Skip Navigation

Lobster Rolls: Maine

Maine. At last. Now we’re talkin’ rolls! Suffice it to say that the best place to find a great lobster roll is in Maine. And you don’t have to try very hard. Along the coast at least, you’ll find lobster rolls everywhere—even at McDonald’s.

I’ve sampled many lobster rolls since my first one in the late 1980s, and I can honestly say I’ve rarely had a bad one (in Maine, at least). Yet I have my favorites. Below is a list of my favorite rolls, followed by a collection of reviews of other restaurants in Maine, organized by region from north to south.

Disclaimer: As you read these reviews, please keep in mind my ideal lobster roll. That may help explain why I don’t like a roll you love.

For one thing, I prefer lobster-salad rolls to hot lobster rolls (which are commonly served in Connecticut), so there are almost no reviews of hot rolls. I like a simple roll without much dressing or garnish—nothing but bite-size chunks of cool lobster with maybe a tiny bit of mayo or fresh lemon juice. A single leaf of lettuce is acceptable, but I’d rather not find any celery, crunchy lettuce such as iceberg, or anything else for that matter in the salad. The bun should be top-split and grilled on the sides in butter. I like a fully-packed roll, but not so full that I need to eat it with a fork first. A lobster roll is a sandwich, and I want to pick it up like a sandwich and eat it. I like to get a mix of buttery bread and lobster in every bite.

Most places I have visited only once, so if they were having a bad day (or a good day), the review may not accurately reflect their roll at other times. On the other hand, the places I’ve visited more than once have been remarkably consistent, so it’s probably fair to judge a place based on one visit. That’s it for the disclaimer. Let’s eat!

The Best

In the past I have chosen a “best lobster roll,” but that’s a hopeless task that diverts attention away from many worthy places. Rather than choosing the one “best” lobster roll, I have decided to list all the places I have visited that serve an outstanding roll. The list is based solely on the roll itself with no consideration given to service, amenities, ambience, or price.

The only lobster roll I have reservations about in this list is Castine Variety’s. The one I tried had too much mayo, but others have reported that is unusual. Besides, some people like a lot of mayo. Here they are, in roughly geographical order from north to south:

  • Beal’s Lobster Pier
  • Castine Variety
  • Boothbay Lobster Wharf
  • The Lobster Dock
  • Linda Bean’s (Freeport)
  • Maine Diner
  • Miss Brunswick Diner
  • Two Lights Lobster Shack
  • Cape Porpoise Lobster Company

I have to mention two other places that make outstanding salad, if not lobster rolls: Bob’s Seafood in Windham and Bayley’s Lobster Pound in Pine Point. It’s interesting that both of these places use non-standard, non-grilled rolls. If they switched rolls they would leap to the top of the list.

The Reviews

Below are reviews of some of the lobster-roll places I’ve visited over the years arranged by region from “Downeast” to the South Coast. There is an especially long review of Red’s Eats in Wiscasset that I’ve moved out of order to the end of the page simply because they are in a class by themselves, and also because I don’t think anybody will have the patience to read the whole thing. My opinion of Red’s is mostly negative, but I don’t think my opinion is going to change the view of the rest of the world that feels that Red’s serves the best lobster roll in the world.

Downeast Maine: Mount Desert Island/Acadia

My first trip to Maine ever was to Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island. In those years, we usually stayed at the Kimball Terrace Inn. The Inn’s restaurant, the Main Sail Restaurant, serves a fine lobster roll, but it’s nothing extraordinary. Other than that, I never had the opportunity to search for lobster rolls on Mount Desert Island. On a trip in August, 2002, however, I sampled three lobster rolls and found some real winners.

Beal’s Lobster Pier

Directions: Follow 102A to the center of Southwest Harbor. Turn left on Clark Point Road. Bear right slightly at the stop sign and follow the road until it ends at the Coast Guard station.

I first heard of Beal’s when it was recommended as the “gold standard” of lobster rolls by Rick Nichols writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer. (Here’s the original article, although there’s no telling how long the link will last.) Further online research turned up a terrific guide to the Acadia area that also highly recommended Beal’s (click on Other Towns/Southwest Harbor). On a Sunday evening, we decided to give Beal’s a try.

These places must all use the same decorator. Beal’s is a shed on a concrete pier with picnic tables. In other words, this is a working pier that just happens to have a restaurant. As primitive as it is, I find the unpretentious authenticity very appealing. We had a disastrous experience with the service, however. When we joined the line, there were only about fifteen people ahead of us. We knew there would be a wait, but we really should have brought a deck of cards... and a copy of War and Peace. We stood in line for about 40 minutes waiting for two lobster rolls. While we were waiting, we learned they ran out of baked potatoes and plastic forks. When we finally got our rolls, it was about 7:30 (a half hour before closing) and the line was much longer than when we first joined it. At the rate they were serving, it would have taken at least an hour to serve all the people lined up at 7:30.

A Beal’s veteran standing in line with us claimed, while grumbling about the current situation, that our experience was completely atypical. That’s good news, but you have to wonder how much better things could be at other times. It seems that Beal’s isn’t capable of handling large numbers of customers. I’m not sure it was worth the wait, but there was no doubt that the lobster roll was great. I’m willing to bet I won’t ever find a better lobster roll on Mount Desert Island (I haven’t been to Thurston’s yet). Just don’t go to Beal’s in August. (That’s probably good advice for any place in Maine.)

We have been luckier on subsequent visits to Beal’s. The roll has been just as good, and the wait has been short or non-existent. (map and directions)

Lobster roll at Beal’s

The lobster roll at Beal’s. (This photo was taken in August, 2002.)

The Docksider

After spending the morning at Thuya Gardens, we broke for lunch at The Docksider on Sea Street in Northeast Harbor. The roll here was excellent, although a notch below Beal’s. Northeast Harbor is where the serious money vacations. To look at the place, you can’t really tell, except there was one clue: a sign advertising Dom Perignon for $150 a bottle. Not the typical grog of a lobster pound. Although it was only a hand-lettered piece of cardboard, I don’t think the sign was a joke. Another sign cautioned customers about the “attack waitress,” but our waitress was as nice as she could be. (map and directions)

Mt. Desert: Other Locations

Our only other lobster roll on Mount Desert Island was from the Quarterdeck at the foot of Main Street in Bar Harbor. We sat upstairs and had a beautiful view of the pier and Frenchman’s Bay. Their lobster roll was a delicious sandwich, but I wouldn’t call it a lobster roll. The lobster salad was minced rather than coarsely chopped and was served with lettuce on a small torpedo roll. (map and directions)

Union River Lobster Pot

Directions: From Route 3 heading south out of Ellsworth turn left on Main Street. Cross the Union River and look for Rooster Brothers on the left. Turn left on Birch Avenue. The Lobster Pot is a short distance on the left.

The Union River Lobster Pot in Ellsworth is a charming, homey restaurant only a short detour from Route 3 and Main Street. Their lobster roll came on a round potato bread-like roll with a leaf of lettuce. The lobster salad was perhaps a little dry and a little chewy, but overall not bad at all. I liked this place and would definitely return here. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Union River Lobster Pound.

The lobster roll at Union River Lobster Pound. (This photo was taken in August, 2004.)

Just because I’ve only mentioned four places on Mt. Desert Island and nearby Ellsworth, don’t get the idea that lobster rolls are hard to find there. They are plentiful. I just haven’t had the opportunity to try any others. Yet. In any case, I doubt that you would be disappointed with any of them.

