You can’t experience a real summer in Washington without covering a few bases. First, you need to sweat all the way through your work clothes in the August humidity. Second, you need to head to Meridian Hill Park on at least one Sunday evening to hear the weekly African drum circle. Third, you need to walk around the Dupont Circle Farmers Market to experience the bounty of summer produce. Fourth, you need to pick up a wooden mallet and whack the bejeezus out of a freshly steamed blue crab leg—and eat whatever you find inside.
There may be a few things we forgot, but there really is no Delmarva summer experience as quintessential and satisfying as digging into your very own bucket of Chesapeake blue crabs. While perhaps it used to be that a meaty, blue pincer was hard to get without driving all the way out to a crab shack on the Chesapeake waterfront, there are enough authentic crab houses in the Metro area today to satisfy even the most stringent crab purists.
Corn, hushpuppies, coleslaw, a wedge of lemon, a pair of nutcrackers, and a large roll of butcher paper is all that friends and families need to experience this summer treat at its finest. And now is the last chance to enjoy these crustaceous hallmarks before the season winds to a close. Whether eating out or going down to the Wharf to pick up your catch alive and fresh, here are some choice places in and around town to get some quintessential Maryland blue crab and enjoy the end of summer the way everyone should.
Dancing Crab Restaurant
Wisconsin Ave., NW
Tony Cibel, a native Washingtonian, is kind of the seafood king of northwest Washington. He is responsible for Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place, Rockfish Raw Bar & Grille and Nick’s Riverside Grille, to name a few. The Dancing Crab, a Washington institution for over 20 years, is also within his seafaring domain. And it’s as authentic as a Maryland-style crab house comes. The restaurant only serves Chesapeake crabs when “the big ones are available”—and if they’re not, they ship their catch fresh from Louisiana, helping out the area’s recovering economy.
But as crabs go, The Dancing Crab is tops. It’s also a happening place, filled with regulars that have been coming since the place opened. They do karaoke on Saturday nights, trivia on Wednesdays, and Ladies’ Night specials every Friday. 4611 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 202.244.1882
Maine Ave., SW
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, and 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.
Still, if you’re too impatient to cook them yourself, you can get them steamed from some of the vendors and eat them there on the spot. Either way, you won’t go wrong. 1100 Maine Ave., SW
Bethesda Crab House
Imagine your favorite dive bar. Now add picnic tables and mountains of steamed crabs and you’ve got the recipe for the Bethesda Crab House. A long-established institution in the area, the menu is short and sweet: crabs, crab cakes and crab legs. But they do them right. 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. This is the real deal.
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 that potatoes would just fill you up so you wouldn’t be able to eat as much crab—and who wants that? This is the perfect antidote for your crab cravings. And don’t forget to get an order of corn on the cob. 4958 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda, Md., 301.652.3382
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 wooden plank siding and worn, beachy furniture, would lead you to believe you were somewhere on the Chesapeake Bay or in a low-key seafood shack in Virginia Beach. The patio is double the size of the indoor dining room 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. 1200 Fort Myer Dr., Arlington, Va., 703.528.2722
Ernie’s Crab House
Most quality seafood restaurants don’t do all-you-can-eat crabs, and most crab houses don’t usually dabble too much with the rest of the ocean’s bounty. Crabs have a trend of taking over the entire menu of most restaurants that specialize in them. At Ernie’s Crab House, you get the best of both worlds. On top of killer steamed crabs, their menu offers a wide selection of traditional East Coast-style seafood. Their oyster po’boy and crab cake sandwiches are fantastic.
And they serve up steamed crabs with the best of them. This is the place to go for those who want a little bit of everything the ocean has to offer. 1743 King Street, Alexandria, Va., 703.836.0046