This is the time of year when simple seems best, especially when it comes to food. After more than a month of eating rich, complicated preparations, give me a good crab cake or a simple lump crab dish and I'm happy.

Though blue crabs are the regional food, and you can find good crab dishes on menus from Ten Penh, the pan-Asian restaurant in downtown Washington, to Lightfoot in Leesburg and the Tavern at Great Falls in Great Falls, Va., "Maryland is for crabs" isn't a state motto without reason.

Most of the crab shacks on the Eastern Shore closed for the season months ago. But three longtime favorites in Silver Spring, Seabrook and Prince Frederick can fulfill your winter urges, though not always with Maryland crab.

Crisfield's in Silver Spring is the granddaddy of local crab places. Opened just after World War II, it's still run by the same family (now the second and third generation) that opened it.

Crisfield's is not much to look at. It doesn't appear that there has ever been a definite decor. It has two small rooms, one dominated by a U-shaped bar and old leather-topped chrome bar stools, the ones they call "retro" today. The other mixes tables and a couple of booths. All the furniture looks like it could be original. The only real decoration is a large collection of German beer steins that fill high shelves that run around the top of both rooms.

One waitress has been there 15 years, another 25, and the man who holds down the bar on weekends is pushing 35 years on the job.

At lunch, the bar is where the action is, with regulars having only to take their stools for food to start arriving before them. From your perch, you can also watch one of the barmen open oysters and clams on a piece of wood worn into a hollow.

Start with a cup of robust clam chowder or seafood bisque, the latter a rich salmon color with bits of crab and shrimp and lobster. The crab cake is a favorite, but I think it's too bready. I love the crab Norfolk, lump crab meat saute{acute}ed in butter, or the Crisfield special, lump crab in a special light sauce served in a gratin pan. The french fries are peerless. Homemade bundt cakes are the signature desserts.

Other fish are on the menu, but Crisfield's is first and foremost a crab place. Even now, in the dead of winter, Crisfield's gets its crab from the Eastern Shore, and most of it is fresh.

Jerry's, a family-run operation in Seabrook, is considered to have the best food in Prince George's County. Though it's one of the county's few upscale restaurants, it is by no means fancy. It has carpet and tableclothes (covered with plexiglass), but the lighting is harsh and the stuffed fish and massive flag hardly qualify as decor.

Yet the crab is amazing, and that's the reason there is usually a line, starting when the doors open, even in the coldest weather. Jerry's has no waiting area inside.

The cream of crab soup and the crab bisque are ethereal. The Crab Bomb, a trademarked name, and the Baby Bomb, are simply large (10 ounces) and slightly smaller (six ounces) balls of jumbo lump crab bound only by a heavy mayonnaise, sprinkled with Old Bay seasoning and broiled to perfection. This is the best crab I have ever eaten.

But there is a hitch. The crab now, as during most of the year, is from Venezuela. One of the many Gainey family members who work at the restaurant, open for two decades, explains that the crab off the coast of Venezuela is closest to the Maryland blue, at least in taste. It also yields the giant lumps favored for the Crab Bomb, a giant size that Maryland blues cannot match.

It's still great crab, and Jerry's has lots of other goodies on the menu, especially the batter-fried shrimp, but the provenance of the crab casts something of a pall.

Stoney's, tucked into a shopping center off Route 4 in Prince Frederick, is the best-looking of the crab houses, though it's also rather plain. There are handsome decoys and a mural of the view out the window of its original location on Broomes Island. Otherwise, it could be any local restaurant in a mall.

The menu is extensive, with lots of salads and burgers and even steaks. But crab is what draws customers in.

At five ounces, Stoney's crab cake is a ball-shaped mound nearly as big as the Baby Bomb. It includes just a little breading, and sweet Maryland lump and back fin crab meat. Though it's Maryland crab most of the year, and some crab from the Eastern Shore is being used now, most of the crab used during the winter comes from Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina.

This Stoney's is one of three restaurants owned by the Stone family; the newest in Solomons has been open two summers. But the Prince Frederick location is the only one open during the winter.

Though it's about 35 miles south of the Capital Beltway, the crab cakes alone justify the trip.

Crisfield Seafood Restaurant, 8012 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-589-1306. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, may close earlier if business is slow. No reservations. Entrees, $12-$24, not including special fresh fish. Not disabled accessible. Parking on the street.

Jerry's Seafood, 9364 Lanham-Severn Rd., Seabrook, 301-577-0333. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m. Friday, 4-9:30 p.m. Saturday. No reservations. Dinner entrees, $19.95-$31.95. Disabled accessible. Parking lot.

Stoney's, 545 Solomons Island Rd. N., Fox Run Shopping Center, Prince Frederick, 410-535-1888. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations for parties of 15 or more. Dinner entrees, $6.95 to $26.95. Disabled accessible. Parking lot.

Crisfield's may not be much to look at, but it remains a popular crab house, at left. One favorite dish is the crab Norfolk, lump crab meat saute{acute}ed in butter, below. Side dishes and condiments include baked potato, coleslaw, tartar sauce, fresh lemon, crackers and shoestring potatoes.Family-owned Crisfield Seafood Restaurant in Silver Spring opened after World War II.