Picking Maryland Blue Crabs at Quarterdeck (Fort Meyer Heights, VA)

I’d be remis to spend time in this corner of America and not have some Maryland blue crab.  Thankfully my Dad had his eyes set on a second seafood dinner. A quick Google search for “blue crab Arlington” turned up Quarterdeck.  For friends and family who haven’t made their way out to the Chesapeake region before (or if you don’t have friends who are Marylanders), let me give you a little more background about this iconic crustacean.

Blue crabs are to the Chesapeake as a grilled bratwurst is to Wisconsin, except even more.  Sure crabs are food, but they are part of culture.  As an outsider, it is quickly apparent that Marylanders are passionate about their State Flag, Old Bay, and blue crabs. Don’t believe me, do a quick Google search for “Maryland blue crab flag.”

Who doesn’t need a 12″ vinyl decal of a blue crab carrying the Maryland State Flag? (Source). It comes in a 24″ version as well…

In fact, in 1989, Maryland Chapter 724, Acts of 1989; Code General Provisions Article, sec. 7-303 designated the Maryland Blue Crab as the State Crustacean. There is no shortage of crab stuff out here.  Artwork, clothing, jewelry, food (like crab seasoning flavored chips), etc.  I’m fairly certain that every Marylander receives annual stipends of Old Bay.  And Old Bay goes on everything by the way.  Fries?  Old Bay.  Salad?  Old Bay.  Vegetables?  Old Bay. And without a doubt your blue crabs (and any type of fried seafood out here) must be prepared with copious amounts of Old Bay.

Crab season starts as early as April and runs as late as December.  Several factors contribute to when and how much crab are harvested each year.  Its likely that the crabs we enjoyed came from the Carolinas and Louisiana since few hard shell crab stay in the Chesapeake for the winter. Enough about the crabs, on to the food.

Quarterdeck (Fort Meyer Heights, Arlington VA)

Quarterdeck is surprisingly close to where we live.  Walking will get you there in about 7 minutes and might even be faster than driving considering the one way streets and limited parking on site.  It is located in the Fort Meyer Heights neighborhood of Arlington.  Right across the street from Quarterdeck is Joint Base Meter-Henderson (historically called Fort Meyer).  This garrison hosts the U.S. 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard, aka the Soldiers who work Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own”, and a host of other admin and support functions for units in the Military District of Washington.  Quarterdeck is accessible and sits on top of the hill.  If walking, the hill is well worth the effort.

Approaching Quarterdeck on foot, you can smell the Old Bay from about two city blocks away.  Even if you didn’t know there was a seafood restaurant close, the smells would be a dead give away.  The restaurant itself is unassuming and boasts a very large patio area.  No scenic views, unless you consider old Army buildings to be the perfect complement to a patio beer and some seafood.  Inside there are two seating areas.  One is the bar area and the other is a small dining room with enough tables to seat about 20 people tops.  We made reservations and I’d suggest taking the same approach if visiting.  On a nice, warm evening the patio would be a great option and there is more seating there.  If you want to play it safe, its best to make a reservation.

Our reservations were for 5:30 which meant we had ample time to take advantage of happy hour.  The drink special was $1 off draft, $5 house chardonnay/cabernet, $5 house liquor.  They were still running a rotational food happy hour menu (M-Th).  As luck would have it, we went on a Wednesday which featured $1 oysters.  They had about 6 different varieties and about 4 of them local to MD/VA.  We ordered a dozen oysters 6 of two different types.  (I can’t remember which types.  I’ll get better I promise!  I do know that they were both local types from VA.). I settled in with a glass of Miller Lite.  Something about a simple American Pilsner pairs very well with seafood.

Right after being seated our host asked if we planned on ordering crabs.  He mentioned that it takes about 45 minutes to prepare so it was best to get an order in right away.  My Dad and I were set on getting crabs so we put in an order for a dozen medium.  Shortly after putting in our order for oysters, drinks, and the crabs, our oysters arrived!

The oysters were great!  They were fresh and had similar but distinctly different tastes.  They were served with the standard accompaniment of sliced lemon, horseradish, and cocktail sauce.  Each table had tabasco if you prefer that also.  My preference is for a dash of lemon, and just a touch of horseradish, but I like to mix it up.  No matter how you topped these, they were delicious!  I believe my Dad also ordered a bowl of clam chowder while waiting for our crabs to come out.  While I didn’t try any, I was told that it was very delicious.

The main event, Blue Crabs!

We were told about 45 minutes for the crabs to arrive.  I think they came out in about 30.  Each table is covered in white paper that is draped across the eating surface and is thrown away for each new set of patrons.  Other table settings include mallets, a giant bucket, and about a dozen wet wipes.  The crabs came out and they literally just dump them out in the middle of the table.  They were still steaming and aromatic.  They had a beautiful color.  The presentation of a dozen crabs on a simple paper table setting just invites eating with your fingers and making a mess.

There isn’t a wrong way to eat a crab, but there are definitely better and widely used strategies.  There are hundreds of videos of people sharing what they do and how they do it.  I’ve found one that’s one minute long without excessive narration.  Here’s the video if you’ve never done this before.

I’m definitely not an efficient crab picker but got better over time.  I am more careful than others to not waste meat.  Perhaps if eating crabs was as commonplace as eating a Johnsonville back home, I wouldn’t be so dutiful with eating the crabs.  Perhaps I also enjoy the experience and want it to last as long as possible.  I think both are plausible explanations.

The crabs were great!  They were caked with Old Bay.  I don’t eat enough crabs to know if these were good or bad, but I enjoyed them!  My preference is to dip the meat in some extra old bay and occasionally some melted butter.  I ended up ordering another Miller Lite half way through the meal.  Whatever your drink of choice, keep some on hand because you will go back often!

I’d strongly recommend Quarterdeck to anyone looking for a no frills dinner that features seafood from the Chesapeake.  No white table cloths here and I’m happy about that.  Their outdoor seating will be an attractive seating option in a few months when the weather is consistently warmer.  Warm sun, cold beer, fresh oysters, and freshly steamed crabs is a winning combination.  Plus, if you are into oysters, a Wednesday visit is a smart play.  You can get the $1 oysters and your crabs, just like we did!

The aftermath of an excellent meal

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