Waterman’s Beach Lobster,Mark Eichin

Tie on your bibs: T+L cracks
down on the juiciest claws, the tenderest tails, and the most overstuffed
lobster rolls Maine has to offer.

It was just another busy June
afternoon last year at Bagaduce Lunch in Brooksville, ME—lobsters steaming,
butter melting, lines stretching around the no-frills riverside building—when
the letter arrived. The James Beard Foundation was writing to tell Mike and
Judy Astbury that their 59-year-old family-run restaurant had won an “American
Classic” Award, which honors “small, regional restaurants, watering holes,
shacks, lunch counters, and down-home eateries that have carved out a special
place on the American culinary landscape.”

The Astburys skipped the awards
ceremony in New York City to attend their daughter’s high school graduation,
and they’re still contemplating whether or not to hang their medallion from the
prestigious culinary organization on the wall. Not that they need the
advertisement. Locals and tourists have been flocking here for old-fashioned
Down East hospitality and killer lobster rolls since 1946.

Up and down Maine’s 5,000-mile
coastline (its length is attributed to the countless finger-like promontories
and land “reaches”) lie dozens of weathered cedar-shingle shacks,
awning-covered take-out windows, and freestanding seasonal restaurants where
the menu revolves around a single ingredient: lobster.

Ninety percent of the nation’s
lobster comes from Vacationland, but the Homarus americanus, or Maine lobster,
wasn’t always popular. Before the 1800s, only the poor—widows, orphans, and
servants—ate lobster. There was even a law forbidding prisons from serving
lobster to inmates more than once a week, since it was considered cruel and
unusual punishment.

“rusticators” who summered in Maine, like John D. Rockefeller, helped transform
the lobster from lowly bottom-feeding crustacean to a seasonal delicacy.
Entrepreneurial lobster-pound owners lit fires and set up crude outdoor
kitchens, selling impromptu boiled lobster picnics to the moneyed elite sailing
the Atlantic Coast. The lobster shack was born.

Today, lobster shacks are still
ultra-casual paper-napkin affairs—usually enjoyed alfresco in the salt air. And
if there isn’t a lobster pound annex, there’s most definitely one (or at least
a working dock) nearby. Just bring a windbreaker and a can of bug repellent to
ensure a perfect Down East meal by the water during the May-to-October shack

While many of these
take-out/dine-out spots claim gorgeous views, fresh catches, and loyal
followings, there’s a wealth of options. Shaw’s Fish & Lobster Wharf, in
the salty fishing village of New Harbor (you may recognize the scenery from the
Paul Newman/Kevin Costner film Message in a Bottle), has perfected the
lobster-roll recipe by serving some 10,000 each year. Harraseeket Lunch &
Lobster, which operates out of a South Freeport marina (just a quick drive from
L. L. Bean), is popular for its steamers, rolls, and fried “onion middles.” And
Morse’s Lobster—located down a dirt road on scenic Harpswell Peninsula—is a
local favorite. Park among the pickup trucks (all with Maine plates), pick a
spot on the rickety pier overlooking the sound, and order a traditional roll
made with sweet lobster meat lightly dressed in mayo piled into a buttery
toasted hot dog bun.

Author Calvin Trillin once
mused: “It is apparent to serious shellfish eaters that in the great
evolutionary scheme of things crustaceans developed shells to protect them from
knives and forks.”

Maine tourists and
seafood-loving locals agree.