If any eatery owns the taste of summer on the Cape, it might just be PJ’s Family Restaurant, a Wellfleet institution.
By Amy Traverso
Jun 18 2018
The paradoxical appeal of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, is that it’s a cultural hub with enough tranquility to soothe the world-weary visitor. You want nightlife? Keep heading north to Provincetown. Wellfleet has some boutiques and galleries, a fish market, a French bakery, a library and a theater, and, of course, long strands of beach within the Cape Cod National Seashore. Not much else, though. You can retreat from the world knowing you’re in the company of artists, the marquee staff of The New York Times, and most of the practicing therapists in Boston.
A handful of fine-dining restaurants will let you duke it out for a sunset table and local oysters, but Wellfleet regulars like to frequent two counter-service seafood spots where the fried clams are always good and fish tacos feel a little fancy. The first is Mac’s on the Pier, a shingled shack so close to the water that the picnic tables are planted in the sand, and on summer nights you can watch the moon rise over the harbor.
The second is PJ’s Family Restaurant, which has no view beyond a parking lot and two lanes of Route 6 traffic. And yet year after year, hungry vacationers line up at PJ’s, where, beyond sheer convenience, the biggest selling point is the food. And what food! The stuffie alone—one hefty quahog shell filled with spicy linguiça, kale, briny clams, and just enough breading—is worth a drive in summer traffic. In a 2007 travel piece for The New York Times, Mark Bittman declared that “PJ’s has the best fried clams and onion rings I’ve had on the Cape” (the rings are hand-cut and breaded, then chilled overnight to intensify the flavor). But let’s not just grade on a Cape curve. PJ’s is the Boston Whaler of restaurants: reliable, innovative, unsinkable. More than a decade later, it still deserves national praise.
On one perfect August day, the midafternoon crowd is evenly split between post-beach ice cream hounds and late lunchers. The PJ’s tag line promises “something for everyone,” and most newcomers will need a few minutes to sort through the five fish taco variations, 15 salads, fried seafood baskets, and laundry list of daily specials.
There’s a dedication to quality here, though, that belies the size of the menu. When co-owner Don Reeves, son of founder “Pa John” Reeves, shows off the basement prep area, you can see the industrial-size bottles of mayo, relish, tartar sauce, and ketchup. But the Portuguese kale soup, the chowders, the dressings, the coleslaw for the fish tacos (which is different from the coleslaw for the fish and chips)—they’re all made from scratch.
“We had chowder from the get-go,” Don says. “In the early ’70s, we were using canned clams. I can’t even imagine doing that now.” PJ’s uses only fresh clams in this enlightened era—four gallons of them in every 11-gallon batch of chowder. “I don’t want to change the proportions,” he says. “We keep the recipe the same, and if we have to adjust our price, we adjust our price.”
Don’s nephew, Brian Reeves, attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales before returning home to step in as a third-generation co-owner. He’s the one who perfected the stuffie recipe and introduced the tacos. With every change to the menu, there’s a complementary alteration to the back end: a new work station, more storage, a dedicated line cook. Large-menu restaurants like this are complex systems, with so many mechanisms crammed into a small kitchen. It takes about 22 workers to keep the food coming, and the seasonal labor pool is tight. Every summer remains a puzzle until all the jobs are filled.
But one thing everyone can count on is the demand. On opening day in mid-April, the customers line up, no matter the weather. “You would be amazed,” Don says. “It’s great. I couldn’t imagine if we opened up and nobody cared.”
2616 Rte. 6, Wellfleet, MA. 508-349-2126; pjscapecod.com