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.