Route 1 has the Kowloon’s neon halo — and, once upon a time, the Hilltop Steak House cactus. The Massachusetts Turnpike has its Friendly Ice Cream shrubbery, straight out of a 1950s sitcom.
But for a time, it was impossible to beat a certain stretch of Alewife Brook Parkway for iconography. There was the abandoned Faces nightclub, weeds growing through the sidewalk. There was Lanes & Games, a bowling alley that looked like a Nixon-era junior high school of perpetual desperation. And there was the Aku-Aku, a tiki parlor that always appeared gloriously seedy to my adolescent eyes. Later it became Jasper White’s Summer Shack, its round yellow sign beckoning from the highway like a rotating sun, serving oysters, lobster, and strong tropical drinks, a nod to the old digs.
Faces is gone. Lanes & Games is gone, too, and so is the Aku-Aku.
But for now, the Summer Shack remains.
It opened nearly 20 years ago, an eternity in restaurant years, earning three stars from the Globe when it did. It was a big deal: Jasper White was in charge of the 300-seat, family-friendly cavern, and his culinary celebrity helped to lure curious urbanites, older locals, and relieved suburban parents, delighted that there was finally a place — in Cambridge! run by a real chef! — where children could romp among the lobster tanks and picnic tables while they ate a better-than-decent meal with their hands. After years running the higher-end Jasper’s, White wanted to open a restaurant for the masses. It was part Polynesian picnic, part fish shanty, part East Coast Grill, and all Cambridge. Old Cambridge.
As such, I have dined here with children in various stages of post-bowling meltdown. I have dined here with my 95-year-old Aunt Mae. And this was the first place I visited after moving back to Boston after years in Virginia, because I craved an actual lobster roll. The Summer Shack was a restaurant for all seasons.
I’m writing elegiacally, even though the Summer Shack still is, technically, here. That stretch of highway is one big office park now, and the stores are all different. Bread and Circus is Whole Foods; Cheddar’s Pizzeria is a Bon Me. The children of the people who met tipsily at Faces in the early 1980s are probably living in one of those pointy, geometric condos off the highway.
I know this. I think about this every time I drive through Cambridge into Boston. And so it seemed like a good time to go back.
Thankfully, not much has changed. Big parking lot with the gigantic moai out front, a relic from the old Aku, now dressed as a raincoated fisherman. Multiple chalkboards on the walls announcing awards and accolades — Boston’s best seafood, Boston’s best crab cake, Best New Restaurant in America nominee, “hot concept” award from Nation’s Restaurant News. And a fading sign, lettering almost invisible: “Home of Jasper White’s famous pan-roasted lobster.”
White left in 2017; the restaurant is now wholly run by the Lyons Group, the team behind Scampo and Sonsie. But White’s presence still looms; many servers have worked here for a decade or more, and the classic menu items (pan-roasted lobster, fried chicken) are his.
My friend and I arrive too early. It’s only 11; they don’t open until 11:30. I see a woman cleaning the windows.
“Can we please come in?” I beg, desperate in the shadow of the brutalist Alewife Bertucci’s.
She smiles mercifully.
“Let me check with my boss,” she says.
Sure enough, she materializes and opens the doors conspiratorially.
We offer to sit on a bench in the waiting area.
“You’ll be more comfortable at the bar,” she assures us. We plant ourselves in a corner. Nobody bothers us.
We’re seated right at 11:30 with more apologies about not being seated sooner. Cornbread arrives immediately. Our server checks on us, and checks on us again. Do we need drinks? Any questions about the menu? At one point he disappears for a minute as more tables fill in, and he apologizes for being gone so long. I feel nostalgic for something that I don’t even miss.
We order chowder fries, urged on by our twinkly-eyed waiter. Picture French fries doused in a thick, creamy white sauce with large hunks of potato — almost poutine but not quite. They are salty, viscous, heavy. I can’t stop eating them. My crabmeat club is simple: tightly packed pieces of peekytoe crab on toasted white bread with lettuce, tomato, and a pile of sturdy kettle chips. Codfish tacos use grilled tortillas and have a thick squiggle of spicy chipotle-sour cream. Our server is an amiable acrobat: I ask for tartar sauce and it arrives instantly.
The room is enormous, but it begins to slowly fill up. There are newer, trendier places to get seafood now, nearly 20 years later. There’s Eventide and Island Creek Oyster Bar. There is Saltie Girl and Select Oyster. But it’s reassuring to know that the Summer Shack still exists in this vanishing landscape just off the highway, with fried chicken and whole lobsters and blue-and-white checkered tablecloths. Apparently there are still people who want to sit down at lunch — and to sit down here.
The neon oyster bar grows darker. I realize that I’ve been here for almost two hours, a rarity at lunch in 2019. I ask for my food to go. Yet again, it appears on cue. And then I walk back out into the parking lot past the fisherman and the faded signs and zoom down the highway because it’s getting late.
149 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge, 617-520-9500, www.summershackrestaurant.com