Time to get crackin’: Where to get your fill at a crab feed in Sonoma County

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Local crab feeds appear like a lighthouse beacon during the dull winter months, guiding us through the hazardous, post-holiday shoals of chocolate withdrawal and seasonal affective disorder.

If you haven’t already done it, go ahead and cheer yourself up by reserving a seat at one of these all-you-can eat crab extravaganzas. Strap on that plastic bib and sip a glass of buttery chardonnay, and life will seem worth living again.

If you’ve experienced a few crabapaloozas here, you know that each one has its own unique ambiance and charm. Held everywhere from cozy community halls to upscale wineries and restaurants, the ever-popular crab feed offers something for everyone. In other words, not all are created equal.

Things you may want to consider include how the crab is served (cracked and cold, or in steaming bowls of cioppino), whether beer and wine are included in the ticket price (in addition to a no-host bar), what other fun extras might be offered (live music, kids’ performances or a DJ for dancing) and the all-important matter of fundraising activities (raffles, silent and live auctions) or lack thereof.

The pacing is also paramount.

“I like to see an event that’s moving and fun and has a live auction that doesn’t drag on for hours and hours,” said Jason Weiss, vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Sonoma County, which will hold two crab feeds in Petaluma and Windsor this winter.

Although the raison d’etre for most crab feeds is to raise money for worthy causes — a tradition that started back in the 1960s and ‘70s — they are first and foremost eating events, so the crab with all the fixings is of primary concern.

“Here in West County, everybody does a crab feed, so you have to distinguish between yours and theirs,” said Harold Kwalwasser, public relations chair of the Sebastopol Rotary club, which will hold its annual crab feed Feb. 9. “We have a variety of members who either run grocery stores or wineries, so we pride ourselves on having absolutely the freshest crab and some pretty darn good wine.”

Tony DeLima, sales manager at the Tides Wharf in Bodega Bay, supplies many Sonoma County crab feeds with the tasty crustaceans, but unfortunately, the supply of hyper-local crabs is dropping off.

“Out of here, I don’t think you’re going to see very many more crabs,” DeLima said in early January. “We are waiting for Oregon to start ... the boats set the gear, but they are not able to pull because the weather is bad.”

Meanwhile, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has announced it will open the commercial Dungeness crab fishery from the Sonoma/Mendocino county line north to Patrick’s Point in Humboldt County on Jan. 15, as many consumers had hoped. So fear not: The crab feeds will go on, and they will be as delicious as ever.

Although there are too many local crab feeds to list here, we threw a wide net to offer some tasty choices in a variety of regions and categories, from crab feeds for foodies to crab feeds with a view. Now get cracking!

Crab feeds for foodies

If you want to pull out all the culinary stops, look no farther than the 30th annual Crab and Wine Fest hosted by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau on Feb. 2 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.

Last year, organizers had to turn folks away after selling 1,600 tickets. This year, they are prepared to accommodate hundreds more since they will expand into the Hall of Flowers for the pre-feed reception, which features food bites from two dozen restaurants, wine and beer tastes, a live band and a photo-op experience with a big, inflatable crab.

“You need to get there at 4 p.m. and graze until 5 p.m.,” suggested Tawny Tesconi, farm bureau executive director. “Then take an hour break before hitting the crab at 6:15 p.m.”

The sit-down crab dinner in the Grace Pavilion, served by kids from Future Farmers and American and 4-H, starts off with Caesar salad and bowls of clam chowder plus Costeaux bread and Clover butter — a meal in itself. But the main attraction is the cracked cold crab sourced from The Tides and the pasta with marinara sauce from the Pasta King. The meal is finished off with a plate of Costeaux cookies on every table and a live auction with 20 lots.

The decor is elegant but dress is casual, with guests wearing jeans and cowboy boots to blend in with the farmers, food and wine producers and various VIPs from here and there.

“It’s a who’s who of Sonoma County,” Tesconi said. “If you want to run into an old friend, that’s the best place to find them.”

Tickets are $85. To reserve: sonomafb.org/crab-feed

It’s a bit of a drive, but the annual Cracked Crab Dinner at the IDESST Sausalito Portuguese Cultural Center at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 2 may offer the freshest, all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab north of the Golden Gate. That’s because it will be cooked that morning by Portuguese-American Chef Manuel Azevedo of LaSalette and Tasca Tasca restaurants in Sonoma.

