If you're going out for a seafood dinner, as I did last night, you'll find crabmeat dishes scarce, and the restaurateurs say the cost of the raw ingredient is at a record high.

For jumbo lump crab of the best grade, it's "$14.75 a pound, the highest we've ever paid," said Richard Tappan, general manager of Richard's Pier 20 on 20th Street NW. And the restaurant, which--except for shrimp--invariably buys only fresh seafood, has been forced for the first time to buy pasteurized crabmeat, Tappan said.

At some local eateries, even such standard items as crab cakes have reportedly disappeared from the menu.

Down at the Maine Avenue seafood wharf on the Washington Channel, backfin crabmeat was going for $12 a pound yesterday, a dollar or more higher than a year ago, according to Steve Curtis, a manager of Capt. White Seafood. Is there a shortage? "There sure is," Curtis responded. "You got any to sell?"

One area wholesaler, pleading anonymity, said the firm is rationing its customers: Those who order 30 pounds may get 10. "And it's sandy, probably due to the storm they've had down in Louisiana and the Gulf," said a spokesman. The storms also have diluted the salinity of gulf waters, which drives crabs away from their usual winter habitats.

At this time of year, all nonfrozen crab sold in this area comes from that area. In the spring and summer, it chiefly comes from Chesapeake Bay.

Our problems are mirrored in our sister town of Baltimore. "Things are more critical than I've ever seen them before," said W. Preston Whorton, who runs a stall at the downtown wholesale fish market.

He attributes the problem in part to a poor local yield in the last season that has led to depleting the stock of crabs in storage.