Boiled potatoes and corn on the cob are often served alongside crawfish, as they are at Acadiana.

Traditional crawfish boils are a casual affair, a mess of people making a big mess.

“You lay out your newspaper [on the table], you’re boiling, you’re drinking beer, you’re telling stories, the kids are running around, and all of a sudden when those boils are ready, you dump them out and everyone gathers at the table,” says David Guas, the chef-owner of Bayou Bakery (1515 N. Courthouse Road, Arlington; 703-243-2410).

Guas was raised in New Orleans, where eating the tiny crustaceans was a “communal thing — we got together and had crawfish,” he says. “It’s just like eating crabs in this part of the country.”

Forget forks and knives — this is food you eat with your hands. Experienced crawfish diners can break open the hard shells of the tiny “mudbugs” and consume their tender pink and white meat at a surprisingly fast clip. (Guas estimates he can put away three or four pounds in a half-hour.) It’s a sloppy meal, but it’s as much about the environment and company you’re with as it is about the food.

Restaurants wanting to offer customers that sort of authentic experience face a distinctive dilemma: How do you preserve the elements of such a carefree, anything-goes atmosphere in a more formal setting?

For starters, by sticking to the same method of preparation that’s used across the Gulf Coast: boiling. Chefs add fragrant spices, herbs, garlic and lemon to the water to kick up the flavor of the seafood. As with lobster, crawfish often get immersed in bubbling water while they’re still kicking.

“It’s a big scene in the kitchen because there’s hundreds of live crawfish trying to escape,” says Brant Tesky, the executive chef of Acadiana (901 New York Ave. NW; 202-408-8848), which hosts weekly boils on its patio throughout the spring and early summer. It’s a point of pride for Tesky and Guas (whose Bayou Bakery hosts occasional boils, including one on Friday) that their crawfish are always air-freighted up from Louisiana alive (some restaurateurs use frozen seafood).

A diner at Acadiana enjoys the restaurant's crawfish boil.

After the boiling, chefs can add personal twists. At Acadiana, Tesky coats cooked crawfish in a special seasoning blend before serving them — portioned out and priced by the pound — on large platters. Guas does the same, explaining that it’s inspired by this region’s practice of covering steamed crabs’ shells with Old Bay. “Once you eat the first couple of crawfish and sort of season your mouth, that heat stays with you and keeps you eating,” he says.

The post-boil flavorings are added a little differently at Chasin’ Tails, a Cajun seafood restaurant that opened in Arlington in March (2200 N. Westmoreland St.; 703-538-2565).

Chasin’ Tails tosses its crawfish with special sauces (diners can choose from four options, including two spicy ones) just before serving them inside large, clear plastic bags. The bags “let that stuff permeate into the crawfish; you can shake it up, let it get inside the shell,” says manager Mike Jones.

Once the crawfish arrive at the table, there’s a whole other ritual: eating. The process of splitting open each crawfish, pulling out its tail meat and sucking on its head (see sidebars for more detail) might seem time-consuming and cumbersome. But that’s all part of the fun, Tesky says: “It gives you time to talk and chat.” Think of it as another tradition that transcends geography.

Learn the Lingo

Want to sound like you know what you’re talking about? Call the freshwater crustaceans “crawfish” — not “crayfish,” one of their alternate names. “Crayfish” just doesn’t sound right, says David Guas, chef-owner of Arlington’s Bayou Bakery and a longtime crawfish eater. “It’s like scratching nails on a chalkboard.” “Mudbugs” and “crawdads,” however, get his OK. Another phrase you could try (if you can say it with a straight face): “Suck the head.” “True connoisseurs” will suck the head of each crawfish, says Brant Tesky, the executive chef of Acadiana; the head is where all the seasonings gather and therefore where most of the flavor lies.

How to Eat ‘Em

1. Separate the tail from the head by twisting the body in half.
2. Suck on the cavity at the back of the head, as shown in the photo below, taken at Acadiana. (This is optional.)
3. Pick the tail meat out: Peel a segment of the shell back and pinch the base of the tail to release the tail meat.
4. Bite down on the meat hanging out and pull it right out of the tail.
5. If the claws are large enough, crack them and pull out their meat.