“We call it a crab dinner because it’s not just feeding ... it’s more about quality,” he said. “The building is literally a half a block from the water, and it’s probably one of the most beautiful Portuguese cultural centers.”

Azevedo is at the center by 7 a.m. to get the pots boiling with salted water in order to cook the 700 to 800 pounds of live crab. The fresh Dungeness cools down before hitting the tables cracked and cleaned.

Another team handles the rest of the feast. Azevedo said, which is “Portuguesed up” with roasted sweet peppers and chickpeas in the salad and São Jorge cheese in the pasta. Each table gets two bottles of wine with their meal, with more wine and cocktails for sale.

This year, the feast will end with a silent auction of homemade desserts. “A lot of people buy whole tables and buy a cake for the table,” he said.

Tickets are $65 adults, $40 kids, to support the center’s Annual Holy Ghost Festa. To reserve: idesst.org. 511 Caledonia St.

Crab Feeds with a twist

Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards in Sonoma will host a crab feed at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 26 that comes with a down-eastern accent.

The evening begins with a sparkling wine reception with cheese and charcuterie in the tasting room, then everyone heads down to the cave for the boiled crab dinner. Served up by Sorensen’s Catering Napa Valley, the feast resembles a traditional lobster bake, with boiled sides of corn on the cob, artichokes, hot links and potatoes cheek-and-jowl with the crab and shrimp.

“It’s all dumped out of the pot, down the middle of the table,” said Kaela Lely, hospitality coordinator at Gloria Ferrer. “It’s one crab per guest.”

The dinner is $135 and includes an unlimited tasting of sparkling wine and varietals. gloriaferrer.com.

As part of Crab Feast Mendocino 2019 (formerly Crab, Wine & Beer Days), the folks from the Mendocino Coast clinics will simmer giant cioppino pots filled to the brim with clams, mussels, shrimp, fish and Dungeness crab on Jan. 25 at Fort Bragg’s historic Pentecost Hall.

Served family-style with a tossed salad and Fort Bragg Bakery bread, the cioppino dinner is popular with locals as well as out-of-towners who have snagged tickets to the Crab Cake Cook-off and Wine Tasting Competition the next day.

“It’s very popular with locals who support the clinic’s work,” said Tawny MacMillan, event coordinator for Mendocino Coast Clinics. “Our clinic staff, including our medical director, are the servers.”

Tickets to the all-you-can-eat dinner are $40, $15 for kids 12 to 16. There are three seatings at 4, 6 and 8 p.m. To reserve: mendocinocoastclinics.org. 822 Stewart St.

The Forestry Crab Feed, on Feb. 2 at the Holy Ghost Hall in Sebastopol, is among the longest-running feeds in the county and offers a choice of two crab dishes: a hot-crab cioppino, and a marinated cold crab, along with a shrimp salad.

“It started in 1961, so this is our 58th crab feed,’ said Kim Thompson, chairperson for the feed. “It started as a fundraiser among the CDF, which is now Cal Fire, to raise money for local charities.”

The cooking is done by a crew of Cal Fire folks, who use the same recipes that were introduced in 1961 by former Santa Rosa Fire Captain Harold Rose.

“He doesn’t cook anymore, but he still makes sure we do it right,” Thompson said. “We have people who have come for 50 years — they are professional crab feed attendees.”

Doors open at 5 p.m. but there’s only one seating, so an acoustic band will entertain those waiting in line. After dinner, a DJ will spin tunes for dancing.

Tickets are $65, with funds going to charities in six counties.

Crab feeds for conversation

If you are more interested in chatting with friends than listening to bidding wars, look for an old-school crab feed that raises money mostly through ticket sales rather than auctions.

The Healdsburg American Legion’s All-You-Can-Eat Crab Feed, held Feb. 2 at the Villa Chanticleer in Healdsburg, opens at 3 p.m. with a no-host bar, then starts serving salad, garlic bread and cracked crab at 4 p.m. There are no auctions at all.

“This is just a good old boys crab feed,” said Caroline Teuschler of Healdsburg, who sells tickets every year. “They all sit around and talk and chat for a long time after.”

Tickets are $65, including beer and wine at dinner, to benefit scholarships for youths to go to Girls & Boys State, an educational event sponsored by the American Legion. To reserve: healdsburgamericanlegion.org

The Sons & Daughters of Italy will put on a crab feed at 5 p.m. Feb. 9 at Lucchesi Community Center that offers a trip raffle and basket raffle but no auction, and no entertainment.