Castine Variety

My first visit to Castine was to sample the roll at Castine Variety, which seems to be the heart of Castine. There was a steady stream of folks coming and going the whole time we were there. I was charmed by the town and the retro decor of the Variety, including the old-fashioned ice cream setup and the oak cabinetry. There are 6 stools and a couple of tables for customers. I really wanted to love their roll.

Castine Variety

I’m sure this roll would please a lot of people, and it must have to win the Maine Lobster Promotion Council’s Best Lobster Roll 2004 award. In fact, I have a friend who likes Castine’s roll the best. I will say that you get lots of salad, and there is no lettuce or other filler, but there is simply too much mayo burying the lobster flavor. The salad was a little salty as well, but not in a bad, briny way. For me, not one of the great ones, but I think this roll would be a real crowd pleaser. (Update: A friend who visited here a week before I did claims there was virtually no mayo on the lobster. Either way, I think you’ll be happy at this place.) (About $15.00 with chips in August, 2006. | map and directions)

The lobster roll at Castine Variety

The lobster roll at Castine Variety. That’s a lot of lobster; you’re going to need that fork. (August, 2006.)

Moving south, we enter the Midcoast region.

Midcoast

The 800-pound gorilla of the Midcoast region is unquestionably Red’s Eats in Wiscasset. Because Red’s is so famous and my opinion is so different from the norm, I have written a special review of Red’s at the end of this page. In spite of my opinion, I strongly recommend you try Red’s for yourself. At the very least, you will get a lot of lobster for your money, and it seems most people love their roll. Maybe you will, too. If you’re in Wiscasset, want a lobster roll, and don’t have an hour to kill, however, please consider Sprague’s.

Sprague’s Lobster

Holly Moore said it best: “The Maine coastline is quite long. Lots of good places to open a lobster shack and sell lobster roll. Of all the possibilities along the coast, the one place I would surely not choose is across the street from Red’s Eats."

I agree, it’s a crazy thing, so after visiting Red’s Eats in 2004, I declared that next time I was in Wiscasset, I would visit that “place across the street.” In 2006, I did. Sprague’s boasted about the same number of customers as Red’s, so their location isn’t hurting business any as far as I can tell. There was really no wait at Sprague’s, because they employ a tried-and-true workflow: place your order and relax on their sprawling deck while waiting for your number to be called.

Sprague’s roll is smaller than Red’s, of course, but then everybody’s is. At least you could pick it up and eat it like a sandwich. The salad was virtually undressed, the meat was tender, and the flavor was good. Easy parking, no waiting, and a fine roll. What more could you want? ($13.95 in August, 2006. | map and directions)

The lobster roll at Castine Variety

The lobster roll at Sprague’s Lobster. (August, 2006.)

The Sea Basket

The Sea Basket is a strikingly clean restaurant with very bright and appealing art and decor. Their parking lot was empty only because we got here before they opened.

The Sea Basket, Wiscasset

The bun was a little larger than the standard top-split and was only toasted, not grilled, but this was no problem since it was very tasty. There was virtually no dressing (I couldn’t taste its contribution anyway), and the lobster was more briny than sweet, but in a way that evoked the flavor of the sea. Overall, this was an excellent and satisfying sandwich. From all evidence, these folks really seemed to care about their restaurant and its food. ($15.99 with chips in September, 2008. | map and directions)

The lobster roll at The Sea Basket in Wiscasset

The lobster roll at The Sea Basket. (September, 2008.)

Sarah’s

I don’t think Sarah’s in Wiscasset is on anyone’s list of lobster-roll destinations; it’s certainly not a “seafood shack.” Like many restaurants in Maine, they have a full menu that just happens to include a lobster roll. But to me, Sarah’s is interesting primarily because it is across the street from Red’s Eats. It promised to be another alternative to the hegemony that Red’s Eats exercises over Wiscasset. I had tried Sprague’s and hoped to try The Sea Basket, but on this trip, it was time to try Sarah’s.

Actually, they don’t list a “lobster roll” on the menu. They seem to treat lobster salad as something to make a sandwich with (like tuna salad), and they offer a number of options. The sandwich combinations include lobster salad on white, wheat rolls, sub roll, pita turnover, croissant, and even tortilla. All include lettuce and tomato. The closest to a lobster roll is “lobster salad in a grilled white roll w/ lettuce & tomato included.”

Well, Red’s Eats doesn’t have to worry about competition from Sarah’s lobster sandwich. The mayo-based dressing was creamy and tasty and did not compete with the lobster, which was fortunate, because the lobster itself was a little mushy and bland. The bun itself was the weakest component of this sandwich, mainly because it was oversized, thick, and doughy. At least it was grilled, but it was not very buttery. Not a terrible sandwich by any means, but pretty far from my ideal.

The lobster roll at Sarah's in Wiscasset

The lobster roll at Sarah’s. (September, 2008.)

Taste of Maine

I have driven past Taste of Maine in Woolwich many times and was never tempted to stop. Between the goofy lobster sculpture and giant, bus-friendly parking lot, it screamed tourist trap to me. But our innkeeper had recommended it as being patronized by locals, and he was right. I didn’t see any out-of-state plates in the parking lot.

Taste of Maine in Woolwich

They offer two rolls, one of which is called “World’s Largest” Lobster Roll, which looks to be long enough to feed three people (based on the picture on this page). I had the regular one.

The bun was merely toasted, but it was good. The bun was packed with room-temperature salad with big chunks of lobster with a nice, firm texture and no lettuce at all. (Yay!) A film of mayo was visible, but I could barely taste it. Unfortunately, I could barely taste the lobster either. The roll just didn’t have very much flavor. No complaints, but no excitement either.

The lobster roll at Taste of Maine in Woolwich

The lobster roll at Taste of Maine. (September, 2008.)

The Lobster Pound Restaurant

The Lobster Pound in Lincolnville is a large restaurant on the east side of Route 1 just north of Lincolnville Beach. It was full to capacity the day we visited, and we had to put our name on a waiting list. We were seated all the way in the back in the “tent” which is fully enclosed with a canvas top and clear vinyl sides and a great view of the ocean. My lobster roll was excellent, just the right amount of mayo (hardly any) and tender and flavorful meat. The roll was kind of limp but grilled just right. Despite the fact that this place is a bit of a factory, I couldn’t fault their roll. (map and directions

The lobster roll at The Lobster Pound in Lincolnville.

The lobster roll at The Lobster Pound in Lincolnville. (This photo was taken in August, 2004.)

I visited a number of restaurants in the Rockland area on a trip in July, 1998. The real find of that trip was Cafe Miranda in Rockland. They don’t serve lobster rolls, but the food was so good, I didn’t care. A visit I made there in 2001 reinforced my first impression, and we had other great meals in 2004 and 2008. Highly recommended. But we’re here to talk about lobster rolls, so let’s get on with it.

