One in a series of iconic New England eateries.
KITTERY, Maine — The folks in the Pine Tree State take their seafood seriously. Exhibit A might be Bob’s Clam Hut, where Mainers and vacationers alike have been debating the best way to fry clams for almost 30 years.
This classic seafood shack opened in 1956 in the backyard of founder Bob Kraft’s boyhood home on Route 1. The outlet malls that dominate that stretch today were nowhere on the horizon and traffic was slow. But Kraft built a steady following for his fresh seafood, especially the clams that he dredged in flour with no added seasoning before frying. He even developed a signature tartar sauce that includes pureed carrots and onions in the mixture of mayonnaise and relish.
In 1986, Kraft sold the Clam Hut to current owner Michael Landgarten. That same year, Lillian Mangos, then 60 , joined the staff behind the order counter and at the fryolator. To produce what she considered a moister, more tender clam with a sourdough flavor, Mangos insisted on dipping the clams in an egg wash before dredging them in flour. Mangos worked at the Clam Hut until 2010 and died last January ; she is immortalized in a portrait above one of the order windows. Holding her glasses in one hand, she’s depicted ready to take an order, and surely to advise the diner that the clams should be fried her way.
Both “Bob’s traditional” and “Lillian’s” clams are on the dinner menu — to be enjoyed with french fries, cole slaw, and a roll (with onion rings added for the Lillian’s). You can also order clams either way in a basket, as a side, or heaped in a clam roll. The clams come fresh from Ipswich every day and Bob’s goes through almost 29,000 pounds each year. If you want to check out the difference for yourself, the good news is that the Clam Hut stays open all winter.
Even as the modest eatery was engulfed by malls (if you’re driving north on Route 1, it’s across the road from Jones New York and Nine West), Landgarten has remained true to the clam shack experience. During warm weather, folks sit outside at picnic tables, but when it gets cold, they can move inside to a small, heated dining room. Landgarten figured out how to enclose one of the order windows during cold weather so diners can still stand beneath Mangos’s watchful visage as they place their orders for fried clams, lobster rolls, fish sandwiches, and warming bowls of lobster stew or fish chowder.
In the dining room, an old photo of the menu board recalls the days when an order of clams started at 75 cents, while another photo captures the small Clam Hut of those early days. Above it hangs a photo of a smiling Jimmy Buffett with a Bob’s clam roll in one hand and a bottle of Tabasco sauce in the other. We concede a dash of spice might be nice, but in the interest of harmony, we always order Lillian’s clams — and eat them with Bob’s tartar sauce.
BOB’S CLAM HUT 315 US Route 1, Kittery, Maine. 207-439-4233, www.bobsclamhut.com. Fall-winter hours Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Fri-Sat till 8. Clam dishes are market price, about $22 for a clam dinner through the winter. Other seafood from $3.95 clamburger through $24.95 scallop dinners.