Crab Louie

The origin of the dressing is disputed. The Olympic Club in Seattle, The Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Washington, Solari’s Restaurant, Bergez-Frank’s Old Poodle Dog Restaurant and the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, and the Bohemian in Portland all claim to be the home of the dressing, with the invention in either the 1900s or 1910s. In all cases, the original salad was made with Dungeness crab.

~ Wikipedia

The elevator fascinated me.

And so did the man running it, up to the top floor of Marston Department Store in San Diego, California. My mother, my grandmother, and I―dressed to the nines as they say―were headed to a ladies’ lunch in the elegant dining room on the top floor.

My 6-year-old petticoated bottom shifted on the slippery banquette, the lime-green faux leather texture not a surface that the scratchy tulle fabric could hang on to. No traction. As I kept sliding downward, Mom rewarded my efforts to stay still with glares that would stop a Sherman tank. On top of it all, the backs of my legs itched, too, and my feet dangled nearly a foot and a half off the floor. Across the table, my grandmother beamed at me, her little princess. The tiny black hat, festooned with lacey netting, perched on the top of her head, just barely, and slipped to one side as she craned her neck at the frowning waiter looming over her.

“Oh dear, I am so sorry, sir. We’ll all have the Crab Louie and she,” and here she pointed at me, “will enjoy a nice ice-cold Shirley Temple.”

She smiled her best flirtatious smile as the man scrawled our order on his notepad, the size of a deck of cards.

“And her mother and I will have black coffee, and make that extra strong and fresh, please.”

Fumbling with the latch on her purse, she brought out a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, the very thing that killed her, lung cancer, five years later. Mom leaned over with the Mickey Mouse lighter she’d bought at Disneyland the day before. Just before the flame ignited my grandmother’s cigarette, I smelled the fluid inside the lighter. Pungent, dangerous.

“What’s Crab Louie, Grandma?” I asked. “Will I like it? Is it made from real crabs? Are there claws? Are there shells? Do they pinch?”

Grandma chuckled.

“No claws, just a lot of sweet, tender meat. You’ll love it, I promise.”

She patted my hand as the waiter set down the Shirley Temple. The gleaming red cherry on top convinced me that I all needed to do was to put the red plastic straw in my mouth and drink, no questions asked. I sipped the sweet drink, wondering why it was called a “Shirley Temple?” Wasn’t Shirley Temple a little girl like me? Only she starred in movies, and I didn’t.

So many questions, so few answers.

Mom and Grandma lit cigarettes again.

The waiter brought the salad.

The first bite of crab assured me that no claws or shells would interfere with my lunch. Every bite of the sweet meat, tinged with the flavorful dressing, led me to a state of bliss I’d rarely felt before.

Food, so many mysteries, just waiting to be discovered.

And I didn’t want to miss a thing.


Crab Louie Dressing

1 cup mayonnaise

½ cup heavy cream

¼ cup chili sauce

2 tablespoons finely diced or grated yellow onion

1 small garlic clove, peeled and grated

2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

A pinch or two of cayenne

Mix all ingredients together and chill until ready to serve. Fold in flaked crab meat. Arrange crab on a bed of iceberg lettuce, surround with hard-cooked eggs and cherry tomatoes.

Shirley Temple

Ice, crushed

1¼ cups lemon-lime soda (Sprite, 7-Up)

Juice of ½ lime 

1 teaspoon grenadine syrup 

Maraschino cherries

Fill a tall Tom Collins glass, or other tall glass, with crushed ice. Pour in soda, lime juice, and grenadine. Mix. Top with a cherry or two and add a straw.

6 thoughts on “Crab Louie

  1. Thank you for writing. It was the highlight of our trips to San Diego, from Pullman, Washington, where we lived, except when we visited grandparents. Good to hear your memories, too!

  2. Thanks to my sister Dianne for sending this perfectly written sweet memory of Marstons in San Diego. My mother, sister, and I would include lunch in the tea room during visits. We drove to San Diego from our small desert town and going to Marstons for lunch was such a fun big city event. Of course a new dress was also welcomed but lunch was the highlight. Sometimes we stayed at the El Cortez and walked to Marstons. Best manners were also required, of course! Thank your for bringing back fond memories!

  3. OMG! I may have been sitting in that room at Marstons! also that day..our favorite place to be such ladies and proper young children. We shopped there every 6 months for clothing and lunch. Remember the huge fresh flower arrangements on the first floor? The perfume and cosmetic isles so heavy with scents and grand dames! Fur coats, high heels, elevator attendants and powder room maids as I look back. Great article!

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