Sonoma Dungeness crab season officially started last week, with professional fishermen setting out across Bodega Bay to catch the celebrated crustaceans. Plucked from a pot (as in trap), then plunked in a pot (as in cooking), there’s little better dipped in butter or kissed with lemon.
If you’ve got a boat, or want to rent a charter, you can catch your own. It’s a lot easier to just stop at the Bodega docks, and buy some fresh from the ship captains. But for the simplest solution of all, head to your favorite restaurant, and let the chefs work their magic on the clawed critters.
Here are the Top 10 places to dig into Bodega-fresh Dungeness:
1. Spud Point Crab Company
Tony and Carol Anello have arguably the freshest crab in the Bay, since they catch it themselves on a sturdy boat named Annabelle. Tony trawls the water and hauls the pots, while Carol and daughter Lisa run the tiny, just barely-big-enough-to-turn-around-in café. Whole crab is cooked hot in the boiler right outside the store, or picked from the shell for meat sold by the pound. For a casual feast, you can relax at a table outside, tucking into delicious favorites like crab cakes, crab cocktail, or crab sandwiches.
1860 Westshore Road, Bodega Bay, 707-875-9472, spudpointcrab.com.
2. Brisas del Mar
The sign in front of the restaurant promises “A Taste of Mexico,” and chef-owner Jesus Sarabia delivers with plenty of fresh seafood, too. Dungeness crab cakes are jazzed with sweet jalapeno-clam sauce (you have to try it to see how good the combo is), while enchiladas “Acapulco style” bring three plump beauties bursting with crabmeat and paired with rice and beans. For a lighter meal, the Cancun taco salad is a creative take on a classic, tossing crab and shrimp in a light wash of Thousand Island dressing, while a quesadilla could easily be an entrée, stuffed with lots of cheese, shrimp, and, of course, crab. Perhaps the most stunning dish is the cioppino, in a vibrant, highly seasoned soup of prawns, clams, mussels, fish, oysters, and crab in garlicky tomato-cilantro broth studded with potatoes, onions and carrots.
2001 N. Hwy 1, Bodega Bay, 707-875-9190, brisasdelmar-bodegabay.com.
3. Boat House-Bodega Bay’s Sport Fishing Center
You can get up-close-and-personal with the crab pots if you charter Boathouse owner Captain Rick Powers’ schooner. Or you can just mosey in and order at the counter, scoring a buttery-lovely crab cake sandwich to eat at a table overlooking the Bay. Just don’t expect fast food – everything is cooked to order, and the lines are always long for this enormously popular place.
1445 N. Hwy 1, Bodega Bay, 707-875-3495.
4. Sandpiper Restaurant & Cafe
It ain’t fancy, the prices are low, and there’s good cooking going on at this coastal hangout. What’s not to love? How about a monster crab melt, a crab and shrimp omelet, or tasty basic crab cake sandwiches? Some of the zestier dishes include crab stew in tomato broth, crab cake with lemon linguine and spicy tomato coulis, crab ravioli, and crab and shrimp Benedict.
1410 Bay Flat Rd, Bodega Bay, 707-875-2278, sandpiperrestaurant.com.
5. Lucas Wharf
As its names suggests, this expansive eatery sits right on the waterfront. It’s a bit of a fancier affair than a wharf might imply, with rich dishes like seafood stew and seafood pasta, but there are also first-rate crab cakes you can eat with your fingers, and whole crabs for dunking in butter.
595 S. Highway 1, Bodega Bay, 707-875-3522.
6. Tides Wharf & Restaurant
The tourists love this big place for crab cocktail with Saltines, but so do the locals, who know this is a good spot to get fresh commercial catch at market prices. The menu is long and brimming with crab, served in omelets, cakes, hot cheese sandwiches, spicy cioppino, or as whole creatures. The town turns out for the Tides’ annual crab feed, showcasing mounds of Dungeness with various sauces, plus sides of clam chowder, linguine, green salad and French bread. Make reservations for Dec. 3, Dec. 17, and Jan. 14, 2011.
835 Highway One (in the Inn at the Tides), Bodega Bay, 707-875-3652, innatthetides.com.
7. The Duck Club Restaurant
Dungeness gets dressed up at this formal restaurant inside the Bodega Bay Lodge and Spa, in cuisine as riveting as the views stretching across the water. Chef Jeff Reilly puts creative charge into daily specials, but regular bestsellers on the breakfast and dinner menu include crab ravioli in mushroom consommé, crab eggs Benedict, and crab cakes slathered in tomato-ginger chutney.
103 Coast Hwy 1 (in the Bodega Bay Lodge and Spa), Bodega Bay, 707-875-3525, bodegabaylodge.com/hotel-dining.html.
8. Bluewater Bistro & Bar
Specials are where executive chef Patrick Daleiden makes his most crabby statements. Yet it’s worth a trip to this pretty golf course eatery just for the regular menu charmer of sweet crab splayed with silky avocado in a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, tart grapefruit and crunchy apples on mixed greens tossed with passion fruit vinaigrette.
21301 Heron Drive, Bodega Bay, 707-875-3513, bodegaharbourgolf.com.
9. Terrapin Creek Café
Chef-owners Andrew Truong and his wife Liya Lin have impressive pedigrees – he was formerly sous chef at Bacar, while she was previously a cook at Ducca and Michael Mina. The Slow Food duo focuses on seasonal ingredients and their own whims, which means the menu changes frequently, but you might expect stars like fanciful cold crab salad, or an Asian-influenced crab fry.
1580 Eastshore Rd., Bodega Bay, 707-875-2700, terrapincreekcafe.com.
10. The Casino Bar
Chef Mark Malicki marches to a different drummer, and it’s the rat-a-tat-tat of cutlery on an All-Clad pan. So though he is cooking in a funky, 135 year-old roadhouse that’s home to pool tables and jukeboxes, his food is white tablecloth gorgeous. He only cooks Saturday through Monday nights, but chef Dominique Rooney-Culp is in the kitchen Tuesday through Friday, and her food is almost as fancy. The menu changes nearly nightly, so if you have your heart set on crab, call ahead to make sure they’re got it. But rest assured, the chefs focus on fresh/seasonal, and the restaurant’s owners are fast friends with Bodega’s best fishermen.
Casino Bar & Grill, 17000 Bodega Highway, Bodega, 707-876-3185, bodegacasinobarandgrill.com.
Tip: Spend a winter weekend with friends in Bodega, sampling Dungeness to your delight. But why drive the long, winding road to the coast – Pure Luxury Transportation can chauffer you and your friends in comfort (complete with a cooler in the trunk for the fresh crab you take home).