Before we entered the season of lost gym shorts, missed carpools and 17 parents' meetings a week, the family took a last shot at summer's freedom by going to the Chesapeake Crab House over on Piney Branch Road.

A fixture in Silver Spring for 25 years, the Crab House was doing a brisk business when we arrived. The place is decorated in Seafood Traditional, the practical style preferred by most crab houses: bare floors, bright lights, laminated plastic tabletops and plastic tableware right down to the beer mugs. Two wash basins are installed outside the restrooms for co-ed scrubbing after crab picking.

Despite the informality, a hostess was there to greet us and steer us to a table. Fast on her heels was a waitress who cheerfully offered her name and delivered our drink orders within seconds.

The menu offered standard items - fried shrimp, crab cakes, oysters and so on. Steamed crabs came in about five different sizes and the waitress obligingly brought out a demonstration tray with several of them neatly arranged in order from the itsy-bitsy ones ($7 a dozen) to the family-sized crabs ($24 a dozen).

My husband started off with a passable homemade crab soup. I steeled myself against the snide comments I knew my offspring would make and ordered a half dozen raw clams on the half shell (I got seven). In an unexpected burst of courage, our 9-year-old asked for a bite. Her reaction can go unrecorded, but to me the clams were fine except they should have been colder.

In rapid order, out entrees were served. My husband's filet of cod, $3.75, a rectangle of frozen fish dipped in batter and fried, arriving hot and still firm. But it was a bland dish nonetheless.

Our 12-year-old was happy with her fried shrimp. $4.75. She also got a boatload of french fries and cole slaw. Oddly enough, the slaw was noticeable good, not the usual limp minced cabbage drowning pitifully in a watery dressing.

My youngest and I shared a pile of medium crabs snatched, we were told, from the coastal waters off Texas and Louisiana, and flown to Piney Branch Road still kicking.(Despite the restaurant's name, Chespeake Bay crabs were having an off year, sending the management south for its supply.)

Our waitress brought us little cups of vinegar and melted butter and a roll of paper towels, and silence fell over the table as we meticulously picked away. I did not disturb my daughter's ecstasy by saying I thought the crabs were overcooked. This is passed along with some hesitation since others have proclaimed the Chesapeake's steamers as excellent. It all depends on who's minding the pot . . .

Besides platters and steamed crabs, the Chesapeake offers seafood sandwiches, soft-shell crabs, fried shrimp and the like, in the $1.35 to $2.75 range. Children's dinners cost $3.25. Fresh crab cocktail comes in at a whopping $5.50.

Chef Pierre's cheesecake was in order for dessert, and our waitress refilled our coffee cups periodically to revive us for the trip home.

Our farewell to summer cost $29.93. Chesapeake Crab House

8214 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring 589-9868.

Hours: Noon to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. on Sunday.

Atmosphere: A cheerful place where people wearing suits and ties look silly.

Price range: Platters in $4 to $7 range; crabs from $7 to $24 a dozen, depending on size.

Credit Cards: Master Charge, Visa.

Reservations: Not required.

Special Facilities: Parking out front and across the road; booster seats and high chairs; accessible by wheelchair, children's platters.