If you want your Florida stone crabs right off the dock as fresh as you can find them, then you need to go to a funky small town where the highway ends and the wilderness begins — Everglades City.
Everglades City is a small fishing town about 35 miles south of Naples and 80 miles east of Miami. Dozens of stone-crab fishermen are based on its Barron River, and so are several informal, unpretentious seafood restaurants.
Everglades City is where Joe’s Stone Crabs on Miami Beach gets its stone crabs. Joe’s doesn’t take reservations and is famous for its long wait. True, you might spot a visiting celebity at Joe’s. At the Everglades City restaurants, on the other hand, you might spot a visiting manatee in the river your table overlooks.
Stone crab season is Oct. 15 to May 15. (If you’re cutting it close to season opening or closing, don’t except crabs on Oct. 15 because you can’t harvest them fast enough to serve on opening day. That also means that you CAN get fresh stone crabs on May 16, because they were harvested the day before.)
In Everglades City, several restaurants specialize in stone crabs in casual water-front restaurants.
Last year, we wanted to get stone crabs on the first day of the season, so we stopped at the well-regarded Triad Seafood, 401 School Drive West, on Oct. 16, 2011.
Triad serves a great variety of fresh seafood, and we can also recommend the fried-conch sandwich ($13.95.) It comes with fresh herb-seasoned fries and coleslaw. The sweet potato fries were great, too. Stone crab dinners are $23.95 for medium crabs, $29.95 for large and $39.95 for jumbo, but prices fluctuate. These dinners come with two side dishes. Triad offers an all-you-can-eat option for $42.95.
The picnic-table decor at these places fits the outdoorsy lifestyle of Everglades City. Dining areas at Triad and City Seafood are inside screened porches overlooking the river. From the street, you might not even guess Triad was a restaurant. Down the block, City Seafood puts on a bit more curb appeal, though the style is decidedly rustic.
At City Seafood, 702 Begonia St., diners buy their stone crabs by the pound and separately order any side dishes they wish. In the 2011-2012 season, stone crabs were $13 per pound for medium, $19 for large and $25 for jumbo.
(Back on Miami Beach, upscale Joe’s Stone Crab charged for $25.95 for medium, $48.95 for large and $71.95 for jumbo a la carte during the 2011-2012 season.)
Both Everglades City restaurants sell cooked stone crabs for take-out also.
The stone crab story in Florida
Stone crab season runs Oct. 15 to May 15 so that the crabs can grow back their missing claws — well, that’s semi- true and makes a good story.
The crabs aren’t killed when they’re harvested. Claws that meet state requirements are wrenched off the crabs and the animals are tossed back, fully able to survive and thrive. It actually takes about 18 months for the claws to grow back, but the off-season helps protect the crabs from over-fishing.
Crabs are caught in baited traps (frozen pig feet or mullet is often used. ) In Everglades City, piles of crabs traps along the river are proof this really is a stone crab city.
The crabs are cooked in boiling water immediately after harvest, on the boat or at dockside, to prevent the meat from sticking to the inside of the shell, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Stone crabs are served in the shell, usually cold with a mustard dipping sauce. They’re sweet and firm, and many compare them to lobster. Plenty of Floridians say they’re better than lobster.
Camellia Street Grill, 202 Camellia Street, is another open-air spot on the Barron River where we’ve had excellent food. Locals highly recommend it too. The tin-roofed restaurant reopens for the season on Oct. 21 and has live bluegrass music on Saturday nights. You’ll know you’re there when you see the painted VW beetle at the curb. Our vegetarians raved about the veggie burgers, and it offers plenty of fresh fish options, including stone crabs.
Diners on Yelp also have some good things to say about Oyster House Restaurant, located on Highway 29 South on the way to the Chokoloskee Island, which also serves stone crabs.
If you love seafood, you also might want to head to Everglades City on the first weekend of February for its very popular annual Everglades Seafood festival.
Links for Everglades City restaurants:
- City Seafood and its Yelp reviews
- Triad Seafood and its Yelp reviews
- Camellia Street Grill and its Yelp reviews.
- Oyster House Restaurant and its Yelp reviews
Find a room in Everglades City:
Things to do in Everglades City and surroundings:
- Visit historic Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee. (One of our favorite, off-the-beaten-track stops.)
- Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center: A good place to take boat tours into the Ten Thousand Island NWR and get information about kayaking and hiking in the area.
- Everglades City is a great place for kayaking into the 10,000 Islands. We’ve written about a “tame” kayak trip from Everglades City and a more ambitious kayak camping trip to one of those islands, Indian Key.
- Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge
- If it’s a nice day, wade on over to a hidden beach that is nearby: Tigertail Beach on Marco Island.
Along the Tamiami Trail:
- Nearby Ochopee Post Office is the smallest in the US. And cute.
- Scenic drive across Florida via Tamiami Trail.
- Shark Valley area of Everglades National Park: Excellent trail for bicycling and wildlife viewing in Everglades National Park.
- Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery: It’s always a thrill to view his large-format black-and-white photos of Florida’s wilds.
- Big Cypress National Preserve
- Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk
- Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park