Known as much for skiing as sunbathing, summer in New England is short and sweet, so locals and visitors alike make the most of it, flooding beaches and coastal resort destinations from Connecticut to Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard to the Maine Coast, and the lakes and mountains of the unspoiled inland Northeast. Because of this sudden population boom, many eateries are dispensing traditional summer fare. And if you have a hankering for a lobster roll, fried clams or many other foods the Northeast associates with this time of the year, you need to get them while the getting is good.
When it comes to naming the top clam shack, our vote goes to The Clam Box in Ipswich, Massachusetts, on Boston’s North Shore – the region where the fried clam was invented. A truly iconic road food landmark, the Clam Box was built in 1938, and is made of concrete with outwardly sloping walls that form the shape of a giant pint container that the fried clams (and takeout Chinese food everywhere else) are sold in. It usually has a line out the door, and uses local Ipswich clams, renowned for their sweet bellies and briny taste of the sea. Most famously, they change the oil in their fryers every day around 2:30 p.m., shutting for 20 minutes and hanging a “Sorry, oil changing” sign on the door. They also change it again after closing so the next day starts fresh. They serve a variety of other fried seafood, sides and pies, and their offbeat house specialty, the fried lobster plate, which is six to eight chunks of fresh tail meat, is offered only on weekends. Clam Box is a fantastic place, but don’t try going in winter – it closes from Thanksgiving weekend until the third Thursday in February.
That’s a longer season than the A&W root beer drive-in in the idyllic college town of Middlebury, Vermont, which runs May to October. While burgers, hot dogs and chili are tasty, the reason to visit is the unique ambiance. The last A&W in Vermont, it is also one of the few remaining car hops in the nation, where roller skating staff delivers trays to your car, hanging them on your window frame, just like in the 1950s. For this reason, classic car buffs make this landmark a must on their road trips, and you are likely to see some serious mid-century Detroit metal along with food of that era. Of course, do not miss the signature root beer floats.
No food screams summer as loudly as ice cream, and New England is still delightfully full of local handmade ice cream shops using pure local milk, but few are as popular come summertime as Mad Martha’s on Martha’s Vineyard, a place consistently rated best on the island for its tasty collection of cool desserts. They sometimes even make lobster ice cream. Now in its 40th season, Mad Martha’s locations in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven all open seasonally from just before Memorial Day until just after Labor Day.
But the king of New England summer cuisine is still lobster. While every coastal state has lobster shacks, Maine rules, and many of the most famous spots in the state are only open in the summer. For whole lobster steamed or boiled, it is impossible to beat The Lobster Shack at Two Lights on Cape Elizabeth, just south of Portland. The setting is magnificent, at the edge of the sea next to two lighthouses (hence the name) with picnic tables spread right to the rocks. It’s a ramshackle place where you go in, order and then wait for your number to be called over the PA. The shack combines the best of Maine in one meal: fresh lobster, wild blueberry pie homemade daily and a perfect ocean setting. Open from May to October, The Lobster Shack receives crustaceans from lobstermen who deliver their catch daily. The seafood is stored in saltwater tanks behind the counter and, when you order, they grab one, put it in a fishnet bag and cook it. Lobsters are served with a biscuit, fries, cole slaw and melted butter on a plastic tray.
The other big draw for Maine visitors is the lobster roll, usually a lot of lobster meat, sometimes tossed with mayo or melted butter, on a toasted hot dog bun. It’s that simple. Some places do add controversial ingredients (chopped celery) while others top the popular menu item with less risqué garnishments (salt, pepper or paprika). With the possible exception of celery, filler is derided as this summertime staple is all about lobster on bread. While most rolls are served on hot dog buns, the famed The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport uses a round bun, better to fit the pound of lobster that goes into every sandwich. As a result, it has repeatedly been named the best lobster roll in New England. The Clam Shack sits right at the water’s edge in downtown and opens Mother’s Day weekend and doesn’t close until the fall.
Photos Courtesy of Clam Box, Clam Shack and Two Lights