New England’s beloved bivalves find their way onto summer tables as steamers, whole-belly crisp fried clams, raw on the halfshell, and maybe best of all, simmered in chowder. If you want clams, get yourself to the coastline, hop into a long line at one of a dozen fish shacks, and try to secure a spot outdoors. The surrounding seascape only enhances the experience.
From Plum Island to Plymouth, you can find New England-style creamy clam chowder with potatoes, onions, and some smoky element at many spots within an hour’s drive of downtown. Chowders range from serviceable to satisfying. Texture is thin in some, others can hold a spoon vertical; tastes go from deeply briny to barely a whiff of the sea.
We decided to skip the fried seafood plates (that part was hard). This was not a moment for summer’s flirtation with the fryolator. In these fish places, there’s little fancy service. Mostly you’re ordering at a counter. Bowls come in Styrofoam, cardboard, and occasionally a handleless china cup. The clam morsels, generally tender, all seem suspiciously uniform. Spoiler: The romantic notion of an old salt digging for and shucking your clams is gone. Almost all the places we visit use fresh chopped sea clams that come packed in their own juices.
Those fresh sea clams, says Gary Putur of Ipswich Shellfish Co., in Ipswich, are caught in the Atlantic mostly off the shores of New Jersey and Rhode Island. In season, Ipswich sells about 100 to 150 eight-pound containers daily (clams are fresh). Sea clams are quite large. Says Putur, “You need two hands to hold this clam. They are pretty big.” Parts of the clams are used in chowders, others for fried clam strips, he says.
In the course of our chowder crawl, we find almost all the restaurants making their pots from scratch, frying onions in rendered fat from bacon or salt pork, and sometimes just butter. Cooks build their chowders from there, making a roux for thickening the pot, then adding heavy or light cream, or half-and-half. Embellishments include celery chevrons, herbs such as parsley and dill, and varying degrees of black pepper.
Without exception, all bowls come with a little cellophane packet of Westminster Bakers Co. oyster crackers, once made in Westminster, Mass., now in Rutland, Vt. (close enough, no?). Many chowder enthusiasts crumble the crackers onto the surface of the chowder.
But the important element here isn’t the kind of clams, or even the texture of the chowder, or what it’s served in. Under the spell of a summer breeze or a breathtaking sunset by the sea, a dollop of ambience seasons any chowder nicely.
View: Map of clam chowder crawl.
Plum Island Beachcoma
23 Plum Island Boulevard (Plum Island), Newbury, 978-358-8218, www.pibeachcoma.com
Just over the bridge and tidal marshes into Plum Island, before the sand begins, this brightly colored wooden building is the local bar and grill, divided between restaurant and sports bar. Owner Gregg Pugh serves a chowder ($4 for 8 ounces) with an attitude in a handleless china cup. He sprinkles it generously with pepper. “I always saw people reach for the pepper before they even tasted clam chowder. I wanted to change that,” says Pugh. The wonderful aroma, scattering of parsley, large chunks of potato (Pugh cooks them separately so they don’t get too soft), half-moons of celery, and loads of clams win us over. We are surprised to learn the clams are canned. Lesson: Great chowder can start with a can of bivalves.
196 High St., Ipswich, 978-356-7201, www.ipswichclambake.com
Drive down a bucolic stretch of Route 1A in Ipswich and you arrive at a charming wood building with hanging flower baskets. The enticing aroma of fried fish (that fryolator again!) greets as we enter a white wood interior with blue and red accents. Sit outside at wrought iron tables along the front and side of the storefront, and imagine the ocean, which you cannot see. The chowder ($3.95 for 8 ounces) is respectable, but not memorable, served in a cardboard cup, and nearly thick enough to pass the vertical-spoon test. Every spoonful is loaded with potatoes and other goodies, including flecks of spice and celery.
78 Essex Ave., Gloucester, 978-281-5256, www.thecausewayrestaurant.com
On Route 133, just across from the Cape Ann Marina and its tour fishing boats, we came upon an unpretentious wood building jammed with customers sitting on curbs and benches waiting in line. The kitchen and waitstaff is in constant motion. Chowder to go ($5 for 12 ounces) comes in a large Styrofoam cup with the requisite oyster crackers and slices of Italian bread. Three minutes down the road we find a sea wall near Stage Fort Park facing the Atlantic at low tide. This chowder is sublime, the best value, thick enough to pass the vertical spoon test, with flavors of bacon, plenty of clams, and potatoes in balance. Manager Jimmy Brown says he uses half-and-half and heavy cream and modestly claims, “It’s a pretty simple recipe.”
The Lobster Pool Restaurant
329 Granite St., Rockport, 978-546-7808, www.lobsterpoolrestaurant.com
Panoramic views of Ipswich Bay and bobbing lobster buoys are the backdrop for this restaurant and its outdoor seating. We take our chowder ($7.50 for 8 ounces) to a picnic table facing the calm inlet. The creamy middling-thick mixture, at the high end of what these bowls cost, has a terrific briny flavor, but there aren’t as many clam bits as we want. We’re underwhelmed by the chowder, bowled over by the setting.
