Where to Find the Best Lobster Roll in MainePhoto Credit : Jeff Rogers
I am standing in the lot of an RV dealership outside Worcester, Massachusetts, on a sunny summer day, sweating and scribbling instructions as our rental agent races through a systems rundown for the Gulf Stream Mini Cruiser she’s about to hand over. She’s rushing—two other customers are in the queue—and I’m struggling to keep up. I page back through my notes, which have all the clarity of a drunken brainstorm on a bar napkin. Plugging or unplugging or unplugging, I read. Kick 4 rear tours. What? Holding tanks empty diesel fill. Dear God.
The idea, if my family and I can ever get off the lot, is to make this rig our temporary home as we travel up the Maine coast—from Kittery to the Canadian border—searching for the best lobster roll in the state, which, accounting for geography and the fact that these are the freshest, sweetest lobsters you’ll find, makes it reasonable to then declare it the best in New England, and thus in the country. I’ll be eating two to five rolls a day—maybe not the whole roll but, out of fairness, at least half. A modest RV just big enough for my three-person family seems like a smart way to cover the 600-mile round trip without all the repacking. But my history with RVs is complicated, which is why my note-taking assumes an ever-greater sense of urgency. Our only previous experience began with the rear end of our factory-new 33-footer perched on a boulder and ended with us accidentally driving up Maine’s Cadillac Mountain Summit Road.
But this model is several years old, just 25 feet long, and narrower by a third. And it’s been more than a decade since our disaster. We have more wisdom and better insurance. We also have an 8-year-old son and a new puppy, a Chihuahua-spaniel-poodle mix freshly rescued from a kill shelter in Georgia. It’s been only a week and he barely recognizes us, but we had little control over the timing—a reality underscored by the fact that the adoption agency was named Divine Intervention. To err is human, to save a dog….
Training “completed,” we pack up our things and head north. Already the drive feels easier. In our previous model, the cab was so wide that if my husband and I stretched our arms toward each other, our fingertips didn’t touch. This time we’re in something more like a large van, only with a queen-size bed, sofa, kitchenette, and proper shower. Nevertheless, we’re spending our first night with our friends Tim and Lisa in Scarborough. We’ll ease into this one, thanks. With the sun setting, we snake up a long, wooded driveway, hearing the pine branches softly brush the side panels, before we find their rambling house and barn aglow with warm light.
“We’re here, Louie!” I tell the puppy. He has spent most of the drive huddled in my lap, more skittish than cozy. I wonder aloud if taking a rescue dog—recently trucked hundreds of miles in a van full of apprehensive canines—on a road trip might, in his mind, read less as “family getaway” and more as another abandonment. My theory is confirmed as he promptly unloads said anxiety on the kitchen floor, couch, and doormat. I chase him around with paper towels, babbling apologies. “No worries,” Tim says repeatedly as he hoses off the mess. “This isn’t that unusual on a farm.”
In bed that night, I take stock of my challenge: to make a series of comparisons among dishes tasted only hours or days apart, and determine one single winner. A set of criteria is needed, as well as a searching and fearless written inventory of my own lobster roll biases. I take out my notepad:
1. The beauty of the Maine lobster roll is its simplicity, a perfect marriage of lean, sweet meat with a buttery bun and rich sauces (mayo or butter). Therefore, lettuce, with its bitter, vegetal flavors and tendency to wilt and turn slimy when exposed to heat or mayonnaise, has no place in any lobster roll, ever. Celery, shallots, lemon zest, lobster roe, chives—all may be considered on a case-by-case basis, but tradition runs deep here.
2. On the matter of sauces, mayonnaise should be tossed with the meat just before serving or served on the side. Lobster left to sit in mayo absorbs its flavor and turns flabby. And while butter may be better (or not—I’m neutral on this), it should be poured over warm meat, lest it congeal.
3. The roll must be split-top, buttered, and toasted on a griddle.
4. The whole shebang should fit into an average-size mouth, so that each bite is a medley of sweet (not oversalted) meat, buttery bun, and sauce.