I didn’t have too many lobster rolls in Rockland proper. In fact, I think I only had one, at the Waterworks Cafe, which is a restaurant cum micro-brewery. Unfortunately, their lobster roll is overdressed with lettuce and other trimmings. Other dishes I’ve eaten there have been fine. (map and directions)

Waterman’s Beach Lobster in South Thomaston offers a peaceful setting with a beautiful waterfront view and plenty of outdoor seating. Their rolls are made with hamburger buns, which is not unheard of, but they grill the roll as well, which is. That’s right, they grill the crust, not the bread, which left the bun rather greasy. I thought that strange. I also remember their salad had a little too much mayonnaise for my taste. Overall, however, dining there was a very pleasant experience. (map and directions)

Miller’s Lobster Company in Spruce Head is a large lobstering operation with 32 picnic tables overlooking the water. Their no-nonsense roll didn’t have much buttery flavor and the salad seemed to have no mayonnaise at all. As I remember, the meat tasted kind of briny. (map and directions)

Maine Lobster Festival, Rockland

We attended our first Maine Lobster Festival in 2004 and had a great time. While whole lobster was the focus of the festival, of course, lobster rolls were scarce. I found only two places selling them on the festival grounds.

We bought a lobster roll from William Atwood Lobster Company (on Spruce Island) and from Anthony’s By The Sea and each ate half and swapped to compare. The Atwood roll was bigger, but the roll itself (by JJ Nissen) wasn’t toasted, let alone grilled. As for the lobster salad, there were lots of chunks of lobster, but all we could actually taste was mayonnaise. A weird sensation indeed. Anthony’s roll was smaller and only $7.50, but the roll was grilled, and the lobster salad had much better flavor in spite of the fact that the chunks were smaller. Anthony’s was our clear favorite.

Moody’s Diner

Moody’s Diner is the only restaurant I’ve visited with “diner” in its name that doesn’t serve a great lobster roll (the others being the Maine Diner and Miss Brunswick Diner). The bun in Moody’s roll was grilled just fine, and the lobster meat seemed fresh, flavorful, and tender, but there was so much salad dressing (Miracle Whip), that it was hard to tell. Even though I was raised on Miracle Whip, I’ve grown fonder of mayonnaise, and in any case, there was just too much in their salad. Other than that detail, we had a good meal there. They make awesome blueberry pie. No pictures, sorry. ($9.99 in August, 2006. Platter with fries and cole slaw, add $1.89.)

Shaw’s Fish and Lobster Wharf

Shaw’s (on Route 32 in New Harbor) makes a good roll, but judging by the the one I had, not a great one. On the positive side, the salad had big chunks with a firm texture with almost no dressing and there was a lot of it; a fork was provided, and I needed it. Although the roll looked properly grilled, it wasn’t very buttery. There was more than a leaf of lettuce underneath the salad and that was just too much. Flavor was a little fishy. ($14.80 with chips in August, 2006. map and directions)

The lobster roll at Shaw’s Fish and Lobster Wharf

The lobster roll at Shaw’s Fish and Lobster Wharf. It looks overstuffed, and it is, but the volume is partially inflated by a bed of lettuce. (August, 2006.)

Boothbay Lobster Wharf

Boothbay Lobster Wharf

Boothbay Lobster Wharf (formerly the Lobstermen’s Co-op), sits right on the east side of Boothbay Harbor. If you’re heading down 27, bear left where 27 becomes one way. Follow this to the dead-end, turn left, and then turn right on Atlantic Avenue.

There is abundant seating at picnic tables with umbrellas outside or inside the building at ground level (where the bar is) or on the rooftop for a better view. This was my favorite roll on a trip in 2006 that also included rolls from Bob’s Seafood, Castine Variety and Red’s Eats. I think that says something. I have abandoned any attempt to pick a “best” lobster roll, but if I had to pick one, this would be it. ($13.95 in August, 2006. map and directions)

The lobster roll at Boothbay Lobster Wharf

The lobster roll at Boothbay Lobster Wharf. In the pantheon with the great ones and my personal favorite.

The Lobster Dock

Who would think there would be two world-class lobster rolls so close together? Just before Boothbay Lobster Wharf on Atlantic Avenue is another world-class lobster roll at The Lobster Dock.

The Lobster Dock

As you can see from the picture, they have a nice setup right on the water with plenty of parking and abundant seating both inside and out. There are a number of small touches that indicated how well-managed the place is. One example is the workflow: Instead of calling out a number or your name after you place your order at the counter, they bring each order to your table.

But what about the roll? Usually I take notes about each roll’s shortcomings, but for The Lobster Dock’s roll, I didn’t write anything down. That’s how close it came to my ideal. It’s a basic roll, but all the basics are perfectly executed. I only wish I had had room for two of them that day! ($16.95 with chips in September, 2008. map and directions)

The lobster roll at The Lobster Dock

The lobster roll at The Lobster Dock. I have never had a better one.

Miss Brunswick Diner

A sign on the building and the menu itself at the Miss Brunswick Diner both proclaim that their lobster roll was rated Best Lobster Roll in Maine (by the Today Show apparently). The diner is on the northbound side of Route 1 in Brunswick near Summer Street, just before Route 1 jogs to the left. This stretch is anything but quiet, but we sat outside anyway, although none of the other patrons did. I don’t recommend it.

Miss Brunswick Diner

It’s a little wrinkled, but the banner proudly proclaims “BEST LOBSTER ROLL IN ME.” (August, 2006.)

Their roll may not be the Best in Maine, but this was an all-around excellent roll, in the same class as the best I’ve had. The roll was properly grilled, there was plenty of salad, the lobster meat was chunky, sweet and tender and very lightly dressed, and the leaf lettuce didn’t detract from the experience. What more can I say? ($13.95 with fries, cole slaw and pickle in August, 2006. map and directions)

The lobster roll at Miss Brunswick Diner

The lobster roll at Miss Brunswick Diner. (August, 2006.)

Cook’s Lobster House

On a trip in late September, 2008, we cruised the Harpswells looking for lobster rolls, but found a lot of places closed for the season (including Allen’s Seafood, Estes Lobster House, and Holbrook’s Lobster Wharf). Finally, we headed down Route 24, which is a nicer drive than Route 123 (more hilly and interesting terrain) and arrived at Cook’s Lobster House on Bailey Island. Cook’s is open year round and may be the only place in the area to get a lobster roll in the off-season.

Cook’s is at the end of Garrison Cove Road and features a beautiful view of the water, which is sprinkled with lobster buoys. With fresh lobster so close at hand, I was anticipating a great lobster roll, but I was disappointed. The salad was at room temperature and consisted of good-sized chunks, light mayo, and a little paprika on a leaf of lettuce. The problem was that about all I could taste was the mayo. The roll looked properly grilled, but had virtually no buttery flavor. Another minus was that each of our lobster rolls had a small piece of shell. Not a big deal, but highly unusual. I hope to return to the Harpswells and visit some of the places that were closed, but I probably won’t be returning to Cook’s. ($16.95 with fries or chips in September, 2008. map and directions)

Cook's Lobster House

The lobster roll at Cook’s Lobster House. (September, 2008.)

Sea Dog Brewing

Our home base on our trip in September, 2008, was Topsham, and on our first night, we went looking for craft beer. We had spotted Sea Dog Brewing (one of three in Maine) in the beautifully-renovated Bowdoin Paper Mill on the Androscoggin River earlier in the day, so that was our first choice. Even though I was off lobster-roll duty for the evening, I couldn’t help noticing that they served a lobster roll, so of course I had to try it. I wasn’t prepared for the house specialty, the incredible Exploding Lobster Roll. Look at this poor thing:

Sea Dog Brewing

The lobster roll at Sea Dog Brewing in Topsham. This poor, unloved roll has lost its load. (September, 2008.)

