As the mid-August heat grows muggy and yellow, the long days sputtering the unassuming masses to a heat-induced, midday standstill, a familiar shudder runs through the collective spine of the District. In the throes of the year’s most relentless barrage of heat and humidity, Washingtonians have learned to intuit the swansong of a long, scorching summer.
In avoiding the grueling heat and saving our business attire from embarrassing sweat stains, it becomes easy to dismiss the last weeks of summer, to forget the bursting anticipation that comes upon us in mid-April at the end of a gray winter. It is high time to focus our energy and relish in the closing month of engrossing sunlight, of beaches and sunscreen and barbecues and swimming pools, like the encore of a Stones concert.
And perhaps no feast quite so exemplifies a Delmarva summer like a bucket of steamed Maryland blue crabs. Corn, hushpuppies, coleslaw, a wooden mallet, a pair of nutcrackers, and a large roll of butcher paper is everything that friends or families need to experience this summer treat at its finest. However, popular opinion has led many to believe that in order to get the best pickin’s, one must drive all the way out to the Chesapeake Bay or Annapolis. And while there is no doubt about the deeply-rooted seafood culture and history in those areas, there is plenty of top-quality crab to be gotten inside the beltway.
This past year, despite limits on crab fishing and concerns among the shrinking population of these creatures, this has been an astoundingly fruitful year for crab fishing. So, whether eating out or going down to the Wharf to pick up your catch alive and fresh, here are the best places in town to get some quintessential Maryland blue crab and enjoy the end of summer the way everyone should.
Bethesda Crab House, Bethesda
Imagine your favorite dive bar. Now add picnic tables and mountains of steamed crabs, and you’ve got Bethesda Crab House. A long-established institution in the area, the menu is short and sweet. They do crabs, crab cakes and crab legs. But they do them well. Their crab cakes are what will really get you coming back time and time again. As they’ll tell you at the cash register, it is nothing but heaps of crabmeat with a little mayonnaise to bind it together. These guys know how to make a real Maryland crab cake. There are no french-fries at Bethesda Crab House, as the space is small and the fryer would take up too much room in the back. Plus the establishment believes they just fill you up anyway so you can’t eat as much crab. This is the perfect antidote for your crab cravings. And don’t forget to get an order of corn on the cob. (301-652-3382, 4958 Bethesda Ave.)
Quarterdeck Restaurant, Arlington
Hidden among the high rise apartment buildings, not a mile from the Key Bridge, the Quarterdeck is easy to miss. Built into an old house, the interior atmosphere, with its wood plank siding and worn, beachy furniture and décor, would lead you to believe you were somewhere on Chesapeake Bay, or down in some low-key seafood shack in Virginia Beach. The patio is double the size of the inside, and the buckets of crabs tumble out of the kitchen until the restaurant runs out.
As delivery status of the crabs are day-to-day, the restaurant encourages patrons to call at the beginning of the day to check for availability and make crab reservations for that evening — if you wait to walk in for dinner, there often won’t be any left by the time you show up. Quarterdeck Restaurant has a policy to serve steamed crabs only when local crabs are in season, so you know you’re getting the freshest catch every time you go. (703-528-2722, 1200 Fort Myer Dr.)
The Wharf, Southwest Washington
If you’re brave enough to cook crabs on your own, the Wharf, on the southwest waterfront off Maine Avenue, is a wealth of fresh daily catch. You can get most fish that you’re looking for there, though in the summer months, their specialties are shrimp and crab. The Maryland blue crabs this season are piled in monstrous, twitching towers on beds of ice, fat and blue and beautiful. There’s no big secret to cooking them. Throw them in a big steamer with plenty of Old Bay, make sure there is vinegar in the water, and steam until they turn red. (1100 Maine Ave. S.W.)