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'Tis the stone-crab season

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  • | 4:00 a.m. October 14, 2009
  • Longboat Key
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Alan Moore, co-owner of Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant & Marina, says that people often think that stone crabs taste best during the first months of the season, which runs from Oct. 15 to May 15. It’s not that the crabs are fresher, he says, but rather that they taste better because people have had to go five months without them. With 42 years in the business, Moore can safely predict that Thursday, Oct. 15, the first day of stone-crab season, will be a busy day for the restaurant.

But the predictions about stone crabs stop there.

“They march to their own drummer,” Moore said.

Stone crabs are migratory, so trappers never know where they’ll find them. Octopuses prey on stone crabs, so if the octopus population thrives, the stone-crab population can diminish. Environmental factors, such as red tide, can kill their food supply, making for a poor stone-crab season. The population is cyclical, so trappers don’t know which month of the season will be strongest. Last year, most stone crabs were caught between November and January.

But one thing is certain: People want their stone crabs. So, every morning, six trappers will leave by boat at sunrise and pull 300 to 400 traps.

This season will be Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant’s 43rd stone-crab season. But the Moore family’s stone-crab history goes back even farther.

Moore’s grandfather, Jack Moore, lived in Cortez and harvested stone crabs to sell at retail markets in Manatee County. His arms were muscular because he rowed the boat, towing hundreds of crab traps.

Moore’s father, Pete, worked for the phone company, and his uncle, Hughey, worked for the U.S. Postal Service while also harvesting crabs to sell to restaurants.

Moore says that his father and uncle envisioned opening a restaurant, a place where they could relax, eat stone crabs and drink beer with friends. They considered the property that is now home to the Seafood Shack in Cortez before settling on Longboat Key because it was “more touristy.” The Key’s first condominiums were just then being built.

Moore’s family moved into a red-brick house on Broadway in 1966, and in Nov- ember 1967, Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant opened just across the street. The first day of business was a good one, with both Moores’ co-workers from the phone company and post office filling the counter and 10 tables with which the restaurant opened.

Moore, 8, and his brother Paul, 9, got their start in the restaurant business that year, washing dishes for 50 cents an hour. They didn’t want to wait for payday then, so, every hour, they went to the cash register and demanded the 50 cents they had earned. Robert Hicks, who was then 12, also began washing dishes at Moore’s during its first year.

Soon, it was more than just the stone crabs that drew customers. During the first year, Pete Moore and Hughey Moore learned about an injured dolphin in Key West that couldn’t be released into the wild. So, they penned off the area behind the restaurant in Sarasota Bay and brought the dolphin, which they named Jackie, to live there. Jackie began performing shows two times a day.

In 1968, a fire damaged some of Moore’s restaurant. In 1969, the family added an extra room.

“It wasn’t supposed to be anything big,” said Moore about the restaurant. “It just grew so fast.”

The restaurant was remodeled in 1974 and again in 1990, which was also the year when an unnamed storm hit, washing Jackie out to sea. He was later accepted by a wild dolphin colony.

Along the way, both Moore, Paul Moore and Hicks worked their way up in the business, graduating from washing dishes to busing tables to bartending to management. Today, the three own the restaurant.

Moore says that little has changed about the crab-trapping business over the years. Now, trappers use plastic traps instead of wooden traps, and the traps are now pulled with hydraulics.

And customer demand for stone crabs also hasn’t changed over the years. That’s why Moore knows that on Oct. 15, the phone calls will come early in the morning, just after the trappers have left on their boats.

They’ll continue all morning from customers eager to place an order. By 2:30 p.m., the bar will begin to fill up as customers await the trappers’ return. Their anticipation is five months in the making.

In a crab-shell

Here’s the scoop on stone crabs.

They’re found in tropical waters offshore, and harvesters take only one claw from each crab. The crab is then returned to the sea, where it grows a new claw. Claws vary in size, with jumbos weighing 6 to 8 ounces.

If you’ve never savored stone crabs before, you’re in luck.

“Stone-crab claws really aren’t difficult to eat,” Alan Moore said. “We make it easier, because we crack them before serving them in the restaurant.”

Although Moore often uses his fingers to sample stone crabs because he is usually in the kitchen, he says that proper etiquette calls for a cocktail fork.

Claws are served cold with a mustard sauce created by Moore’s grandmother.

“Don’t ask about the ingredients; we don’t tell,” he said.

And, this season, Moore’s will feature prices that won’t leave customers shell-shocked. To celebrate the restaurant’s 43rd year in business, stone-crab prices will temporarily be rolled back to what they were in the 1990s.

— Dora Walters