Atmosphere: Brown paper, beer, and the smell of Old Bay.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays; 5 to 11 p.m., Saturdays; 4 to 10 p.m., Sundays; closed Mondays.

Price range: Regular menu, $7.50 to $14.95. Specials: Crab Feast (every night except Thursdays), $9.95; Shrimp and Crab Feast (Thurdays only), $11.95. Reduced prices for children. For parties of five or more, a 15 percent gratuity is added to the bill.

Reservations: None taken. Expect waits of an hour or more unless you arrive before 6 p.m.

Credit cards: Visa and MasterCard. Personal checks are accepted.

Special facilities: Easy parking in restaurant lot; side door is accessible to wheelchairs, but the room is crowded; highchairs available.

Maryland has always been for crabs, but it used to be that you had to go to Pope's Creek to get them. Now, with a number of local places currently offering crab feasts, food lovers can have the best of the bay without having to drive to the bay to get it.

Happily for residents of northern Maryland, one of the best crab feasts around is available at the Cracked Claw in Gaithersburg, which offers all you can eat of spiced, steamed hard shells for $9.95 every night except Thursdays until further notice. Thursdays you can eat all the shrimp and crab you can manage for $11.95.

Both specials include all the cole slaw and french fries you want as well. Only drinks are extra. Children are charged less than full price--a judgment call by the management--depending on their size and the amount they eat.

The Cracked Claw also offers a full menu of broiled and fried seafood platters, which include two vegetables or salad bar, at reasonable prices (average, $7.95), as well as several daily specials listed on a chalkboard.

The broiled snapper looked succulent, but why would you want to have an ordinary civilized dinner when you can have at a pile of steamy, luscious crabs aromatic with Old Bay seasonings? How else can a family divest itself of both hunger and aggression in one fell swoop?

You should know, right up front, that the Cracked Claw does not need this publicity. One visit is enough to persuade you that the whole of Montgomery Village empties into the restaurant on a nightly basis.

No reservations are taken and the wait for a table can be lengthy. We called ahead and were told that most nights the restaurant does not fill up before 6 p.m. We arrived at 5:40 p.m. to find the parking lot overflowing and the wait for a table an hour and 15 minutes. Several unexpectedly large groups had arrived just ahead of us. When we returned to claim our table later, the wait had lengthened to two hours for those just arriving.

But the wait proved worth it. There are two dining rooms: an interior one, air-conditioned and quieter, and a screened-in one, cooled by fans and hung with trailing plants. The second is warmer, noisier, and more fun. In the midst of crowds and hub-bub, the staff is courteous and friendly. We were seated almost exactly when the hostess had promised, and we had food very quickly thereafter. The Cracked Claw's crab feast is both simple and efficient.

Tables, of course, are covered with brown paper. Our waitress brought us utensils and plastic containers of good cole slaw in a tangy dressing and left a stack of napkins and paper towels on the table. Paper bags on the floor provided a convenient catch-all for discarded shells.

On her second trip our waitress produced a large plate of crinkle-cut frozen-style french fries that were nevertheless crisp, hot and greaseless. We had a mound of medium and large crabs in front of us soon after, and the meaty, spicy wonders were supplied until we could pound and pick no more.

The Cracked Claw serves desserts, including the intriguingly titled Mud Pie, but in our case, one more bite of anything would have constituted gluttony.

Had we ordered the number of crabs we ate with side orders of fries and slaw, our bill would have been comparable to the cost of the crab feast. If you know how many crabs your family will eat, it is worth comparing the per dozen cost with the crab feast price. In our case, the bill for four persons, with tax and tip, was a reasonable $45.69.