5. In the end, don’t we all just want a great roll and a view?
I also establish a set of categories by which each roll will be rated on a 10-point scale: portion size, meat texture and sweetness, saucing, bun, extraneous additions (e.g., the dreaded lettuce), and ambience. As I’ve learned, there can be tremendous variation among these categories, even for such a simple dish. Some shacks oversalt the cooking water, others overcook the meat, and buttering the roll is an art in itself. One contender, the diminutive roll at Eventide Oyster Co., is so atypical, with its Chinese-style steamed bun and brown butter sauce, that it really needs its own taxonomy. But it’s too good to be ignored, so I add it to the list.
Prejudices accounted for, I consult my roster of destinations, compiled over several weeks of talking with local food experts and a source list from 15 years writing about New England food. For ease of navigation, I’ve Google-mapped the contestants and color-coded them by day to optimize the ratio of miles driven to lobsters consumed.
[Ed. note: What follows is the saga of Amy’s road trip, which highlights some of her most memorable lobster roll stops. But if you can’t wait to see the full list, ranked, go ahead and take a peek at the bottom of this article.]
I arrive at our first stop with a full appetite and fresh confidence. We’ve all slept well, and as we pull into Day’s Crabmeat and Lobster Pound in Yarmouth, we’re thankful that the RV fits easily into a spot along the shoulder. From the road (and there are six lanes of it between Route 1 and I-295), Day’s doesn’t look promising, but behind the 1943 building is a surprising idyll: a cluster of picnic tables on a shaded bank of the Cousins River. We split a very respectable lobster roll; however, I’m more drawn to the crab roll, filled with shreds of peekytoe crab extracted by skilled pickers who can strip a crab in about two minutes. It’s a dying art, so the shacks that still offer crab tend to sell out quickly. The roll is seasoned with celery salt and served with sweet coleslaw, nicely dressed. But what am I saying? We’re here for lobster. The story of the Maine crab roll will wait for another trip.
Our next stop is just six minutes away, in South Freeport. “Anyone hungry?” I ask. Crickets. We drive through piney dales, then past rambling farmhouses in the old village where Middle Street meets Main Street, which dead-ends at Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster Company. A sign at the entrance reads “Congested Area,” and we brace ourselves. But the Brewer South marina is right next door. “See?” I say to my husband, Scott, who’s driving. “Trucks come here.” “But they’re better drivers than I am,” he says, dejectedly. Still, he maneuvers the rig into the only available parking spot, at the edge of the lot, and I dash in for another round.
This is a lovely place, with plenty of water views and red-striped petunias in planters. Three generations of women—grandmother, daughter, young granddaughter—step up to the window in their kayaking gear while a man across the deck coaches his baffled companions in the art of eating steamers. “Look,” he says, “this is the neck. Pull here….”
When I finally reach the order window, I’m startled out of my reverie by the sight of some green leaf lettuce at the prep station. Surely that’s not intended for … it can’t … wait, is she…? Now imagine me shouting a slow-motion Nooooooooooooooo! as I fly through the order window, pulling the prep cook down in a tuck-and-roll away from the lettuce.
In the real world, though, I take a few halfhearted bites and head back to the RV. You might wonder, Why didn’t you just ask to hold the lettuce? And I will, next time. But the test here is on the default roll, which, sans lettuce, would be a decent treat (albeit too heavy on the mayo) after a day of outlet shopping.
Back in the RV, we ride on through archetypal coastal villages, past the famous Red’s Eats in Wiscasset (which we’ll get to a little later), and down the Harpswell Peninsula. Though this is the southernmost of the beloved Maine peninsulas and closer to population centers, it hasn’t lost its agrarian feel. We see apple trees loaded with still-small fruit and marshy rivers reflecting a glossy jade green. There are farm stands and fields of Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod and loosestrife. Our high hopes for Harpswell’s Estes Lobster House—quirky and beachy—are dashed when we find the meat in the roll has been marinating in mayo to the point of indistinguishability. But Louie enjoys the adjacent dog park, and I appreciate that the lettuce is served on the side. We listen to the gentle lapping of water against the pebbly, seaweed-piled beach until it’s time to put some miles on our rig and head to our first campground, in Rockport.
