“You know that lobsters are related to spiders, right?” a Debbie Downer-ish friend recently remarked. Whatever. Nothing can squelch our love for all things lobster. But whence the humble lobster roll? According to food historians, the lobster roll originated at a restaurant called Perry’s in Milford, Conn., in the Roaring Twenties. Perry’s hot grilled lobster sandwich was served in a long sub roll, not the squishy split-top hotdog bun we know and love today. Portable, edible lobster. Genius!
How did the lobster roll become an American classic? The tale gets murky, as food-origin stories often do, but Boston chef Jasper White played a role in the elevation of this simple concoction; he served a gourmet version with a saffron bun, fancy pickles, and house-made chips at Jasper’s (now Summer Shack) in the 1980s.
As every crustacean connoisseur knows, there are two kinds of lobster rolls: The Connecticut type, served warm with melted butter, and the Maine version, served chilled and lightly dressed with mayonnaise (a.k.a. lobster salad). A little crunch, from lettuce or a toasted bun, is the perfect foil for the sweet, subtle flavor of lobster. “Lobster rolls are the perfect sandwich because they offer the taste of summer — chunks of sweet Maine lobster meat — and you can eat them on the go,” says Marianne LaCroix of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.
We ate our way through the lobster rolls that rule the “best” lists, deeming some too puny, some too pricey (our Inner Yankee balks at $40 sandwiches), and some too mayonnaise-y. Herewith, the rolls that were heads (and tails) above the rest. Note: Prices are subject to change, and some spots close in bad weather.
Knot Norm’s, Newport: When we walked into the hole-in-the-wall spot on Thames Street, there was a massive pile of fresh lobster meat on the counter, awaiting transformation. It took major self-control not to fling ourselves onto the pile and start stuffing our faces. Our waitperson apologized for the price of their lobster roll ($30) — ”Lobster prices are insane right now!” she said — but this one is worth it. They finish the lobster meat in house-made lobster butter, and serve it with a sweep of aioli, some micro greens, and lemon, on a toasted hot dog bun. Also on the plate: Cape Cod Potato Chips, house-made pickles, and slaw. We gobbled it right down and didn’t offer to share, a testament to its deliciousness. They’ve got a couple of indoor tables, but the patio out back is more festive. This one opened last October; get here before everyone discovers it. Also in Norwalk, Conn. $30; 401-619-7220; www.knotnorms.com.
Easton’s Beach Snack Bar, Newport: If you believe “too much is never enough,” wrap your mind around this concept: the double lobster roll. This beachfront snack bar serves twin lobster rolls with a pile of fries for the best price in town: $19.97, at this writing. These are the lobster-salad type, made with about a third-pound of lobster meat. They also sell a “plain & simple” version — just chilled lobster (the meat of one entire crustacean, they say), served with drawn butter and fries, for $21.97. Eat on the deck overlooking the beach, and wash it down with Del’s Lemonade. 401-855-1910; www.eastonsbeach.com.
Matunuck Oyster Bar, South Kingstown: Oyster, schmoyster, order the lobster roll, featuring large chunks of meat, light mayo, and chopped celery on a grilled buttery split-top roll, served with fries or a salad. $22.95; 401-783-4202; www.rhodyoysters.com.
Blount Clam Shack on the Waterfront, Warren: This worthy roll is made with a half-pound of meat on an extra-long roll. Get it undressed with a side of melted butter or chilled and tossed with dill-flecked mayonnaise. Half-pounder, $26.99; quarter-pound roll, $17.99; 401-245-1800; www.blountretail.com.
Rye Harbor Lobster Pound, Rye: This family-owned dockside spot goes against the tide by offering a hot-buttered roll, swimming in a sherry-spiked butter sauce. Holy mother of Neptune, that’s good! No wonder Yankee Magazine, WBUR, and others rave. Make sure that someone in your party orders the award-winning “fluffy” chowder too — clam chowder studded with chunks of that sherry-soaked lobster meat. $20; 603-964-7845; www.facebook.com/ryeharborlobsterpound.
The Beach Plum, North Hampton: Got dainty eaters plus lumberjack-ian appetites in your bunch? The Beach Plum (also in Portsmouth, Salem, and Epping), a New Hampshire Magazine favorite, offers its formidable roll in five sizes (from 4 ounces to 10 ounces of lobster meat). Prices range from $18.29 to $33.29. 603-964-7451; www.thebeachplum.net.
Lobster Landing, Clinton: “Best lobster roll in New England,” they claim. That’s pretty cheeky. But wow, the lobster rolls served up at this cheery waterfront shack are darn good — definitely the best we sampled in the Nutmeg State. The Long Island Sound setting is spectacular, and the hot lobster roll lives up to the hype — it’s a quarter pound of warm meat, liberally drizzled with melted butter and a splash of lemon on a slightly-charred bun. $19.75; 860-669-2005; www.facebook.com/LobsterLandingLLC.
