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Captain Pell's Keeps All-You-Can-Eat Crab Tradition Alive, Even Through Derecho

Roll up your sleeves and get cracking in this laid back, well-priced crab feast.

For over 35 years the place to go for genuine, hard shell, all-you-can-eat Maryland crabs in this area is . For the last 13 years they have been located on Lee Highway in Fairfax City. 

These types of places abound on the Eastern shore. They're known for their butcher-brown paper table coverings ripped from a huge industrial roll on the wall, with wooden mallets pounding and cracking and bits of shell and crabmeat flying everywhere.

Captain Pell’s is no different, a place where you can gather a bunch of adult friends, roll up your sleeves and kick back for a long evening of cracking crabs and drinking cold bottled beers. The hot crabs are served on lunch trays (covered with Captain Pell’s version of ‘Old Bay’ seasoning). It is raucous and crowded. On weekends expect a wait to get a table (unless you get there early). 

Many longtime Fairfax residents consider Captain Pell’s the best fresh seafood in the area. They do an enormous amount of carry-out business. We saw a steady march of boxes of hot crabs leaving the restaurant the evening we were there.

Seafood is not cheap, but here it is fresh, with daily shipments coming in on refrigerator trucks.

Even the recent derecho did not shut them down. The owners just brought in a semi-tractor trailer-sized generating station and used it to power the restaurant--including freezers and refrigerators. 

“Nobody knew we were open because the phones were down,” said one of the servers. “But we had to stay open because we had fresh shipments of crabs and fish already enroute to our restaurant. We had a busy evening right after the storm.“

After this many years of business, these owners know what to do, and more importantly, who to call when there is a power outage.

Digging tiny mounds of sweet crabmeat out of a hard shell crab is a skill, so be sure to have somebody along who has done this before. It can be a slow process so take your time, and be sure to come in washable, casual clothing, as the debris from the crabs and seasonings will fly everywhere. 

Just $39 gets you “all-you-can-eat regular size” Maryland male crabs. (It is illegal to harvest female crabs.) They are about the size of your hand. Larger crabs are more expensive. Twelve crabs cost the same amount of money, so judge carefully how many you can actually eat. They are worth the effort to glean bits of crabmeat from each shell.

In a typical evening, Captain Pell’s goes through 300 bushels of crabs (a bushel is similar to a large laundry basket). The restocking of fresh crabs into this restaurant is a major logistical feat.

Only bottled beers and regular soft drinks are available--there are no beers available on tap. Soft drinks and lemonades have free refills ($3) and domestic beers are $4. Imported brands are $5.   

Besides the Maryland crabs, Captain Pell’s offers other seafood, including plump, juicy fried oysters, large tender scallops, and large steamed shrimp (peel and eat), plus snow crab and king crab legs, crab cakes and soft-shell crabs.  Their popular pick two ($19) or pick three combos ($29) are served with French fries and Cole slaw. 

No packaged wipes to clean your fingers, but ask a server for some wedges of fresh lemon. Squeeze the fresh lemon juice on your hands and fingers and rub it in and the spicy mess comes off easily with paper towels.

“My parents used to bring us here as kids, and now I am taking my college sons here to eat,” said a customer waiting outside with us. (Even with a huge line of people, the wait was only 40 minutes in the middle of the evening dinner rush.)

I hope they stay in business a long, long time. Judging by the crowd standing outside waiting for tables in 100-degree heat last Saturday night, this business is booming and will be here for a long time to come.

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