I’ve booked a spot for tonight at the Megunticook Campground on the basis of its in-ground pool, but at first glance the worn clubhouse, weedy playground, sagging porches, and peeling paint speak of rough Maine winters and a too-short summer season. The lounge, with its sparse furniture, seems designed for neither lounging nor lingering.
I step outside and see a pickup truck with a Confederate flag in the window and what appears to be a squirrel skin tacked over the glove compartment. A bumper sticker on the back reads: Redneck born, redneck bred, redneck till the day I’m dead. Spine prickling, I immediately turn and head back to the RV. What have I gotten us into?
As I hightail it down the dirt road to our site, however, I notice happy families setting up campfires near a row of rustic cabins. They wave and smile. And most of the sites are filled. What am I missing?
The next morning, I discover the answer. Before packing up for the day’s adventure, my son and I walk the dog away from the gloomy clubhouse, through wooded camping sites, and down toward a glimpse of blue through the trees. At the base of the hill, we stumble across the campground’s real attraction: a wonderfully clear view of West Penobscot Bay, with blue sky, glimmering water, and Indian Island to the left. So this is what all those happy campers knew. This spot is heaven.
I am surrounded by lobster wimps. I’m informed that I can drop the rest of my family off in Camden and do my tasting alone. Leaving them at the bookstore, I turn off Route 1 onto Mountain Street and hear a sound that brings some very bad 12-year-old memories back to vivid life: the grindy-screechy sound of metal on metal. A dozen wincing tourists turn to see where the noise is coming from and find me wide-eyed behind the wheel. What is it? What IS it?
“You’ve hit the street sign.”
I glance to my right. A friendly-looking couple are pointing up toward the roof above the passenger’s seat.
“It’s right at your roof level,” the man says. “Just turn your wheel to the left and you’ll get out from under it.”
I do, and … I do. Later, I scramble up to check the roof and see that there’s barely a mark. My RV luck has finally turned around.
My first stop is McLoons Lobster Shackin South Thomaston, which puts the morning’s drama far out of mind. Imagine the lobster shack of your dreams: a tiny red hut perched over the water with a tented patio and picnic tables. Across a small cove, another red building serves as the drop-off point for day boats like the Four Winds, whose crew is unloading lobster crates while the Edith C. idles behind, waiting for the berth. And one family does it all, the catching and the cooking.
There’s homemade peach pie and coleslaw and the freshest lobster. And here’s the genius part: Not only can you get a half-and-half roll (one side butter, one side mayonnaise, sliced crosswise), but also they put the mayo in the bottom of the bun. Like a condiment! Which is what it is! The lobster tastes like lobster, the bun tastes like butter, and the sauces enrich the lean meat. One thing is certain: This will be hard to beat. But I have many more rolls to go before I sleep….
Just up the road, Waterman’s Beach Lobster knocks me out with a perfect roll served on a griddled hamburger bun that’s so good I soften my stance on split-tops. But right as I pull out my notebook to rave about this roll and today’s most excellent itinerary, I notice a small whiteboard perched between two Adirondack chairs. It says: Just want to let all our excellent customers know …closing for the season September 4th. We have been here for 30 years and have decided that this is our final season. Thank you! A hastily scribbled heart and smiley face do little to cushion the blow.
If you managed to go to Waterman’s in the past 30 years, lucky you. If not, I wish I could’ve sent you there.
For Vacationland newbies, Bar Harbor is often the end of the road. But we’re headed more than 100 miles north, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. Eastport, Maine, America’s easternmost city, is home to three destinations of note: Raye’s Mustard; the Old Sow, the largest tidal whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere (the name derives from sough, an Old English–derived word for drain); and Quoddy Bay Lobster, which I have been assured by people I trust is really, no, really and truly worth the drive.
It’s dark as we pull into our campground, and Quoddy’s is closed, which means that today was only a two-roll day. “I want to find that Old Sow thing tomorrow,” I say before climbing up to our bed above the driver’s seat. The air smells salty. It’s quiet. I sleep the sleep of the just.
