By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1994 Gourmet Magazine
Maine is the only state in America that features a picture of cooked food on its license plate. On a white background behind the tag’s blue numbers and above the red word “Vacationland” is a boiled lobster with two meaty claws stretching upward and five little legs splayed out on each side. Lobster is the only food depicted. No cup of melted butter or bag of potato chips appears; there is not even a nutcracker or little fork or bib.
Maine license plates used to be plain black on white, without the seafood. In 1985, schoolchildren from Saco and Kennebunk began a lobbying effort for more interesting plates, protesting the old, simple ones as “yucky.” Convicts at the state prison in Warren were soon stamping out the festive red-white-and-blue lobster plates, which were required on all vehicles registered after July, 1987. Their manufacture has an element of irony: A hundred years earlier, Maine’s prisoners had been so staunchly antilobster that they rioted to protest their steady diet of it; back then, the cold-water crustacean was considered junk food, fit for poor people and jailbirds only.
Although lobster had become quite precious in 1980s America, not all Down Easters were delighted to have it as their emblem. Some spoke in favor of pine trees or a lighthouse or a Maine-made shoe as a more suitable image for license plates; or, if it must be food, a locally grown potato. Jokesters advocated a picture of a swarm of Maine’s infamous blackflies. Maine novelist Carolyn Chute complained that lobster was tourist fare and meant nothing to most real Mainers; she suggested macaroni and cheese as more truly representative. In 1990, the state legislature voted to permit drivers to paint over the picture if it offended them—a gesture known as delobstering. In a way, we agree with the delobsterers. It is a shame that the pricey sea creature overshadows the other interesting things to eat in Maine—especially in-land—such as American chop suey (macaroni and ground beef), pickled tripe, hermit bars, and Grape-Nuts pudding. On the other hand, as we meander along the Pine Tree State’s ocean roads, we are thrilled to be tourists in a land where lobster-mania prevails. For summer travelers, no regional delicacy is more fun to eat.
From Kittery to Eastport, the villages and thoroughfares of coastal Maine brim with opportunities to savor lobster. There are hundreds of restaurants, backroad stands, and fishermen’s co-ops from which to choose. You can have this delicacy hot from the kettle or chilled on a bed of shaved ice, still packed in its scarlet shell or already picked out and in the pink, on a lace doily with a bottle of fine wine or on a cardboard tray with a paper cup of lemonade. A candy store in Bar Harbor even makes lobster ice cream, guaranteed to contain chunks of meat.
The proverbial preparation is boiled whole lobster with a bucket of steamed mussels for variety’s sake, corn on the cob, and maybe some potato chips, too—a meal best enjoyed dockside on a cool summer night by the light of the moon. Whole lobsters, though, require concentrated effort to eat. The carefree alternative is a lobster roll. A few civilized restaurants list lobster rolls on the menu, but mostly they are served at the supremely casual kinds of places that call themselves shacks, shanties, huts, galleys, diners, and dog wagons.
A lobster roll is the simplest of sandwiches—basically lobster meat surrounded by bread. The meat can be cool, room temperature, or even slightly warm; mixed with mayonnaise and maybe bits of celery, or possibly with melted butter; in generous heaps or merely a few shreds. The fundamental issue is meat quality: Is it freshly cooked and just extracted from the shell or too-long refrigerated or (heaven forbid) defrosted; is it from the tail, which is juicy and resilient; from the claw, which is tender but sometimes dry; or from the knuckle and body, which can be stringy? Most lobster rolls are made with a top-sliced hot-dog bun, the kind that splits apart at the top and has flat sides that can be toasted on a short-order grill. Some are served wrapped in wax paper, others in little cardboard boats that tend to squeeze the sides together, causing the bun to bulge and forcing the meat upward to make the sandwich appear more abundantly endowed than it really is. Sometimes the meat is on a bed of lettuce, which may seem like padding but serves the admirable purpose of keeping the moist lobster meat from sogging the bun and causing it to fall apart.
Side dishes are seldom a consideration in judging lobster roll distinction. If anything, you’ll get French fries or potato chips and perhaps cole slaw—these companions are usually perfunctory. Really good hand-cut fried onion rings, however, can do wonders to round out this shore meal. And the fresh ocean smack of a good lobster roll is such that a sweet dessert puts an exquisite point on the experience. In summertime Maine oven-warm blueberry and strawberry-rhubarb pies perfume the air at some of the finer places that serve lobster rolls. You will also find the considerably less elegant—but every bit as appropriate—whoopie pie. Whoopie pies have been a Yankee favorite since they were invented by the Berwick Cake Company of Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1927 (when the Eddie Cantor song “Makin’ Whoopee” was popular). Two plump circles of chocolate cake sandwiching a layer of sugary white creme (not cream) filling, they might make you think of a huge, squishy Oreo cookie, the kind of indulgence you enjoy when you are young and dietetically innocent. And there is an aesthetic consistency to a whoopie pie after a lobster roll: The two make an all-sandwich meal.
