Just as a summer trip to Maine must involve lobster eaten by the water, a winter trip to Florida should include stone crab—a lesser-known cousin of the Maine lobster and the Maryland blue crab that has equally devoted fans. One reason is that it tastes like a cross between the two. Another is that it's easier to eat—all you get is the big, meaty claw, which has usually been cracked for easy pickings. The meat is firm, with a flavor less authoritative than lobster's but more distinctive than blue crab's. Like lobsters, stone crabs are boiled in plain water—no secret spice mix, as for Maryland crab and Louisiana crawfish.
Waterside eating is mandatory with all these state specialties, not just for charm but for flavor. Stone crab, which is fished in the Gulf of Mexico as far west as Texas and on the Atlantic coast as far north as North Carolina, travels perhaps the least well of all crustaceans. By law it can't be shipped fresh, because it spoils too fast, so it is always first cooked and then chilled so that the meat will not stick to the shell; it can't be frozen, because the meat will be dry and stringy when defrosted. Florida, the capital of the stone-crab trade, ships thousands of pounds of cooked claws during the fishing season, from October 15 to May 15. Shipping may help the state fishery and spread the fame of stone crab. But the claws are really worth eating only when a fisherman has just delivered a few buckets of them to the kitchen.
The usual Florida pilgrimage is to Joe's Stone Crab, in south Miami Beach, which made stone crab famous in the 1920s and is still run by the family that founded it. Joe's has a raffish, late-1940s feel, and when visiting Miami, I always make sure to get in line for a table. But on a trip to Sarasota last February, I discovered a yet better place to eat stone crab—smaller and more intimate but equally full of Florida character, and right on the water.
Moore's Stone Crab has its own long dock in a fishing village at the end of Longboat Key that still looks like a fishing village, or at least like a place where people work for a living—something rare in a resort populated almost entirely by retirees and tourists. The modest clapboard houses are painted in non-cloying pastels; many are on stilts, to withstand hurricane waves.
Moore's says it is the oldest seafood restaurant in Manatee County that is still under original ownership, and it has certainly made itself a stop on the Florida trail. A long line of families generally appears before the 11:30 opening. During crab season the restaurant serves straight through until 9:30, and the dining room, with its picture windows overlooking the dock and the mangrove-covered islands beyond, is seldom empty. Waiting here is pleasurable, because the dock is next to a beach popular with egrets, herons, and pelicans.
Moore's treats its landmark status with tongue in cheek, selling only a few souvenirs (mugs, T-shirts, baseball caps) with its appealingly clunky red stone-crab logo, and keeping the staff's attitude friendly and outgoing without being cute. The tone is set by the owners—Paul and Alan Moore, who grew up working at the restaurant, and Robert Hicks, a bluff and friendly man who often greets guests, and who calls himself the illegitimate son of the family. Hicks began working here as a dishwasher in 1967, at age fifteen, soon after Paul and Alan Moore, whose family had been fishing stone crab since the 1920s, opened the restaurant as a way to earn for themselves the profits that had been going to middlemen.
The fishermen who supply the restaurant with its stone crab also deliver the three local fish that are always on the menu: snapper, sole-like and delicate, often to the point of blandness; grouper, with a richer flavor reminiscent of cod's; and pompano, which has the finest flavor of the three. Moore's serves the fish grilled, broiled, deep-fried, sautéed with butter and bread crumbs, or blackened. These relatively fragile white fish are to my mind best broiled, without the char of grilling or the spice of blackening, both of which usually compensate for deficient flavor.
Most popular are of course stone-crab platters, which are presented simply—just claws on a white oval crockery plate, with two side dishes and butter or mustard sauce (there's cocktail sauce already on the table). I chose the "house" dinner, with a pound and a quarter of crab claws (six to eight), and looked on in amazement at the passing "jumbo" dinners—two and a quarter pounds of the biggest-grade claws ("These are big, trust me," says the restaurant's Web site). Hicks told me that the restaurant sells at least 300 house dinners and seventy-five jumbos a day.
I didn't have room for either of the side dishes I ordered with the crab platters: homemade coleslaw and Caesar salad. These usually go uneaten, according to Hicks. I did try the Key-lime pie, a fine rendition even if (like all its kin) disappointingly heavy on the sweetened condensed milk and light on the acidic Key West lime. I watched with similar surprise the many huge slices of "Charlie Brown," a brownie and peanut-butter layer cake that makes a big hit with kids, going by.
When I returned the next day, I ordered another house dinner. Only embarrassment (the same waitress had taken my order the evening before) prevented me from ordering a jumbo. As I dug into the far reaches of the claws, gluttony overtook me—familiar from a once-a-summer Maine dinner at which a generous hostess serves as many lobsters from the nearby dock as my family and I can eat. Stone crabs are less salty. You can eat an alarming quantity of them, no matter how big. Trust me.
Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant, 800 Broadway Street, Longboat Key, Florida, 941-383-1748. Open seven days, 11:30-9:30 from October 15 to May 1; Monday-Friday 4:30-9:30 and weekends 11:30-9:30 from May 1 to October 15. Major credit cards accepted.