It was just another busy June afternoon 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 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 of their newly rebuilt restaurant. Not that they need the advertisement. Locals and tourists have been flocking to Bagaduce for old-fashioned Down East hospitality and killer lobster rolls since 1946.
Up and down Maine’s 3,500-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.
Eighty 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.
Turn-of-the-century “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 “season.”
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 Restaurant, in the salty 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 over 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 Estes Lobster House—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. —Adrien Glover