As you can see, there was more lobster salad on the plate than on the roll. (The battered fries were all stuck together in large clumps as well.) You would think that no server with any conscience would present a dish plated so carelessly, but our server Meggan, who was superficially pleasant, gave every other indication of hating her job. Like, totally. So I don’t think she even noticed. I reassembled the roll and wolfed it down. The roll itself was just fine, about average for Maine, meaning it was pretty good. Good flavor and texture with a light dressing on a properly buttered and grilled roll. Oh, and much, much better than the one we had at Cook’s earlier that day. The beer was very good, too.

Fat Boy Drive In

Fat Boy’s is an old-style drive-in of a kind I assumed had vanished. Not only are drive-ins still around, but there is another drive-in right down Bath Road called Morse’s Lobster Shack. (I didn’t have time to go to Morse’s.) What drew me to Fat Boy’s was the promise of a five-dollar lobster roll. I have had other inexpensive rolls (at Rapid Ray’s in Saco, for example), but none this cheap. I wasn’t expecting much. It was freshly-made at least; the bun was still warm when it arrived at our car. They put a layer of iceberg lettuce under the salad as filler, so that bulks up the roll. The salad was made with a heavy dressing that didn’t taste like mayo, and the lobster didn’t have much flavor, but it was adequate. The bun was the best part, nicely grilled in butter. It hit the spot, and the novelty of car service made the visit worthwhile.

Fat Boy, Brunswick

The lobster roll at Fat Boy in Brunswick. (September, 2008.)

Joshua’s Tavern

We didn’t go to Joshua’s for their lobster roll. On a trip to Maine in September, 2008, we stayed in Topsham and Joshua’s in Brunswick looked like the closest place with a good selection of microbrews. It turns out they had a lobster roll, so I ordered it. Like the other lobster roll I ordered in nearby Topsham (at Sea Dog Brewing), Joshua’s roll set a new standard for carelessness. As you can see from the picture, most of the salad spilled out, and one whole side of the bun was soggy. Otherwise, the lobster itself wasn’t too bad with decent-sized tender chunks, although the mayo dressing dominated the lobster. If the sandwich hadn’t been delivered pre-detonated, it would have been OK, but that put it over the edge for me.

Joshua's, Brunswick

The lobster roll at Joshua’s Tavern in Brunswick. Another unloved, exploded roll. (September, 2008.)

Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster Roll

We were in Freeport in September 2008 specifically to visit Morrison’s Chowder House, but they had closed at 6:00 pm—only minutes before we arrived. On the walk back to the car, we spotted Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine™ Lobster Roll, which is a small kiosk that is part of the L.L. Bean’s Bike, Boat, and Ski building.

Linda Bean's, Freeport

I learned later that there are currently six other locations, including one in Florida and Massachusetts. I hope she is planning to open a location in Philadelphia, too, because this is a great roll.

“Perfect” creates unrealistic expectations, of course, but her roll is close enough and hit all my bullet points. Fresh, sweet, and tender meat, no filler and a buttery, grilled roll. The only difference between Linda Bean’s roll and my other favorites is her addition of a “personally made mixture of herbs.” A little surprising, considering her emphasis on simplicity and purity. In any case, the mixture does no harm. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Linda Bean's, Freeport

The lobster roll at Linda Bean’s in Freeport. Maybe not “perfect,” but close enough for me. (September, 2008.)

Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster

Freeport is a popular destination for tourists who miss the malls of their homeland. It’s home to L.L. Bean’s headquarters and a complex of retail stores and outlets. Now that Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster Roll has two locations in Freeport, there’s no need to look further for a good one in town (I haven’t tried Morrison’s yet), but if you are looking for change of pace, head to nearby South Freeport. It’s only a few miles away, but it feels a world apart. Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster sits perched at the edge of the peaceful Harraseeket River adjoining the sleepy town wharf and marina; at least it was sleepy when I was there.

Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster

Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster in South Freeport.

They make a fine roll. The roll was grilled and the salad was very good, dressed with mayo with a little shredded lettuce at the bottom of the roll. There’s plenty of outdoor seating, so order some lobster rolls, relax and enjoy the peace and quiet so close yet so far from Freeport. Considering how close it is, it’s definitely worth the short detour from Route 1. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster

The lobster roll at Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster. (September, 2005)

South Coast

Portland and Environs

Two Lights Lobster Shack

The Lobster Shack offers one of the most pleasant and picturesque locations to enjoy a lobster roll I’ve ever seen. Located on Cape Elizabeth and nestled practically in the shadow of the iconic Portland Headlight lighthouse, the restaurant offers an abundance of picnic tables (many with umbrellas) at the water’s edge so you can enjoy your meal as the surf crashes against the rocks below. As you can see from the picture, we were lucky to visit on a gorgeous September day with a light breeze coming in off the ocean. Naturally we sat outside, but there is seating inside for days when the weather refuses to cooperate.

The Lobster Shack, Cape Elizabeth

One view of the Lobster Shack as seen from the ocean.

The price of their lobster varies according to the market; when we visited in 2005, the lobster roll was going for $13.50 and $15.50 for the “boat,” which includes French fries and cole slaw. Judging by the display of plaques on the wall, they seem to have locked up the Audience Readers’ Poll of the Maine Sunday Telegram, and no wonder—their roll is very good. The meat was tender and tasty and is basically undressed with a little shredded lettuce. Each roll is surmounted by a large dollop of mayonnaise and a pickle slice. It’s a festive garnish, but I can’t say I approve. You’re getting mayo whether you want it or not, and anyway it’s way too much. Better to put it on the side. Despite that, it was a very good roll in a perfect setting. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at The Lobster Shack, Cape Elizabeth

Except for the unwelcome giant dollop of mayo, this was a very good roll.

J’s Oyster Bar

We stopped in for dinner the day of the Old Port Festival in June 2009, so there’s no telling whether our experience was typical for J’s. For one thing, the parking lot behind J’s was roped off for drinking and dining; there was even a band! All of the tables were fully-occupied, however, so we had no choice but to sit inside. Although the place looked packed, there were a couple of copper-topped tables available (most people seemed to be drinking), so there was no wait to speak of. In this chaotic and noisy environment, we were very surprised to see our waitress from breakfast at Becky’s Diner come over to wait on us. I hope she doesn’t work that hard every day!

J’s lobster roll didn’t come on a top-split bun, but they made up for that by grilling the inside of the bun. Despite that, the bun didn’t contribute much buttery flavor. The cool, undressed salad (they included a packet of mayo on the side) featured large chunks of meat with a wonderful flavor that made me forget about the bun. The single leaf of lettuce did not detract. An excellent roll and probably the best overall I have had in Portland. That night, everyone was having a great time at J’s, including us. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at J's Oyster Bar, Portland

Although I have some reservations, I think J’s Oyster Bar serves the best lobster roll I have had in Portland. (June, 2009.)

Portland Lobster Company

Portland Lobster's Pager

We stopped in for lunch the day of the Old Port Festival in June 2009, not long after witnessing the creation of the World’s Longest Lobster Roll, which took place right in front of the restaurant. This cozy and nicely-appointed restaurant was fairly crowded, naturally, but we didn’t have to wait long to order at the counter. I ordered a regular; the Jumbo is $6.00 extra. After ordering we were given this cute lobster-shaped pager (at right).

