras and tip came to $30.86.