The next morning I wake to the sound of a foghorn, the patter of rain on the roof, and the drip-drip-drip of water hitting linoleum. Stumbling into the bathroom, I find a growing puddle and look up to see that the ceiling vent is leaking. We place a few pots on the floor and dial the dealership. “Aw, really?” our rental agent says. “It hasn’t rained much this summer, so nobody complained.”
“Well, what are we supposed to do with a leaky roof?”
“Just drive,” she says. “The water streams off instead of coming in.”
“But what are you going to do about this?” I’m beginning to feel real indignation about the whole thing. I read somewhere that when you’re in a difficult negotiation, silence is your best tool. Your opponent will often say what you want to hear just to fill the awkward vacuum. So I wait.
“I’m not giving you a discount, if that’s what you’re asking,” she says.
I picture us driving in circles for hours, just trying to keep dry. Fortunately, the rain turns to a light mist, so I leash the dog and step out for an overdue walk. Heading down to the shore, I notice that the water appears to be moving not toward the land but rather in a clockwise fashion. This is it! The Old Sow! I call my family out to see.
What the whirlpool lacks in speed, it makes up for in size. We watch seabirds land in a cluster in one spot and, despite their effortful paddling, slowly fan apart. Looking across the bay toward Deer Island, New Brunswick, we spot some flotsam at a distance that appears to define the outer edge—at its maximum diameter, the Old Sow measures about 250 feet. Curiosity satisfied, we pack up and head into Eastport, ready for QuoddyBayLobster.
Quoddy’s roll is as good as promised. The view is less overtly picturesque, the smell more pungent from the fish salting operation next door; however, the meat is the sweetest we’ve had so far and the kitchen garnishes each roll with two prettily preserved claws. We split a homemade whoopie pie for dessert, but I notice cannoli on the menu.
“Cannoli?” I ask the woman at the counter. “Is that a thing?”
“What do you mean?”
“At a lobster shack? Are there a lot of Italians in Eastport?”
“No,” she says, and seems disinclined to elaborate.
It will have to remain a mystery.
There’s something refreshing about a town that doesn’t kowtow to tourists. This small city of 1,300 lost its booming sardine industry but remains a place unto itself, with a deep-water harbor, salmon farms, and promising bets on hydroelectricity and other new industry. And yes, there are some galleries and cafés for us visitors. It’s a travel writer’s cliché to talk about unspoiled towns that reflect “the way [blank] used to be,” but it’s tough to resist the thought here, particularly as we head back south to Bar Harbor along the Bold Coast Scenic Byway, where the piney forests are interrupted only by stark blueberry barrens, and a sharp curve in the road may lead you to another cove of that pure jade water and a view of islands in the distance.
Compared with so much untouched wildness, Mount Desert Island has the feel of a vacation theme park when we first arrive, an impression strengthened by the fact that we’re staying at a KOA, ahem, kampground. This is an extrovert’s paradise, with RVs and campers parked cheek-by-jowl and the general sense that every night is a party. Folks string up lights, stoke campfires, invite each other over. It’s charming in its way, but a culture shock after Eastport. And I have places to be, specificallyThurston’s Lobster Pound, about 25 minutes away at the base of the island. Once again my trusty companions opt out, so I leave them at our site with a bag of firewood and s’mores fixings and set off down Route 102. Five minutes in, it begins to rain. I picture my husband and son shivering and huddled under a picnic table as their fire sputters, but I press on. So many lobster rolls, so few days. I bet on the likelihood that someone within a 10-foot radius will take them in.
Perched above Bass Harbor on a misty early evening, Thurston’s is easily one of the prettiest shacks I’ve seen. I snap a photo of its signature wall of lobster buoys, the Motif Number 1 of MDI. Although there’s a long line out the door, someone alerts me that the adjoining bar, which is nearly empty, also serves lobster rolls, so I grab a seat on the deck. Again, I find some sad lettuce in my bun. But the meat is wonderfully plump and tender, and it’s worth having to pick some limp leaves from the bun to be in such a beautiful spot.