I have to say I have never had a lobster roll quite like what Portland Lobster Company serves. It’s like they set out to reconcile the chasm between afficionados of cold lobster salad rolls and rolls with hot buttered lobster. And as far as I am concerned, they succeeded. The salad was cool, but instead of mixing it with mayo, they drizzled melted butter over it, which coated the chunks with a thin film of butter. You get the buttery flavor of the hot lobster roll without the soggy mess. I thought it was a real successful combination. The lobster meat was tasty and tender, although maybe a little bland. The bun was grilled, but didn’t contribute any buttery flavor (not that this rolled needed any more buttery flavor!). The bun did have a nice, toasty texture. ($15.99 with fries in June, 2009. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Portland Lobster Company, Portland

Portland Lobster Company’s roll, while not the best I have had in Portland, succeeds in reconciling the hot and cold lobster roll philosophies. Quite an achievement. (June, 2009.)

Gilbert’s Chowder House

Gilbert’s Chowder House really defines “nothing fancy.” I can’t think of another restaurant with less attention to aesthetics and atmosphere than Gilbert’s. If not the drop ceiling, fluorescent lighting, plastic forks and Styrofoam bowls, then how about the radio and TV both playing at the same time. But who cares? The food is good!

The bun was nicely grilled and buttered. There was a little mayo underneath the lobster, but almost none on the lobster. The lobster itself was cool and had a nice al dente texture. The main problem was the big leaf of lettuce, which was a bit intrusive (I removed it entirely after eating half the roll). Overall, a good roll. They know what they’re doing in the kitchen. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Gilbert’s Chowder House, Portland

The lobster roll at Gilbert’s Chowder House. (September, 2008)

Susan’s Fish and Chips

Susan’s is located in a funky old garage decorated just lightly enough so that you never forget you’re eating in a funky old garage. The kitchen is right inside the garage and seating is at picnic tables. For all the funkiness, they have their own brand of root beer, which of course I had to try. I thought it was a pretty cool place.

Susan’s is apparently famous for, you guessed it, their fish and chips. And that’s what I should have ordered. I’m sure it’s great, and I do love fish and chips. Their lobster roll, on the other hand, was quite half-hearted. It featured about 3 ounces of plain lobster on top of shredded lettuce, and there was some mayo smeared on somewhere underneath it all. Nothing terrible or anything, just not made with love. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Susan's Fish and Chips, Portland

The lobster roll at Susan’s Fish and Chips. (September, 2005)

Becky’s Diner

Becky’s parking lot is weird. The spaces are double-long, so it’s a certainty you’ll either be blocked in or be blocking someone (we were being blocked), but everyone seemed cheerful about having their meal interrupted to move a car. We arrived around lunchtime and opted for seats at the counter.

The bun was only toasted and not grilled, but it was still good. The lobster salad was at room temperature with light mayo. The chunks were big and tender, although the flavor was slightly briny. Not a perfect roll in every detail, but still very good overall, and I liked the bustle of this very popular destination. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Becky's Diner, Portland

The lobster roll at Becky’s Diner. (September, 2008)

DiMillo’s

DiMillo’s isn’t your typical lobster shack. It’s an elegant restaurant created from a converted ferry. It’s so large (DiMillo’s can seat up to 600 people), you’ll probably never notice that you’re floating. You approach the restaurant via a parking lot that seems to occupy several acres. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and were seated in the lounge, because “lunch” was over for the day. Their roll features a large quantity of lightly-chopped meat over shredded lettuce. It wasn’t a bad roll at all, but it just didn’t have much flavor. $16.00.

The lobster roll at DiMillo's, Portland

The lobster roll at DiMillo’s. Not a bad roll, but just kind of blah. (September, 2005)

Bayley’s Lobster Pound

Just south of Portland on the coast is tiny Pine Point, home of Bayley’s Lobster Pound. They really take their lobster seriously here; lobster rolls are available, but they are more an afterthought, as Bayley’s is not a restaurant. They will be happy to fix a couple of rolls to go, of course. You can get them plain, or with either butter or mayo (we got mayo). Grab a soda from the machine and a bag of chips and you’re all set. The lobster meat in this roll stole the show—it was great. The roll itself was unusual; I’ve never seen anything like it. As you may be able to tell from the picture, it was longer than the usual frankfurter bun and was a little doughy, but tasty. It also wasn’t grilled, but that was no surprise. Did I mention they are not a restaurant? Even with the odd roll (which I enjoyed), this was a wonderful roll. And they sell lobster meat, too!

The lobster roll at Bayley's Lobster Pound

The lobster roll at Bayley’s Lobster Pound. Great lobster! (September, 2005)

If you go looking for it, don’t be confused if you see Bayley’s Seafood Restaurant on Pine Point Road (Route 9) in nearby Scarborough. Just continue past it until you see the Clambake and turn left. Not to take business away from the other two Bayley’s restaurants, but I just haven’t visited them. (map and directions)

Saco

Rapid Ray’s

Rapid Ray’s in downtown Saco is more a burger joint than a lobster pound, but they sell a decent roll. The roll itself was perfectly grilled, the salad was a little soupy but had good flavor. The roll was the cheapest I had ever seen at $7.25 (before finding the $5 roll at Fat Boy’s in Brunswick) in part because the roll is a little small, and it comes with no fries or other sides or extras. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Rapid Ray’s

The lobster roll at Rapid Ray’s. (September, 2005)

Kennebunkport

Mabel’s Lobster Claw

While Mabel’s Lobster Claw is in Kennebunkport, it’s not “downtown,” which is a relief; Kennebunkport is one of the most congested towns I’ve ever seen. We hiked out along Ocean Avenue to Mabel’s from our parking spot near downtown. It’s a nice stroll past the harbor and marinas. You can eat inside or out at Mabel’s, but since it was such a nice day, we decided to sit outside on the porch. I think we were the youngest people there by a lot. I’m just saying.

Mabel’s Lobster Claw

I found plenty of nits to pick with Mabel’s roll, although all in all, it was a good roll. The very crunchy lettuce was a bit of a distraction. The lobster was chunky, but unfortunately a little chewy. In addition, the salad wasn’t mixed very carefully; instead of an even film of mayo, there were pockets of it lurking here and there. The cole slaw had a strong, bitter flavor. Another negative: my place setting featured the funkiest, dirtiest fork I ever saw; I wish I had taken a picture of it. ($15.95 with fries and cole slaw in September, 2005. map and directions)

The lobster roll at Mabel’s Lobster Claw

The lobster roll at Mabel’s Lobster Claw. (September, 2005.)

The Clam Shack

The Clam Shack is in the thick of Kennebunkport, which is overrun with swarms of tourists. I was expecting more from this place based on its reputation. Unfortunately, their lobster roll was a lackluster effort. It was served on a hamburger bun grilled on the inside. Unfortunately, the meat was chewy. I doubt I’ll be coming back here. Besides, Cape Porpoise Lobster Company is only a short drive away.

The Clam Shack.

The lobster roll at The Clam Shack. (This photo was taken in August, 2004.)

Cape Porpoise Lobster Company

If you like your lobster pounds really funky, you’ll love this place. Cape Porpoise (near Kennebunkport) does most of their business selling lobster via mail order (and have a nice web site to facilitate the operation), but you can just walk in and order a lobster roll to go.

Cape Porpoise Lobster Company.

Cape Porpoise Lobster Company (This photo was taken in August, 2004.)

