There are no linen tablecloths; rather, there is a large hole or two in the middle of the table for pails. There isn't a lot of sterling silver dinnerware; rather, you come to rely on your fingers. Welcome to Joe's Crab Shack in Sterling, a place dedicated to the pursuit of the tasty morsel inside that pesky, hardened shell.

Alas, our timing was lousy when we visited Joe's. What they didn't have that night was the Chesapeake Bay's famed blue crab. The male crabs were still pretty much asleep in the bay's shipping channel at the time, and the females still gathered near the mouth of the bay. But the latest report is that the crabs have stirred from their long winter's nap and are now part of Joe's inventory.

Before those glad tidings, however, crab lovers could still choose among snow crab, Dungeness and Alaskan king crab legs. Or a bacon cheeseburger or blackened chicken Caesar salad, if you are so inclined. In other words, Joe's doesn't do just crab. And he doesn't just do it in Sterling. There is one in Gaithersburg and others in a bunch of other states.

If you've been on Route 7 at night around Palisades Parkway, you may well have seen the lighted "Eat At Joe's" sign. That's the place. It's on the north side of Route 7 near the Regal Cinema complex. The formal address is Lake Center Plaza.

Once there you will note a large deck overlooking something of a lake. Not expansive, but at least a body of water. A crab house should be on the water. It's one of those natural expectations. This lake, however, is man-made, the first clue being the fountain in the middle.

Do not expect quiet and solemnity. The restaurant is a large, open room, with booths along the sides and tables of various sizes filling up the rest of the floor. There is music, described alternately by those in our party as funky 1980s' dance music, or roller rink music. By the end of the evening, we were all trying to recall which movie went with which song.

There are various and sundry things hanging from the ceiling and mounted on the walls: seagulls, a rowboat, a toy beer truck, a great white shark, a sign saying "Joe knows Sterling," Einstein's picture. The latter prompted one in our party to claim that Einstein's is the most recognized face in the world. And here we thought all along that it was Ozzy Osbourne's.

A couple of other signs: "Why crab is better than beef, reason #634. Ever hear of mad crab? Didn't think so." And "Joe's Galley Crew -- Highly trained professionals in most cases."

The galley crew deals with a fairly extensive menu, obviously heavily invested in crab but also touching on a few steak and chicken entrees. And salmon and grouper is available for those who may not prefer crabs but are in a seafood frame of mind.

There is also something for kids, called the "rug rat menu," including what they call "frozen kiddie cocktails" -- Strawberry Freeze, Sweet Tart and the like. The backside of that menu becomes a coloring book and comes with a package of three crayons.

For starters, we chose fried clam strips, which arrived with french fries, and calamari, lightly fried and served with a marinara sauce. We came close to the peel-and-eat shrimp as well as the stuffed mushrooms but passed.

The clam strips were pleasantly chewy, although the generous batter muted the clam taste some. The verdict on the calamari was that their crispness overcame any rubbery tendencies and that the tentacles were preferred over the rings.

One among us did not love crab and spent a little time weighing the other choices. She settled for the grouper and found the fish meaty and firm and liked the batter but would have liked a little more flavor in the fish.

After further lamentations about the absence of blue crab, the others at the table selected snow crab, the crab cake dinner, barbequed Dungeness crab and a platter of Alaskan king crab legs. In for a dime with the crab, in for a dollar.

The snow crab presented the eternal problem: getting to the meat. You can try this many ways -- devices are provided to crack the shell, for instance -- but eventually this will come down to your fingers.

It's difficult to be elegant in such an operation -- best spread a napkin over your tuxedo. There are a couple of rolls of paper towels at the table to help keep you presentable. And the pails, there primarily for the shells, are handy receptacles for the used paper towels as well.

The number of snow crab legs in that entree was generous, even if they seemed a bit scrawny. But the taste of the meat, once retrieved, provided adequate recompense for the work involved.

The verdict on the crab cakes was generally good, although they were on the peppery side and perhaps a little flatter than crab cakes found elsewhere.

We were expecting the full Dungeness crab with that particular selection but got only the legs. Dungeness comes from the cool waters of the Northwest and is perhaps twice the size (or more) of the traditional Chesapeake Bay blue crab. We were looking forward with some anticipation to exploring the meaty innards.

The legs were good, no doubt, and the spot where they join the body is indeed a meaty intersection. But the whole crab is an invigorating sight, and we were sorry to miss it.

We were wary of the barbeque part, truth be told, and chose it as much in the interest of science as anything else. It proved surprisingly good. The favorite of the table, in fact. The seasoning, which we were told is added after the cooking, had just the right amount of bite and flavor.

The king crab legs turned out to be moist and sweet, although the meat was a bit dry in some of the smaller ones. That seems to be inevitable, given the shape of the legs and is much like trying to have the white and dark meat of a roasted turkey come out with the same degree of moistness.

This entree also came with a twice-baked potato with cheese if you wished, and that turned out to be a delight. Parsleyed potatoes and corn accompanied most of the other dishes. It seemed early for corn, which turned out a little soggy, and the potatoes were on the bland side.

For dessert, the choices were Joe's Chocolate Shack Attack cake, Key lime pie and Bananas Foster. We chose all three.

The cake was six layers' worth and turned out to be a rich, heavy mass of chocolate. Some thought it would be better served warm and with ice cream. The Key lime pie lacked a real sense of lime taste and tartness, although there wasn't any left at the end.

The Bananas Foster was a conglomeration of crepes, vanilla ice cream, bananas, caramel, chocolate sauce and whipped cream. "It deserves further study," said one, the clear implication being that it would on the return engagement list.

If you choose, on the way out you can pick some after dinner mints out of the mouth of an alligator, which is conveniently stuffed.

Joe's Crab Shack, 46110 Lake Center Plaza, Sterling, 703-421-3500. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Appetizers, $4.99-$10.99; sandwiches and salads, $6.99-$8.49; entrees, $9.99-$25.99; and whatever the market price is for a pound of Alaskan king crab legs, should you choose that entree.

Is there a restaurant we should try? Send suggestions to wilkinsont@washpost.com.

Joe's patron Hershel Kreis Jr., left, listens in as a neighboring party sings "Happy Birthday" at the restaurant in Sterling. Fry chef Wilfredo Lizama, left, prepares calamari. The deck outside Joe's, far left, overlooks a man-made lake.