McLoons Lobster Shack, South Thomaston: There’s no shortage of killer lobster rolls in Maine, but this Spruce Head spot seems to be the instant favorite of all who discover it, including food writers from Maine Eater and GQ. What’s not to love about lobster freshly plucked from nearby crates and served with a slick of mayo on the bun — not mixed into the lobster, so that the sweetness of the meat really shines — or warm butter. (Possibly both, if you ask, but c’mon.) Add a whoopie pie, and you’ve got the most perfect summertime meal in Maine. $21.55; 207-593-1382; www.mcloonslobster.com.
Bite Into Maine, Cape Elizabeth: This food truck, a fixture at Fort Williams Park near Portland Head Light, won raves from USA Today, Gourmet, Food & Wine, so expect a wait. They sell an epic XL lobster roll, with 6 ounces of meat (add an extra $6) or a 4.5-ounce roll, served five ways: Maine Style (with mayo and fresh chives); Connecticut Style (just warm butter); Picnic Style (with coleslaw and celery salt), and three spicy mayo versions, if you hanker for a lobster roll with a kick: chipotle, wasabi, or yellow curry. Other takeout locations: The Commissary in Scarborough and at Allagash Brewing Co., Portland. $24; XL, $30; 207-286-6142; www.biteintomaine.com.
Eventide Oyster Co, Portland (also in Boston): This hip seafood shack in Portland’s Old Port District does a lobster roll with a twist: They dress the meat in brown butter, lemon, and chives, and serve it in an Asian-style steamed bun. No wonder Outside Magazine and Down East Magazine lavished it with praise. You’ll be dreaming about this one come January. $17 (Portland); $16/$23 (Boston); 207-774-8538; www.eventideoysterco.com.
Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster, Freeport: Skip the outlet stores and head to this modest seafood shack on the harbor, where they’ve been slinging lobster meat into rolls since 1970. Maine Eater loves this place and so will you. $17.95; $18.95 with fries. Bonus points for the tasty home-made desserts. 207-865-4888; www.harraseeketlunchandlobster.com.
Five Islands Lobster Co., Georgetown: Got a manly-man appetite (regardless of gender)? Consider the Big Boy, featuring 10 ounces of meat, lightly dressed and stuffed into a sturdy potato roll. This Outside Magazine favorite comes with chips, or add a basket of fries for two bucks. Price not available. 207-371-2990; www.fiveislandslobster.com.
Belle Isle Seafood, Winthrop: We loved our wise-cracking server (“I support you on your hydration journey,” she said solemnly, handing over our beer), and the setting is perfect: Cool views of the Boston skyline across the water, and lots of action at the yacht club next door. This one is no secret — Phantom Gourmet has been here a few times — but it is definitely a fun place to hang out and eat yourself silly. Indoors, they’ve got picnic tables, a bar, and TVs tuned to sports; outdoors, there are tables under an awning or in full-on sunshine. You can pay extra and get all tail meat, but the regular lobster roll is quite generous, featuring a half-pound of chunky meat lightly tossed with mayo, and a bit of lettuce, tucked into a char-marked bun and served with a choice of sides. (Get the onion rings.) Cash only; ATM on site. Regular lobster roll, $30.99; 617-567-1619; www.belleisleseafood.net.
The Skipper Chowder House, South Yarmouth: The folks at the Cape Cod Chamber tipped us off to this one. Since 1936, the Skipper has been ladling out award-winning chowder, including a “fried clam chowdah” that was featured on the Travel Channel. But the lobster rolls! They offer three versions: a traditional one with four ounces of lobster salad and green leaf lettuce on a grilled brioche roll ($22.99), a Lobster Roll Supreme (a half pound of lobster salad on a French roll ($30.99) and finally, the “Wicked Awesome” version — a half-pound of fresh lobster served hot with butter— with extra butter on the side ($31.99) if you’re in that “Treat Yo Self” mode. Bonus: The onsite ice cream shack. Extra bonus: Views of Nantucket Sound, right across the street. 508-394-7406; www.skipperrestaurant.com.
Neptune Oyster, Boston: This tiny, upscale North End joint serves a hot buttered, or cold-with-mayo lobster roll on a toasted brioche roll that wins raves from pubs like Bon Appetit, served with first-rate fries. That sound you hear is a roomful of foodies moaning with pleasure. $34; 617-742-3474; www.neptuneoyster.com.
Little Harbor Lobster Co., Marblehead: It’s worth a drive to M’head to seek out this tucked-away fish market overlooking Little Harbor. The lobster is caught daily by one of the owners, Tim O’Keefe, so it couldn’t be fresher. Bonus points for fantastic rolls, made by artisan bakers A & J King of Salem. $28.99; 781-639-1961; www.littleharborlobster.com.
Sesuit Harbor Café, Dennis: This lobster buoy-bedecked shack, overlooking a marina, looks like a movie set. But the “world famous lobster roll” is the real deal, featuring lobster salad, green leaf lettuce, and sliced tomato tucked into a toasted roll. Served with fries and slaw, it’s perfection on a plate, according to our foodie friend, Ernie Daman of Mashpee: “It had tail meat, it was huge, and it was fantastic.” $24.50 (cash only); 508-385-6134; www.sesuit-harbor-cafe.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org