A darn good one, too, but plan on eating it in your car—they have no seating of any kind. On our most recent trip, we tailgated. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Cape Porpoise Lobster Company

The lobster roll at Cape Porpoise Lobster Company. It’s ready to take away in this clamshell, and a good thing, too; there’s no place to eat on the premises.

Wells

Maine Diner

I wasn’t expecting much from the Maine Diner. I mean, it’s a diner, and I had assumed it was also a tourist trap. But I was wrong. Their roll was one of the best of our trip, and the staff were pleasant and cheerful. The menu claimed “5 ounces” of lobster and indeed, the roll was overflowing with big chunks. The menu also said “Market Price,” which in this case was $14.95. The dressing was mayo, applied with a light touch. The roll itself was perfectly grilled—a masterpiece. All in all, good flavor, good texture, and firm yet tender meat. An excellent roll. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at the Maine Diner

The lobster roll at the Maine Diner. They don’t skimp; their roll is overflowing. (September, 2005.)

Ogunquit

Barnacle Billy’s Etc

Directions: From Route 1 heading north, turn right onto Bourne Lane and follow it a short distance to the dead end. Turn right on Shore Road, and you will find Barnacle Billy’s on the right. I recommend that you take advantage of their valet parking service.

For many years, it was my considered opinion that the best lobster rolls I ever had came from Barnacle Billy’s Etc in Perkins Cove. I’ve eaten there many times, and until 2005, they had never disappointed me with their fine food and friendly service. Be sure to sit outside for the best view of Perkins Cove, not to mention the restaurant’s beautiful garden. I dare say you’ll never find a more picturesque setting in all of Maine, swarms of tourists notwithstanding. You can enjoy a view of Perkins Cove any time you want courtesy of the restaurant’s web cam.

Barnacle Billy’s from the Perkins Cove drawbridge

Perkins Cove as seen from the drawbridge. The original Barnacle Billy’s, a “snack bar” with dining room and deck attached, is on the right. The newer Barnacle Billy’s Etc, a larger, two-story restaurant with decks on both floors, is on the left.

I have to mention that Barnacle Billy’s let me down a little in 2005. I was there in mid-September, and one of my spies was there a couple of weeks earlier. We compared notes. For one thing, the roll was barely grilled. That was disappointing. The salad looked the same as ever, but after eating some other marvelous rolls on our trip, the roll seemed a little pedestrian when it arrived at our table. When I took a bite, however, my ardor for Barnacle Billy’s was rekindled. There is something about their salad that makes the lobster flavor explode in my mouth. It was a happy experience for me, although I can see that others might not agree. Despite the issues with the roll, Barnacle Billy’s will always be a sentimental favorite for two reasons. One is that taken in toto, the beautiful setting combined with the roll is a wonderful combination (although their roll may not be “the best” in some objective sense). The other reason is that while I had some fabulous rolls in 2005, there was no other one that emerged head and shoulders above the rest as best.

Lobster roll from Barnacle Billy’s Etc

The lobster roll at Barnacle Billy’s Etc. Looks good enough to eat, doesn’t it?

I returned to Barnacle Billy’s in 2006 for another roll. A good roll, but one that suffered from the same issues as the one from 2005. The meat was chunky and tender and very lightly dressed, although the flavor was on the bland side. Barnacle Billy’s rolls have always been dusted with paprika, a unique touch that never bothered me. This was the first time, however, that there was enough dumped on there that I could actually taste it, so that was a minus. The roll was pale and very lightly grilled, with virtually no butter flavor. Their roll is full but not overstuffed, which for me is exactly the right quantity. Despite its flaws, I liked the roll a lot and felt like I could have eaten two more. (map and directions)

Two other restaurants in Perkins Cove are worthy of mention. The Oarweed serves an excellent roll and features a nice view of the ocean and the Marginal Way. The Lobster Shack in Rotary Park is an unpretentious establishment that also serves a good roll. Theirs is a little smaller than most, but it’s also less expensive. The Ogunquit Lobster Pound isn’t noted for their lobster rolls, but rather for whole lobsters. The restaurant looks like a log cabin, and it’s huge. We sat at table 55, and it wasn’t the last table in the place either. Their roll was $15.95 for about four ounces of lobster salad that featured what they call “creamy salad dressing.” The dressing was agreeable, but the flavor predominated, and it really isn’t my thing. The Shipyard beer was the best part of our meal there.

Rose Cove Café

Located on the southbound side of Route 1 in the heart of Ogunquit, the Rose Cove Café boasts that their lobster roll was voted best by the citizens of York County in 2004 and 2005. If the jaded locals liked it, I had to try this one.

Rose Cove Café - Voted #1

The Rose Cove Café in Ogunquit. “Voted #1”

You have some options when ordering, so I opted for “light mayo.” The lobster salad comes on a soft homemade round roll still warm from the oven! It was so warm it warmed up the salad a little. This roll was neither toasted nor grilled. The salad was delicious, moderately chunky in texture dressed just right with flavor and texture about as good as it gets. As wonderful as the homemade roll was, I missed the traditional one grilled in butter; the roll made the whole sandwich more of a mouthful to chew in that the quantity of bread competed with the lobster salad. Still, it was a refreshing change. They obviously pay a lot of attention to detail, so I plan to go back there and try something else. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Rose Cove Café

The Rose Cove Café’s lobster roll is served on a homemade roll still warm from the oven. I put aside my purist instincts to enjoy this great sandwich.

York

York’s Best

We drove by this place on the way to Bob’s Clam Hut, and I noticed that their sign proclaimed “Voted Best Lob Roll” It turns out that it was only their roast beef sandwich that was voted best. While their lobster roll might not be award-winning, it was still good, and the folks at York’s Best made us feel at home. The roll ($12.95 with fries) featured big chunks of lobster with noticeable mayonnaise (although not too much, fortunately) nestled in a leaf of red-leaf lettuce. The roll itself was great—very buttery. The lobster meat was sweet and tender, but not quite as flavorful as usual. Perhaps it was chilled a little too much for me to appreciate its full flavor. York’s Best is right on Route 1. Look for the mustard-yellow and blue building with the big “Fried Clams” sign on the roof.

The lobster roll at York’s Best

The lobster roll at York’s Best. Very chunky! (September, 2005.)

Kittery

Bob’s Clam Hut

I had been hearing about Bob’s Clam Hut for years before finally going there in mid-September, 2005. Bob’s is on the southbound side of Route 1 in Kittery, a street lined with shopping outlets. The parking lot on the north side of the property is small for the amount of business Bob’s does; I had to wait for someone to leave before parking. (There is a second, larger lot on the south side.) Even though it was September, Bob’s was busy, and I can only imagine how hectic it must be during the summer season. The facade of Bob’s includes the usual order and pickup windows as well as a third window between these two whimsically labeled “Middle Window.” Cute.

Bob’s Clam Hut

Sure, the sign says Bob’s Clam Hut, but as you can see, they like to feature their Lobster Roll, too.

Someone named Mike was manning the order window and took our order. He was very friendly. I was there for a lobster roll, but my wife Anne wasn’t. The awning commanded “Eat Clams!” so she tried some. Although they push the clams, Bob’s menu of shellfish is extensive.

