For some people, vacation begins with boarding a ferry. Or crossing a bridge. Or unlocking a darkened cabin, opening the windows, sitting on the porch, and gazing upon a lake.
But for me, vacation begins when my tires hit the gravel in front of a ketchup-red shanty on Route 1 in Cape Neddick, Maine.
Some restaurants woo summertime vacationers with goblet-size margaritas, flashy raw bars, and sweeping views of the sea. Flo’s offers a handful of mosquito-ridden picnic tables and a ceiling so low that most people have to crouch. It also sells the best steamed hot dogs I’ve ever eaten, squishy split-top buns sponging up mayonnaise and spicy relish wrapped in flimsy napkins, handily downed in three bites. Actually, these are the best hot dogs most people have ever eaten, judging by the crowds.
Abandon your dignity and get in line — and there will be a line, which stretches into the street — and make friends with your neighbors. Settle in for the long haul. The beach will wait, but Flo’s won’t: It closes at 3.
Some people are from down the street and show up every day (except Wednesdays) for lunch. Others have driven all the way from North Carolina and radiate an air of extreme anticipation.
And for good reason: Flo’s is legendary. Florence Stacy founded Flo’s in 1959, and with her spectacles, hairnet, and apron, she looked like a 1930s school marm. But she had bite — a gently gruff method and, to my young eyes, an exotic demeanor. I think she might have lived in the back, and I remember watching her slip in and out of a side passage in between serving customers. What lurked behind that rickety door? I wondered. I envisioned ceilings of hot dogs and floors of mayonnaise.
Flo died decades ago. Now her daughter-in-law, Gail Stacy, carries on the legacy. She’s friendly, too — but, please, tourists, don’t mess with her system. Slope-shouldered from years of tending dogs, she holds court behind the counter, the queen of her own low-slung Frankfurt fiefdom. We are all her subjects.
So, some rules. Woe to the bewildered traveler who stands half-in and half-out, slack-jawed, wondering what to order. You do not leave the screen door hanging open. Lets the bugs in. Either you’re in or you’re out. And, oh, the Pavlovian joy of hearing that screen door slam and knowing you’re safely in! Soon, hot dogs.
But not quite yet. Stacy (or a younger family member) will point at you. Reply only with a number. Do not rattle off your condiments, lest you end up on the wrong side of a pityingly exasperated stare. Stacy takes orders in batches, remembering which gaggle wanted six and which lone wanderer wanted 12 (not unusual), performing an efficient assembly-line ballet.
Next, shuffle along and distract yourself by reading the wall of business cards left by visitors. A realtor who hasn’t worked since 1979? A plumber in Nova Scotia? A monkey wrangler in Tallahassee? At one time or another, they were all at Flo’s.
At this point, you’re ravenous and jealous. You’re watching fortunate souls strut off with cardboard boxes of dogs, maybe a can of Moxie or two for good measure, straws pointing out the sides like fast-food antennas. And then, suddenly, your moment has arrived. You are called forth to order, pressed against the Formica counter, wedging yourself between one of the six wooden stools that nobody ever lingers on. Gail gazes upon you from behind her station. It’s time.
This, for me, is the vacation equivalent of plunging into the salty ocean. When Gail Stacy asks you what you want on your dog, well, there’s nobody more important in this world.
And what do you want on your dog? This is not the time to ask for mustard and ketchup, which is a rookie move that will earn you looks of disdain from fellow customers. You came for the Special: mayonnaise, Flo’s relish, and a dusting of celery salt. Get over your skepticism about mayonnaise on a hot dog. This tangy glue, slightly sweet, is what elevates the dog from tasty to sublime. Mixed with her signature relish— a vinegary brown rivulet of molasses and onion — it’s essential.
Loaded is the other acceptable option: Flo’s relish, green relish, mustard, chopped onions, and celery salt. The condiments somehow remain slicked to the rubbery dog, contained by a straining jacket of spongy bun, wrapped in napkins and stacked side by side in a box that also has room for a bag of chips and a drink. (Get Moxie. You’re here! Why not?)
Do I really need to say it? Pay in cash.
And, at last, your odyssey is through. Slam that screen door shut, retreat to the safety of your stifling car, and dig in. Simple, unapologetic, delicious. The way life should be.
1359 US Route 1, Cape Neddick, Maine, www.floshotdogs