From mid-November through summer, you can get fresh crab at diners and festivals in California and Oregon.
Growing up in California, Brian Leitner looked forward to the holidays with a giddy expectation that had nothing to do with Santa Claus. His excitement stemmed from Dungeness crab season, which kicks off several weeks before Christmas.
"I was a big crab fan," Leitner says. "Caught fresh, boiled, served with drawn butter. It's hard to go wrong with that." Nowadays, Leitner wears the toque at Nettie's Crab Shack, a new San Francisco restaurant that reserves a starring role for Dungeness crab in crab cakes and cioppino—and in the shell. "You lay down newspapers, break out the butter, and make a big mess," Leitner says.
It's a delicacy specific to the West Coast, where the feisty crustaceans populate waters from Alaska's Aleutian Islands to California's Morro Bay. Their sweet and briny meat—close in flavor to lobster—shines in sophisticated dishes but also stands deliciously on its own.
Although peak season varies from place to place, it begins in mid-November or December and runs into summer. Dungeness meat is most plump and tender during this period, when it becomes the focus of dinners and festivals along the coast. Here's where to get your claws on the best.
10TH ANNUAL CRAB & WINE DAYS Mendocino, Calif. Includes a cioppino feast on January 23 and a crab cake cook-off on January 24. www.gomendo.com .
RENDEZVOUS INN & RESTAURANT Fort Bragg, Calif. Chef Kim Badenhop hails the season with crab bisque, crab cakes, and crab ravioli accompanied by California wines. (707) 964-8142, www.rendezvousinn.com .
OREGON SEAFOOD & WINE FESTIVAL Portland. Fans enjoy crab cooking demonstrations and celebrity crab-cracking contests at this January 23–24 event. www.oregonseafoodfestival.com .
NEWPORT SEAFOOD & WINE FESTIVAL Newport, Ore. This town on Yaquina Bay claims the title Dungeness Crab Capital of the World (www.newportchamber.org ). On February 20, 21, and 22, visitors savor crab dishes from such hot spots as Local Ocean Seafoods (541-574-7959, (www.localocean.net ), where crab-and-garlic soup is a specialty.
Photography by Mitch Tobias 
This article was first published in January 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.