Bob’s sells two sizes of lobster roll: regular (3 ounce, $11.95 with fries) and jumbo (5 ounce, $16.95). The regular ($11.95) includes three ounces of lobster salad, while the jumbo ($16.95) comes with five and is on a larger roll. I had a regular. Although Bob’s has seven picnic tables with umbrellas and a long bench, all seating was occupied, so we got our order to go and tailgated in the parking lot. The salad was a little mushy, and the flavor was a little briny, but the meat was tender and flavorful with minimal dressing. Overall a fine if not great roll. For dessert, Ben & Jerry’s is right next door. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Bob’s Clam Hut

The lobster roll at Bob’s Clam Hut. (September, 2005.)

Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier

Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier is one of the most picturesque settings to enjoy a lobster roll I’ve ever seen. You don’t get the feel of the ocean like you do at Two Lights, but Chauncey Creek is just so peaceful. As you can see, it wasn’t very crowded the day we visited late on a September afternoon. Considering the season, the time of day, and how off the beaten path this place is, it’s not surprising.

Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier

Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier. Not the greatest lobster roll, but a picture-postcard perfect setting. (September, 2005)

Their roll is served on a hamburger bun that wasn’t toasted or grilled. The lobster meat was fine, but there was just too much salad dressing for my taste. (map and directions)

The lobster roll at Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier

The lobster roll at Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier (September, 2005)

Off the Coast

So far, I’ve only been to one place in Maine for a lobster roll that wasn’t either on or near the coast...

Bob’s Seafood

In all the years I’ve been visiting Maine, I’ve never ventured very far from the coast, but when I learned that Bob’s Seafood in Windham was crowned Best Lobster Roll 2005 by the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, I knew I had to try this one.

Windham is in the Sebago Lakes region, and Bob’s is right on Route 302. It’s a clean, nice-looking place with indoor booths and about 10 picnic tables on a deck alongside. It’s nowhere near the water, so although it wasn’t very scenic, I ordered and eagerly anticipated the “Best Lobster Roll in Maine”!

When the roll was handed over, I was stunned to see that the frankfurter bun was not the top-split variety used by virtually everyone else, but a standard roll served at room temperature, not even toasted. I had to ask if they ever grilled their rolls. I was told they do, if the customer asked for it, if they weren’t too busy, and if the grill was available. Even then, I still don’t see how they can grill that style of roll without trimming the sides.

The lobster roll at Bob's Seafood

The lobster roll at Bob’s Seafood. All of the salad is sitting on top of the roll. (August, 2006)

Seeing as how the magic of the lobster roll springs from the marriage of the grilled buttery roll and the lobster, this cold roll wasn’t contributing anything to the magic. The other problem caused by the roll was that they didn’t try to split the roll to fill it with salad; they just mounded it on top. (If they were serving hot dogs this way, the dogs would have rolled right off.) This made eating it more difficult as the roll had to be kept level to avoid losing its load. The mounding may have been done to make it look as if you were getting more salad, but that wasn’t necessary, since there was plenty. I don’t think they were trying to save time, since I think it would be more difficult to mound the salad on top of the roll, than to open the roll properly and stuff it. It was just inexplicable.

The lobster roll at Bob's SeafoodThe lobster roll at Bob's Seafood

Port and starboard sides of the roll at Bob’s Seafood. I don’t know how you would grill this roll if you wanted to—without trimming the crust. Why not use top-split rolls? (August, 2006)

The sad tale of the roll has a happy ending, because Bob’s salad was simply so good. For one thing, I didn’t see any tail meat at all. I happen to like some tail meat, but the lack of it is certainly a mark of quality. The meat was extremely fresh, chunky, sweet and tender. I have never had better, which is probably why Bob’s roll was rated Number One. But that bun! I wouldn’t even vote for a roll with a bun like that, but try one yourself just for the salad. ($9.95 in August, 2006.)

Red’s Eats: “Supersize Me!”

Brace yourself. This is certainly the longest review of a restaurant I’ve ever written, but Red’s Eats in Wiscasset deserves special consideration and a more thoughtful review simply because it has become a phenomenon. It’s certainly the best-known lobster-roll stand having been featured on numerous TV shows and in countless magazine articles. (A long list chronicling all these honors is fastened to the front of the building. Very impressive.) People who will probably never have a lobster roll know about Red’s. How many other establishments serving take-away food can you think of that have gotten that kind of press? So what’s up? How did they attract so much attention, and more importantly, do they deserve their fame?

While I can answer that quite easily for myself (it’s “no”), speaking from the perspective of a lobster roll “critic,” the answer isn’t so clear-cut. After all, explaining a dissenting opinion to a world ga-ga for Red’s is difficult. How do you justify an opinion so out of step with virtually everyone else?

As I mentioned, I wouldn’t give Red’s any special treatment if they weren’t so famous. I could just describe the roll and the experience and be done with it. What complicates the situation is their roll is unquestionably extraordinary, it’s just not extraordinarily good. It’s these extraordinary qualities that have attracted all the attention, I’m sure, but it’s for the wrong reason. What sets a Red’s roll apart are not its qualities as a sandwich, that’s for sure. Rather, the Red’s roll is prized for, quite frankly, non-culinary qualities, qualities that I not only don’t value, but even deplore. Perhaps I can compare the Red’s phenomenon to the American fascination with SUVs. SUVs are cars whose “qualities” I don’t understand. Where others see a positive feature, I see a negative. In Red’s case, they serve the Hummer of lobster rolls. The only trouble is, I don’t want a Hummer. Well, that’s enough philosophy. Let’s get on with it.

The details of this review are based on my most recent visit to Red’s while on vacation in 2004. It had been six years since I had last been to Red’s (I tried going there in October, 2001, but they were closed for the season). Although my memories were on the negative side (they were never my favorite roll based on a number of visits in years past), after 6 years I didn’t know what to expect, so I was looking forward to reevaluating their roll. One afternoon we set out from our B&B in Rockland and headed down to Wiscasset to make a pilgrimage to Red’s Eats.

Before we get to the roll itself, let’s talk about the location. I consider the setting and the ambience of a restaurant an important part of the experience of enjoying a lobster roll. Not that I expect the Ritz; most places where lobster rolls are served are very informal. Many are located on the water or in other picturesque locations. This is as it should be. Eating a lobster roll should be relaxed and fun.

Wiscasset fills the bill as it is very picturesque, but the traffic! Wiscasset has always been a bottleneck for Route 1 traffic in both directions, and cars and trucks crawl continually past Red’s location on the corner of Water Street and Route 1. On the day we visited, we hit the usual traffic coming into town, but it wasn’t horrendous. After crossing the Sheepscot River Bridge, we turned right on Water Street and found street parking easily.

Traffic in front of Red’s Eats.

Traffic on Route 1 crawling by Red’s Eats. It’s like this all summer long.

I had read that the fame of Red’s Eats has spawned long lines in the last few years, so we were prepared for a wait. We weren’t disappointed. I don’t know whether the line that day would be considered “long,” (by actual count there were 30 people ahead of us when we started), but what was undeniably long was the time it took to place our order—55 minutes. That’s 55 minutes just standing there attempting to make conversation in losing competition with the din of trucks in low gear, sucking car and truck exhaust. It’s enough to make one a little grumpy and impatient.

I’m no stranger to waiting in long lines for lobster rolls, although I’ve never had to wait this long for one. Once at Beals, we were stuck in a line that moved even more slowly than Red’s, although the total time was shorter (only 40 minutes). By contrast, once at Abbott’s I joined a line equally long, but which moved incredibly quickly. Unlike Abbott’s, Red’s can’t deal with even modest crowds, and they don’t seem to care. It’s not like the long lines caught them by surprise. The whole time we were there, the line never shrank, and I have to assume it’s that long all summer. Maybe they feel that having a long line out front is good for business. A long line might be, but a long wait? No.

