Hours: 5 p.m. until 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 2 p.m. until 10 p.m., Sunday.

Price Range: Dinners range from $4.95 to $7.95; sandwiches from $1.50 to $2.75 (for soft shell crab); a la carte items from $1.75 for clam chowder to $2 for 6 clams or oysters on half shell, to $5.50 for spiced shrimp. Crabs run from $8.50 to $21 per dozen, depending on size, or $9.95 per person for all you can eat (plus 50 cents for each dozen you eat at the Crab House).

Atmosphere: Very informal.

Credit Cards: Cash only -- no credit and no checks.

Reservations: Accepted only for large parties. The restaurant is crowded Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays.

Special Facilities: Booster chairs. Wheelchair access.

There is no such thing as fancy crab house. Customers who frequent crab houses may not know bechamel sauce from bearnaise, but this part of the country they do tend to know crabs, and they come back not for fancy recipes but because they know they can get good crabs, reasonably priced and well-seasoned.

Crab houses have a democratic air -- almost defiantly anti-elite. Everyone dresses casually and table manners don't count for much. It's as if crab houses deny all the layers of civilization between now and the days when people ate with their bare hands. All that's there between you and primitive gluttony is a table covered with brown paper, a mallet to smash the crabs with, a knife to pick out the meat and a pile of paper towels for napkins. So as long as your like crabs -- and our kids love them -- a crab house is ideal for family outings.

Apart from its merits as a crab house, Ernie's Original Crab House -- a little touch of the boardwalk off Shirley Highway in Alexandria -- is worth taking your family to simply as an escape from urban stress.

The decor is comfortingly tacky -- like the murals at a 1950s prom when the theme was Ebb Tide. Three pinball machines and a jukebox make Ernies's a great place for children. Fortunately, the restaurant, which seats 150, is large and absorbs the noise pretty well.

Eating is what Ernie's is about -- hard core eating that moves beyond the concept of mere portions. For $9.95 a person, Ernie's will serve you all the crab you can eat on the premises (no sharing on these orders).Unless you think you'll eat over a dozen crabs, however, it may be worth order a specific quantity and sharing. Small crabs are $8.50 a dozen, medium $13, Large $17 and jumbo $21. In each case, add 50 cents a dozen for "eating in." Crabs, as well as beer and wine, are sold "on or off," to be consumed there or taken home.

The heftiest eater in our party ordered all he could eat -- and was full at 12 crabs, so for him a chance at gluttony was uneconomical. On the advice of the friendly woman who served us, we ordered a dozen small crabs for the girls and me to share -- and because we ordered three other dishes as well, we just managed to finished them. You also can order by the half dozen but didn't realize this until after we had ordered.

We were the only ones in the place who ordered sometimes besides crabs. Ernie's also serves oysters, clams, shrimp, scallops, crab cakes, hamburgers and chicken. We shared scallops, a soft-shelled crab sandwhich and spiced shrimp. c

For $5.50 you get 14 medium-sized shrimp that are adequate, though nothing to write home home about. The scallops, like most of the non-crab seafood on the menu, was coated with batter and deep-fried. Once you got through the crunchy outer coating, the bay scallops inside were sweet and juicy, but this indelicate method of cooking scallops is a shame. We left half of them on our plate.

We regretted not ordering a plateful of the soft-shelled crab sandwhich. The crab is served with tartar sauce on a hamburger bun, which we threw aside as unfitting after two bites of the crab. Lightly crisp on the outside, plump moist and delicious on the inside, this prefectly cooked soft-shell was one of the best we've tasted.

Ernie's french fries are thin, cooked to order and worth ordering. The slaw, though is dry and skippable. There are no other vegetables and no desserts, but this didn't bother our children, who had spotted a Baskin-Robbins across the street.

We spent $46, including tip, for two adults and two children, but we were going over board on side dishes. A family of four could have a good crab feast for $30 or less. But just remember: Cash only.