In assessing lobster roll excellence we also had to consider ambiance. Linen napery and candlelight would be bizarre, but paper napkins, bright sun, the sound of boats rocking in their berths, and the screech of gulls nose-diving for French fries left on a nearby picnic table add immeasurable je ne sais quoi to the lobster roll experience. So won’t you join us on a summertime lobster roll hunt? We’ll be wearing jeans we can wipe our hands on and packing plenty of moist towelettes.
We concentrated mostly on the southern end of Maine, and the first good lobster roll we found was just over the border from New Hampshire, on Route 1 in Kittery: Bob’s CLAM HUT, in business since 1956. Fried seafood baskets are a specialty here, but Bob’s lobster roll is also top drawer. It’s relatively expensive (about two dollars more than a fried clam roll) and is served with pale twiggy French fries and a pickle slice. The bun is nice and warm—buttered and grilled until toasty golden brown—and the lobster meat inside is faintly chilled, but not so much that any of the taste has been iced. In fact, this lobster blossoms with bracing ocean flavor when you sink your teeth into the good-sized pieces. There is plenty of meat, with enough mayo to hold it together. The taste that lingers, though, is not the mayonnaise. It is lobster and the buttery undertone of the bun.
The atmosphere at Bob’s isn’t what you’d call idyllic. The road is noisy, and directly across it is a cluster of factory outlet stores, including Yankee Candle, Harve Benard, and Chuck Roast Outdoor Clothing. But then again, it might be argued that this is a truly authentic Maine setting, considering that outlet stores are as typical of the state’s lower coast as lobster piers. (Still, no one has yet proposed that the license plate’s “Vacation-land” be changed to “Outletland.”) The modus operandi of ordering and getting food is a timeless seaside ritual, and Bob’s system is no exception. You read the menu posted on the outside of the building, then place your order and pay at a tiny screened window. If you have been out in the bright sun for long, you will not see anything in the darkened interior, not even the person taking your order. No matter. The order-taker gives you a number, and you dawdle outside around another window until your number is hollered over a loudspeaker. It’s a real thrill to hear it announced. Even if you are the only one waiting and you stand six inches from the take-out window, lobster roll huts almost always use the loudspeaker to let the world know your meal is ready. However, Bob’s is usually thronged with hungry customers, and on a sunny weekend the sound of the mike is a constant refrain.
About a dozen miles up the road, at OGUNQUIT FISH & LOBSTER, a small fish store with a grill as well as a few picnic tables inside and out, we asked if the cook ever made lobster rolls with butter rather than mayonnaise. “Others use butter; we do not!” came the firm reply, followed by the presentation of what must be described as the classic Down East lobster roll. Bite-sized chunks of snapping firm meat are bound with minimal mayonnaise inside a toasted, top-sliced bun. It isn’t spectacularly overstuffed, but the taste is pure and fresh. How fresh is it? As we waited for the bun to be toasted, we watched a man in an apron crack boiled lobsters, extract their meat, and put it in a mixing bowl. The exhilarating aroma of lobster wafts through the air in this spanking-clean seafood market.
The gent who assembled the lobster roll told us his uncle makes the whoopie pies that are sealed in plastic wrap and lined up along the counter, selling for eighty-nine cents apiece. Handsome single-serving pies they are: tender disks of dark chocolate cake with a generous layer of sugary white goo between them.
A short distance away on Route 1, in Wells, is a respected landmark on the lobster roll trail, a shipshape blue-and-white eatery known as the MAINE DINER. Although it is all too easy to be sidetracked by the diner’s ambrosial baked lobster pie, if you are looking for lobster roll excellence, here it is. Two versions are offered: the traditional Maine lobster roll—made of big chunks of knuckle, claw, and plenty of succulent tail meat with mayo in a grilled bun—and the “hot lobster roll,” unadorned warm lobster meat piled into the bun and accompanied by a cup of drawn butter. “We found,” proprietor Dick Henry said, “that if we served the meat already buttered, the bun fell apart.” So you can pour the butter on the sandwich, risking bun disintegration, or you can simply tear off pieces of toasted bread and dip them with fragments of meat in the cup of butter. Either way, it’s sheer heaven.
The most famous place for lobster rolls is MABEL’S LOBSTER CLAW in Kennebunkport. The walls of the cozy wood-paneled dining room are plastered with autographed pictures of the many celebrities who have eaten here, including local householders George and Barbara Bush (he likes baked stuffed lobster; she goes for eggplant Parmesan). It is an old-fashioned summer-resort kind of place, casual and relaxed, staffed by swift waitresses in rubber-soled shoes and selling bumper stickers at the cash register. Mabel Hanson does the cooking: Bread, cakes, and pies are baked every morning; the peanut butter ice-cream pie with hot fudge topping has been known to induce rapture at her tables; and, if you ask about the lobster she serves, be prepared for the kind of treatise only a devoted shoreline cook could deliver. “They’ll get cheaper next week because they go into soft-shell. That means you pay less per lobster, but you have to eat them right away. They’re the lobster-lover’s choice, from July into November.” What about frozen lobster? “Well, you might as well be eating rope!”