The line at Red’s Eats.

The line for Red’s Eats spills out the end of Water Street and queues up along Route 1. It was virtually impossible to take a picture of Red’s without traffic obstructing the view, but this truck was slow-moving enough that cars ahead of it had already moved out of the way.

I attribute the long wait to the rather bizarre workflow they employ. Most other places with any kind of popularity have two windows, one for ordering and one for pickup. You order, get a number, and then are free to wander off while waiting for the number to be called. Not at Red’s. Red’s has one and only one window and one and only one person doing everything from taking orders to arranging the food on trays for pickup. As if that didn’t create enough of a bottleneck, the very cheerful person behind the counter—obviously very proud of the fare—took pains to be sure that everyone got just what they ordered, the right condiments, etc. I would feel sorry for how hard she was working, but she obviously relished being the center of attention. I guess some people enjoy the special attention and flourishes, and normally it would be welcome, but after an hour I wasn’t in the mood. I’d be content to pick up my ketchup packets and utensils out of a plastic bucket if it would speed things up a little. I know it would cut into the profits to do so, but I would rather see a second person loading trays so that I could order quickly and get out of that line and then wait for the food to come up. That would make the wait more bearable. Interestingly, the kitchen has no trouble keeping up. After finally ordering, our food was ready very quickly.

When our food came up, I was concerned that we wouldn’t have a place to sit. The deck behind Red’s has three tables for two, three tables for four, and one table for 6. Although that doesn’t sound like enough seating, some people get their orders to go and service is so slow that there were plenty of seats available.

So what about the lobster roll that is at the center of all this attention? Is it really world class? In one sense, it is definitely: size. Red’s roll certainly sports the most lobster meat I’ve ever seen on a roll—vast slabs of it just piled on. You really have to look for the roll under all that lobster. The sheer quantity is impressive and quite a value considering that a roll at Red’s costs about the same as everywhere else. Call me peevish for complaining about such a large portion of my favorite food, but this is where I just don’t get it. With the roll buried under so much lobster, it’s really stopped being a roll. It’s more than a little difficult to eat such a monster. You can’t pick up the roll, that’s for sure.

The lobster roll at Red’s Eats, 1998.

The lobster roll at Red’s Eats, circa 1998. There’s a roll under there somewhere.

Since their “roll” is mostly about the lobster, how good is the lobster itself? Well, this was the biggest disappointment of all. If the lobster were great, of course, then my other objections would melt into insignificance. On the day I was there, however, the lobster was very chewy and rubbery, by far the least tender lobster I’ve ever had. More like squid. The chewiness made for a frustrating eating experience, in part because the giant chunks were so much larger than bite-size. What was frustrating was that the meat was so tough that I couldn’t bite through it to tear off a mouthful without gripping the piece somehow. Since the first few pieces don’t even fit in the roll, I was left picking up each piece, grasping it firmly, and tearing off a bite. Not fun. Other than being chewy, the lobster was very fresh and clean (not briny) and had a great flavor, but the texture was awful. I don’t know what cooking method could make lobster that rubbery.

The lobster roll at Red’s Eats, 2004.

The lobster roll at Red’s Eats, circa 2004. Not much has changed in 6 years. It’s probably the biggest roll I’ve ever seen, but unfortunately, the meat was the toughest I’ve ever eaten. At least the fries were great!

So here we have a “sandwich” that is little more than a big pile of plain, cold lobster. And I mean plain. There is no dressing, no nothing on this lobster. I have a problem with that. The roll comes with some mayo and butter (see picture) on the side. I prefer mayo in my lobster salad, but only a little bit. The only way to achieve the correct quantity is to toss the lobster in a tiny amount of mayo so it’s barely coated. It’s not practical to put the right amount of mayo on with a knife. As for the butter, sure it’s the number one topping for hot lobster, but cold? I just thought that was strange. The buttery flavor from the grilled roll adds the perfect touch; I’m not interested in drowning the lobster in melted butter. Maybe the side of melted butter helps to make people from Connecticut feel at home. I guess I just don’t understand why they serve their lobster plain.

The lobster roll at Red's Eats, 2006.

The lobster roll at Red’s Eats, circa 2006. Same hour-long wait, same grotesquely-supersized roll, same tough lobster.

Unfortunately, I don’t have much good to say about Red’s and that’s a shame. I don’t want to be too hard on them, because they obviously share my enthusiasm and even reverence for the lobster roll. After all, as much as I may love lobster rolls, to me it’s just a sandwich. At Red’s, lobster rolls are their bread and butter. The sad passing of Red’s founder Al Gagnon in 2008 made me reconsider my opinions. Even with all my differences with Red’s Eats over their version of the lobster roll, it is clear that Al Gagnon cared deeply about his lobster roll, and that’s all that matters. My deepest condolences to his family and friends. I hope Red’s Eats continues to thrive, and I look forward to visting them again someday.

The Future

Here’s my list of places I would like to visit someday. It’s fairly arbitrary in that these are places either someone has recommended to me or I read about online. In reality, there are hundreds of places to get a lobster roll.

Downeast

  • Tidal Falls Lobster Pound, Hancock.
  • Thurston’s Lobster Pound, Southwest Harbor.
  • Jordan’s, which is just outside of Ellsworth on the way to Acadia’s Schoodic Peninsula.
  • Mainely Delights at the Swan Island Ferry terminal.
  • Offshore Store and More at town dock, Frenchboro.
  • Bagaduce Lunch, Brooksville.

Midcoast

  • Tubby’s Ice Cream, Wayne (west of Augusta near Androscoggin Lake).
  • A reader highly recommended Sharpie’s Shack, a new place in Rockland (75 Mechanic Street) that opened in 2009.
  • A reader highly recommended The Keag Store on Route 73 just south of Rockland.
  • Five Islands Lobster Company, Georgetown. We tried visiting Five Islands in late September, 2008, but as (bad) luck would have it, they were closed just for that day on account of rainy, foggy weather. I should have called ahead; their voicemail noted they were closed.
  • Sarah’s Dockside (formerly Lisa’s), Georgetown.
  • Morse’s Lobster Shack, Harpswell. I couldn’t find any trace of Morse’s in September, 2008, and their phone was disconnected. Note that there is another Morse’s Lobster Shack in Brunswick, which is still open.
  • Estes Lobster House, Harpswell. This was closed for the season when we visited in September, 2008.
  • Dolphin Marina and Restaurant, South Harpswell.
  • Morrison’s Maine Chowder House, 4 Mechanic Street, Freeport. Now that you can get an excellent lobster roll at Linda Bean’s, my search for a good lobster roll in Freeport is over, but I would still like to try Morrison’s. We arrived at Morrison’s a few minutes after closing (6:00 pm) in September, 2008. Hope to get back there someday.
  • Days Crabmeat & Lobster, Yarmouth.

South Coast

  • The Good Table, Cape Elizabeth.
  • Nunan’s Lobster Hut, Kennebunkport.
  • Old Salt’s Pantry in Kennebunkport. I wasn’t too crazy about either the Clam Shack or Mabel’s, so this place is next.

 

See my list of resources for further ideas. You’re encouraged and welcome to recommend your favorite place to me. Send an email to the address at the bottom of this page. —Tony Green