After executing a masterful five-point turn to extract the RV from a tight spot, I feel as if I can take on the world. When I get back to our campsite, I find the fire going and s’mores at the ready. It never rained, they said.
From a lobster perspective, the next day is something of a letdown. In Penobscot, Bagaduce Lunch offers noteworthy seafood and shadyplaces to sit along the rushing Bagaduce River, but the lobster roll is much too heavy on the mayo.
And then there’s Red’s Eats, the famous red lobster shack of Wiscasset. Nine years earlier, I embarked on a similar lobster odyssey up the coast, going as far as Castine, and Red’s was a clear winner. And surely those traffic-jamming lines are a testament to its quality, or its crowd-pleasing charm, or at least the power of a crowd to attract a bigger crowd. Nevertheless, I find that I now have two problems with the lobster roll at this Maine mainstay: While the sauces are served blessedly on the side, and the butter is poured from an old-fashioned enamel kettle into little plastic cups, the butter congeals as soon as it touches the cold meat. And these rolls are huge, much too big to get a single bite of bun and meat unless you remove half the contents. This drives the price up to a whopping $24, and Red’s takes only cash, so any visit requires a quick trip to the ATM parked conveniently on-site. If you want pounds of lobster and money’s no object, this is the roll for you.
Checking my email as I pick at the roll, I find that a colleague has forwarded a tip about an “amazing” lobster roll on Vinalhaven, produced out of a food truck called Greet’s Eats, where Greta McCarthy, a seventh-generation islander from a lobstering family, prepares her lobster rolls, burgers, fries, and the like. I try to rework my itinerary to get out there, but the ferry ride is 75 minutes and that means losing half a day to one roll. I can’t make it work.
Still, the thought of Greta out there on her island haunts me as we head south toward Boothbay and Georgetown, where I find plenty of beautiful scenery but where the rolls don’t reach the greatness of Quoddy or McLoons. All these miles, and the trip might be incomplete.
We spot our first big box store in days when we reach the outskirts of Brunswick. “We could be anywhere in America,” I remark sadly. At sunset, we make it to the Lobster Shack at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, where the 180-degree view of the rocky shore is as impressive as the roll, which, bless them, is served with a dollop of mayo on top (or butter on the side). Just the right size, excellent bun. Another winner.
Likewise, in Kennebunkport, where I meet a friend the next day, we find hot buttered excellence at theClamShack, despite the tourist-clogged environs of Dock Square. Big chunks of meat, claws, and tail are served on a fluffy, buttery hamburger bun. It may not be doctrine, but it’s one very good and very accessible roll for (comparative) southerners.
Although there are other stops, the Clam Shack is the last great find. We drive the rest of the way back, knowing we’ll miss our portable little home, with its stripped-down simplicity, and most of all the full immersion in Maine.
And yet I can’t shake my regret at not visiting Greet’s. So a few weeks later, I rise at dawn and drive to Rockland, buzzing through Wiscasset as the still-closed windows of Red’s seem to wink: Not yet. I make the Vinalhaven ferry with 10 minutes to spare. After 45 minutes at sea, we begin threading our way through the channel between Pole and Cedar islands, two fragments of the archipelago that rings Vinalhaven. They are low to the sea, small, and dense with pines. The sun sparkles off the waves, and the islands’ smooth granite ledges look warmed and inviting, making me want to shed all caution and dive in. Now a few houses dot the shore, and commercial lobster boats are heading out to sea.
The Greet’sEats truck is a four-minute walk from the ferry and just 20 steps from the fishermen’s co-op. The roll is more finely chopped than many, which makes for easier eating, but I find I miss the chew and tear of larger chunks. And there’s about 10 percent more mayonnaise than I’d like. It’s a very good roll, but not my favorite. That honor goes to McLoons, which I find myself dreaming of as summer turns to fall and the first snows fall. Still, I’m so glad to have answered the question and to be here, immersed one more time in this land of lobster and exquisite beauty.