One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, while walking east from Seventh Avenue along Bleecker Street ― almost in front of John’s Pizza ― I happened to glance into the window of a place called “Fish.” There, atop of a table around which sat a party of three busy eaters, was a significant pile of red steamed crabs.
To someone like me (and others who hail from DC, Baltimore, Annapolis, or other places in the Chesapeake region), a pile of crabs ranks with Chincoteague oysters, crabmeat-stuffed shrimp, and potato-thickened clam chowder as bonafide edible treasure. If the jewels and coins discovered by the Count of Monte Cristo in the cave on that island had required immediate ingestion for their value to be realized ― well, that’s how many of us view these crabs.
When the crab eaters caught me looking, they smiled, invited me in, and even asked me to join them. It turns out they were on their third pile.
Why would they eat so much of an expensive and messy food for lunch in New York?
Because at Fish, $21.95 gets you “All you can eat crabs” from 12-4 pm, Monday - Friday.
(Atlantic blue crabs, ie. callinectes sapidus ― it translates from the Greek to beautiful swimmer, savory ― normally fetch $36 and up, per dozen, depending on the size and time of year. The price for crabs during non-all you can eat hours at Fish is $21.95 per dozen.)
Linda, Georgette, and Suzette ― the friendly women at the table ― have been regular lunchers at Fish since they first learned about the deal last summer.
“Tony Tantillo. He did something about it. You know, from Channel 2 news?” Suzette said.
They told me this was the first day of the year for the crab special at Fish. That’s why they were here. They had arrived late due to traffic, but (I could plainly see) had the crab-eating skills to make up for lost time.
“We’ve been calling for a couple of weeks,” Suzette said.
Georgette nodded, and said, “Daily, we’ve been calling daily.”
Suzette: “For most people it’s a novelty thing. For us it’s serious business.”
“We don’t play,” Linda added.
Linda and Suzette are cousins, and Georgette went to grade school with Linda. One is a former corrections officer, one is a corrections officer still active, and one works in printing. They all live in the Bronx.
I could see that the crabs were on the small side. They said that’s because it’s only June. Later in the summer, they knew from experience, the crabs would be bigger. And the price will remain $21.95.
“I have a secret method to opening them,” Linda said to me.
"Oh really, how?” I asked.
“It’s a secret,” she said.
So I said, “I have a good way to open them, too.”
“What’s your way?” she asked me.
I told her how I eat the claws first and then get to the center, where best meat is.
“Peel back the ‘apron’ and pull off the top shell, scrape the gills and dig out that black [membrane] from the center, split it in two, slice along the shell lines but not all the way through, and then crack each of the halves open.”
“That’s what I do, too,” she said. “Except that I save all the claws for last.”
I called up Fish and spoke with Ed, one of the owners. I wanted to understand how ― and why ― the restaurant offers this tremendous bargain on crabs.
“When crabs are $100 a bushel, we lose money. When they’re $30-40/bushel, we make money,” he said. “It’s wrong to change the price every week.”
I never imagined that a restaurant in New York City would chose to lose money on a food ― rents as high as they are. But my brief conversation with Ed revealed that he does it because his heart is in crabs and in all of the enjoyment that eating them brings to people.
“My idea is, I’d rather have a place that’s busy and has good energy than try to make a dollar on everything. The idea is to have fun. Crabs are good for sharing. You meet people when you’re eating crabs. You have a couple beers. It takes a long time,” he said.
I couldn’t agree more.
And this gets to the very reason why, for so many years, I went to the trouble of throwing a crab feast for friends and their friends in NYC. I went to the fish market in the middle of the night, spent most of the next day babysitting the live creatures, and then when it came time to cook them, I spent hours and hours standing over steaming pots ― happy as a clam, because I could see the immense enjoyment that eating those crabs brought to everybody there.
I plan on being at Fish this Monday. Ed says he’s gonna have at least #2s (small crabs) but maybe some #1s (big crabs). This time of year they come from the Carolinas. As it gets warmer and further into the summer, they’ll start to come from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. But, he explained to me, it’s the same breed of crabs no matter where they come from. And you can get ‘em now at Fish, on Bleecker Street.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll even run into Linda, Georgette, and Suzette. Ed knew who they were when I told him about how I met them. He said “Yes, they come often. And they know what they’re doing.”
Fish. 280 Bleecker Street (at Jones Street), in the West Village, NY, NY. Tel. 212-727-2879. Map Fish. Hours: Sunday - Thursday 12 pm - 11 pm; Friday - Saturday 12 pm - 12 am. (All you can eat crabs, M-F, 12 pm - 4 pm only.) Fish's website.