CLOSEST TO BOSTON
The Marina Restaurant and Bar at the Wharf
543 North Shore Road, Revere, 781-629-3798
Chef, owner, and chowder-maker Victor Molle opened his restaurant last winter, but his family has operated an eatery on this site almost continuously since the early 1970s. We sit on a deck above the Pines River, watching planes headed for Logan soar low overhead — like the seagulls honking their arrival. The clam-and potato-dense chowder ($3.95 for 8 ounces) with onions and celery arrives piping hot in a handleless china cup. The first whiff is bacon, which turns out to be applewood smoked. Molle says, “Sometimes we use salt pork or pancetta.” The loose base, made of light cream and clam juice, is lightly thickened with a flour roux. The potatoes hold their shape; the clam pieces are moist and tender. Someone who cares made this bowl.
Belle Isle Seafood
1 Main St., Winthrop, 617-567-1619, www.belleisleseafood.com
Old-timers will miss the charm of the original wood sea shanty, but may embrace its larger incarnation, a warehouse-like space with exposed pipes, corrugated metal ceiling, and the same ocean view. Light pours in on three sides from enormous windows and the deck, which feels very close to Logan, overlooks Boston Harbor. Belle Isle is still a combination fish market and restaurant serving a satisfying, creamy, thick cup of chowder ($3.99 for 8 ounces) in a cardboard cup. The potatoes-to-clam ratio is spot on, but both are close to being too soft. It lacks distinction, and we have to ask for oyster crackers. Order at the counter if you eat inside; outside you’ll get table service.
Tony’s Clam Shop
861 Quincy Shore Drive, Quincy, 617-773-5090, www.tonysclamshop.com
Directly opposite Wollaston Beach, Tony’s Clam Shop is a place to people-watch buff body builders, families in motion, runners, sauntering retirees, and sand castle builders. At sunset, the Boston skyline glimmers in the distance and several Boston Harbor barrier islands are before you. Order and you get a buzzer at the busy counter. This serviceable, very creamy chowder ($5.25 for 8 ounces) comes from seafood purveyor North Coast Seafoods. It arrives dotted with black pepper. The potatoes eclipse the clams partly because the base isn’t very briny. Still, the clams, when you get one, are tender. It could use an extra scoop of bivalves.
The Clam Box
789 Quincy Shore Drive, Quincy, 617-773-6677, www.clamboxquincy.com
Sunset and low tide on Wollaston Beach is a good time for chowder on this seaside deck. Order at the counter in a small solarium-style curved room, where some diners are digging in. A diverse crowd enjoys plates heaped with fried seafood (we resist it again). We can see the ocean but we can’t quite taste it in the chowder ($4.75 for 8 ounces), served in a white cardboard container, tepid and sandy. We return the cold cups of grit and an apologetic helper brings us two steaming cups. The chowder is loose, but not too thin, and although it is chock full of clams and potatoes we want a bit more of the ocean. The chowder is made by Ipswich Shellfish Co.
157 Nantasket Ave., Hull, 781-925-5200, www.schoonersdining.com
The trip to Nantasket Beach, once home to Paragon Park, is worth it for the chowder. The storied strip is a shadow of its former honky-tonk self. Apart from overpriced beach chairs, what remains of the original amusement park is the Fascination game and the restored merry-go-round. On a picture-book summer evening, the full moon hangs in midair to the east while the sun sinks in the west. In an unassuming shingled building, Schooners Restaurant sits about 50 yards from the beach; a blue and white sign shows two clipper ships. We order the chowder as takeout ($4.99 for 8 ounces) and we’re annoyed to be charged an extra $1 for tax plus the to-go cup. We sit on the sea wall by the beach and the first sips stop our grumbling. The chowder is perfectly seasoned with flecks of bacon, herbs, and pepper, chunks of potato, skin pleasantly intact, and plentiful clams. Chef CJ Rigby says she uses “lots of half-and-half and love.”
Haddad’s Ocean Cafe
291 Ocean St., Marshfield, 781-837-2722, www.haddads-ocean-cafe.com
Haddad’s Ocean Cafe is a full-service restaurant whose upper deck has an unimpeded view of Brant Rock Beach. Original oil paintings by a local artist adorn the walls. The deeply briny and peppery chowder ($5.99 for 8 ounces), served in a handleless china cup, is made by brother co-owners Chuck and Mitch Haddad. “We steam the chopped fresh clams first to make the base,” says Chuck. Then they saute onions in butter, add flour to make a roux, and light cream to form the base. Tender clams and potatoes are abundant to the last drop. We find ourselves licking the spoon.
25 Town Wharf, Plymouth, 508-746-2270, www.lobsterhutplymouth.com
Located at one end of the pier in a complex of restaurants overlooking Plymouth Bay, Lobster Hut is no hut. It is large and homey with red leatherlike banquettes. Wraparound windows make it light and airy; there’s ample seating indoors and out. Place your order at the busy counter and wait for your number to be called. The chowder ($4.50 for 8 ounces), which comes in a disposable cup, is scant and on the thin side, heavy on potatoes, with a light, clean, milky taste. Clams are mostly small bits with very occasional larger chunks. The view of the bay is lovely.