Stepping into Crab Tavern during a busy Friday lunch time in June, I'm immediately greeted by a huge cartoon crab mural that plasters the popular London restaurant's walls. It watches over diners as they slurp crab chowder and scoop out dressed crab salads. I can tell things are about to get cracking.
I'm ushered into Crab Tavern's downstairs kitchen to meet sous chef Jorge Lourenço, who has promised to make me a deep-fried soft shell crab burger—one of the restaurant's most popular dishes.
"If you are a crab-virgin, our soft shell crab burger is definitely a good entry point," he tells me. "Don't be put off by the claws."
While the crab takes an oily bath, Lourenço gives me a quick tour of his workspace, pulling out a kind of secret seafood pick "n" mix drawer under the countertops, which holds a cornucopia of fresh mussels, lobsters, and Alaskan King crab legs. I feel like a kid in a sweet shop, except instead of gummy fried eggs, I'm drooling over hard-shelled sea creatures.
"The nature of seafood means that every day is different in terms of what we get from suppliers and what we serve," Lourenço explains. "We usually use around 60 crabs every day. All our crab is from the UK with the exception of our King Crab, which we import."
With my crustacean feast is plated up, I take a generous bite out of the burger. It's everything I hoped it would be: shrouded with a glazed bap, specked with light chili, and stuffed with delicately fried crab meat.
There's no denying that British crab tastes delicious but the homegrown crustacean rarely makes it as the star of UK restaurant menus, let alone in the kitchens of home cooks.
"People are put off by the prep—they think crab will take ages to prepare and requires loads of chef-skills," says Lourenço. "I think people see crab as something you indulge in at the seaside on brown bread or while on holiday in the Med."
This disinterest in British crabs could explain why 80 percent are sold abroad to countries including France and Spain. Around 29,000 tonnes of brown crab valued at £38 million was exported in 2012 alone. Despite this bounteous crab supply, Brits just don't seem to have an appetite for the shelled creatures.
CLAW certainly hopes so. The pop-up serves Devon-sourced crab burgers (served with kimchi and shoestring fries) at locations across London, as well as summer festivals including Gottwood, How the Light Gets In, and Secret Garden Party.
"We were one of the first brands to utilise crabs in many different formats and make it the focal point of our menu," CLAW owner Clark tells me. "We buy and use more crab meat than a lot of seafood restaurants put together, so hopefully we're bringing down that figure [the amount of British crabs exported to Europe] slowly but surely."
At Prawnography, another London-based seafood pop-up, the focus may be on prawns, but British crab still plays an important part on the menu.
"My brown crab meat fries are one of my signature dishes," says director Jim Thomlinson. "They're topped with fresh crab meat from Billingsgate Market, basil, dried shrimp, smoked paprika, and Thousand Island dressing. They were once voted the best chips in London."
The popularity of British crab is growing in coastal towns too. Company Shed in Mersea Island in the Blackwater estuary is a 30-year-old seafood restaurant run by Caroline Haward. She took over from her mum and has seen an increase in the number of customers coming for the crab.
"We're incredibly busy and sometimes can't keep up with the demand. At the end of the day, we are a shed," Haward tells me. "What you see is what you get and our main priority is good food. Being able to bring your own bread and wine is also something that makes us unique, and I would never change our simplicity policy."
Company Shed aren't the only to have hit upon the crabs-and-booze combo. As its name suggests, St Ives' Rum and Crab Shack pairs crab gumbo and whole claws with a carefully curated drinks menu.
"We started out as a crab shack, we only had the idea of featuring a one-off rum pop up bar for Christmas and it turned into a smash hit," says founder Neythan Hayes. "The four founders—including myself—all love rum, so we re-opened back up as a rum bar too. We now stock over 50 different rums alongside our Deep South-inspired crab dishes."
Whether barbecued and smoked whole at Prawnography or served old-school bread-and-butter-style at Company Shed, there's no doubt that crabs are slowly scuttling to the forefront of British dining. Could we soon forget about their more expensive crustacean cousins altogether?
"To be honest with you, I would rather have crab to a lobster, as I prefer the sweetness in flavour and the textures better," confesses Thomlinson. "But the problem with lobster is there's a massive hype to it. If it's got a higher margin for expectations, there's a higher chance of disappointment."
Clark also sees a big future for the sideways shellfish.
"British crab definitely has the potential of competing with lobster. It's far more sustainable and any chef will tell you that it has a much greater depth of flavour," he says. "We just need to encourage more people to take advantage of this locally sourced delicacy."
Back in Crab Tavern, Lourenço offers me his signature starter: Cromer crab meat mixed with chili and guacamole on homemade waffles.
"The great thing about crabs is that not only healthy for you, they're a sustainable and versatile ingredient," he says. "It's about making the food people know and love, but giving it a crab twist."
With my mouth full of crab meat and avocado, I couldn't agree more.