“This is a roomful of Italians,” said Ernie Giono of Rohnert Park, a trustee of the board. “They are loud people. I’m full-blooded myself, so I know. We start talking, and you can’t hear yourself think.“

People often clean the crab and put it on top of their salad, he said, and a few come only for the homemade spaghetti.

“The pasta sauce that we serve is made by Ed Santero of Petaluma,” he said. “He makes the best Bolognese sauce, using beer and red wine, onions and garlic ... we have people that don’t eat shellfish that come here just for the roomful of Italians and the great pasta.”

Tickets are $50, including wine with dinner. To reserve, call Giono at 707-585-2928 or email him at erng1624@aol.com.

Crab feeds for kids

If your kid goes to a school that has a crab feed, then chances are you already have a seat at their crab table. But what if your kids are grown, or you don’t have kids? You can still boost the bottom line for athletic, arts, educational and community programs.

As part of the 2019 Winter Crab Feast, the Little River Inn will host a crab feed to benefit MUSE (Mendocino Unified School Enrichment program for the arts ) at 6 p.m. Jan. 18 in the Abalone Room overlooking the ocean.

The family-style, all-your-can-eat crab is served with wine and beer and sides of coleslaw or artichokes, but the ambiance is a cut above.

“It’s all white linen, so it’s fancier than other local crab feeds,” said Callie Dym, innkeeper. “But what’s incredibly fun is the Mendocino High improv group comes and performs ... the level of entertainment is really beyond.”

Donation and reservations required: 707-937-5942. 7901 N. Highway 1, Little River.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Sonoma County will hold two crab feeds this winter. The first one is on Jan. 26 at Petaluma’s Lucchesi Park Club and the second is on Feb. 16 at the Brooks Road Club in Windsor. Both support the clubs’ after-school and summer programs.

The Petaluma feed costs $75 and for the first year, offers an all-you-can-drink wine-and-beer bracelet for $20. Local restaurants and bakeries will donate desserts for a combination silent/live auction, plus there’s a DJ and dancing until 11:30 p.m.

In Windsor, tickets are also $75, with beer and wine for an additional cost, and the star of the show is State Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) who will serve as the VIP auctioneer. The kids will make an appearance at both crab feeds, dancing, singing and telling stories about how the club has impacted them.

Sebastopol Rotary’s annual Crab Feed, set for Feb. 9 at the rustic Holy Ghost Hall, raises money for teacher grants across all 39 schools of the west county.

“It’s really important for us to sell the hell out of this crab feed, so we do two seatings of 400 each,” said Hal Kwalwasser, public relations chair for the club. “The hall is very west county. There’s not much pretension, which is fine when you’re up to your elbows in crab pieces.”

Tickets cost $70, including wine with dinner, and after the second seating there’s a live band. Tickets are available from Exchange Bank in Sebastopol.

Crab feeds with a view

Sometimes you’re in the mood for an upscale crab feed — with an iconic view of the coastline or the vineyards of Sonoma County — and we found a handful of choices.

The Tides Wharf & Restaurant hosts a Crab Feed Series in the winter that features all the fixings — chilled crab, clam chowder, pasta and salad — with a sweeping view of the bay in all its wild glory plus white linen napkins. The dinners will take place on Fridays Jan. 18, Feb. 1, Feb. 22, March 1 and March 15. Cost is $59.95, plus tax and tip. To reserve: 707-875-3652. 835 Highway 1. Bodega Bay.

As part of the Sonoma Valley Delicious promotion, Viansa Sonoma Winery & Tasting Room will host a “Vino, Views and Crab Dinner” at 6 p.m. Jan. 19. The family-style, crab-centric dishes paired with wine will be prepared by Sonoma chefs Bryan Jones and Ed Metcalfe. Tickets are $125, including wine pairings. To reserve: eventbrite.com. 25200 Arnold Dr., Sonoma.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery, which overlooks the Alexander Valley in Geyserville, will host a crab fest at 6 p.m. Jan. 26 that benefits The Camp Fire Relief Fund.

Guests will enjoy a wine and passed appetizer reception and silent auction in the upstairs gallery, then head to the West Tower for a family-style crab feast with chardonnay. Tickets are $125. To reserve: francisfordcoppolawinery.com. 300 Via Archimedes.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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