Mabel’s lobster roll is as deluxe as they come, served with fries and slaw on an actual ceramic plate, although the roll itself is sheathed in a cardboard case. At lunch, many customers get it with a cup of chowder—a seashore feast. The meat in the roll is juicy, fresh, and copious, nicely complemented by the mayonnaise and cushioned by a few leaves of lettuce. Some of the pieces of tail and claw Mabel stuffs into the roll are so large that you feel a little embarrassed picking it up and eating it out of hand.
A half mile from Mabel’s, perched over the water at the Kennebunkport Bridge, THE CLAM SHACK has been a town fixture for a quarter century. It is an ebullient little place hardly bigger than a newsstand, with nowhere to sit, inside or out. Customers cluster in the sun, standing up to devour clam baskets, chowder, and lobster rolls. Leaning against the whitewashed bridge rail is a favored way to eat, too, although diners must contend with greedy birds eyeing unattended onion rings (crunchy hoops with luscious warm insides). A posted sign warns: “Beware of Seagulls. They Like Our Food as Much as You Do.” Some people simply eat in their cars, but plenty get their food to take on picnics. “Many of our lobster rolls have gone to the Bushes,” proprietor Richard Jacques said. “He used to arrive out back in his boat and we’d pass the food down to him. When he became President, the Secret Service started eating here too.”
As you sink your teeth into a Clam Shack lobster roll, you know you are tasting greatness—the best, hands down. You can count the six, eight, maybe ten big pearlescent chunks of fresh-from-the-shell tail and claw arranged in the bun, and each is so big and succulent that a single sandwich seems lavish. You have a choice of mayonnaise or butter on this roll, which means that only after the meat is assembled on the bun is the condiment spooned on. The result is an array of pure pink lobster merely frosted with a dollop of mayonnaise or veiled in a shimmering mantle of melted butter. The bun itself is not a conventional hotdog bun, but a round, eggy roll with a tender crumb, just faintly toasted. Mr. Jacques has the buns made specially for the sandwiches, of which he says he sells upward of four hundred on a sunny day. One such afternoon, as we ate from the hood of our car, a lawyer visiting from Idaho polished off a lobster roll and an order of onion rings and stood on the sidewalk announcing to everyone who ambled past, “We’ve got nothing like this in Boise! Nothing at all!”
Lobster rolls north of Kennebunkport are a bit of an anticlimax after the conspicuous supremacy of The Clam Shack. But some are very good, such as that served at HARRASEEKET LUNCH & LOBSTER, where you can dine at a picnic table beside the Freeport town harbor, the meal perfumed by the salt smell of the ocean and serenaded by the sound of an American flag flapping overhead. Harraseeket’s lobster roll comes cleaved open in a broad cardboard dish and packed with briny-sweet pieces of meat. Have it with French-fried onion middles (sweet, slick nuggets that are to fried rings what holes are to doughnuts) and conclude with a fudgy, hand-fashioned whoopie pie. You’ll also find agreeable lobster rolls at CAPT’N ANDY’S NORTH SEAFOOD DRIVE-IN on Route 1 out of Camden (open late May through August), at BEAL’S LOBSTER PIER overlooking the water in Southwest Harbor, at THE DOCKSIDER RESTAURANT in Northeast Harbor (open late May to mid-October), and—located on the far side of Bar Harbor—at DONUT HOLE + in Winter Harbor.
In some ways, Donut Hole + is our favorite spot to eat lobster rolls, or just about anything, along the coast. A minuscule weathered wood shack set over the water, the place provides views of rocks and the ocean off Schoodic Peninsula. There is a short counter with five stools, and a handful of tables are scattered around a potbellied stove. The kitchen is hardly bigger than a galley, and as you watch the cooks dipping clams in meal and dishing out rice custard pudding, you can overhear their conversation. (On our last visit: “There’s two people out there who want lobster rolls and blueberry pie for breakfast!”) Locals’ personal coffee mugs hang on a wall, and the custom is to help yourself to refills.
Donut Hole + is open from early morning to early afternoon. The midday menu lists baked-bean platters, gingerbread with cream, and the beauteous lobster roll heaped with meat. Nice as lunch is, breakfast is the best time here, because the doughnuts are dandy: modest-sized, cakey, and sound enough to be dunked. Flavors include plain, molasses, cinnamon, chocolate, and sometimes applesauce. To accompany our doughnuts at nine in the morning, the kitchen was perfectly willing to make us a lobster roll, but we had to twist some arms to get a piece of pie. First, we were told that the pies were still cooling and therefore could not be cut, but after some cajoling the waitress admitted that they don’t encourage pie eating before 11 A.M. “If we let it be known the pies were ready, everyone would eat them for breakfast, and there’d be none left for those who come at lunch.” So, if you go to Donut Hole + for lobster rolls and pie at breakfast, please don’t tell them we sent you.
Capt’n Andy’s North Seafood Drive-In (permanently closed)
Route 1, Camden
The Clam Shack (new location)
The Docksider Restaurant
Donut Hole + (new location)
Ogunquit Fish & Lobster