Summer's over in Maine, but you’d hardly know it from the queue of vacationers and regulars at the Clam Shack. A teenager shouts out orders of clam strips, chowder, and fried shrimp. But it's the whole, handpicked lobster piled onto a buttered roll that earns this eatery a place among the seafood greats.
Today’s culinary landscape is all about über-local ingredients and farm-to-table cooking. But before there were menus crediting farmers for their kale or acorn-fed pork, there were dockside establishments serving just-caught crab and lobster or oysters farmed a few miles up the shore. America’s seafood restaurants were sourcing fish from their backyard long before it was popular.
These iconic, unfussy joints, for many of us, define seafood at its best. After all, what could be better than plump, juicy bivalves paired with a cold beer and views of bobbing boats? Or picking crabs on brown paper–covered communal tables, your hands a mess of clarified butter and Old Bay?
Related: U.S. + Canada Travel Guide
Our top picks include as many (if not more) down-and-dirty restaurants—where no-frills décor meets the freshest grouper, blackened, simply dressed with mayo and lettuce, and served on a toasted bun—as high-end ones helmed by toques who marry French techniques and worldly ingredients with pristine bluefin, cobia, and escolar.
You’ll find America’s best seafood at a shanty overlooking Florida’s Sarasota Bay, and on Maui’s northern shore in a kitschy, yet romantic South Seas setting where the catch changes so often that menus are printed twice daily, but also in Atlanta, where seafood meets southern society over oysters and putt-putt at the Optimist.
Whether high or low, one thing is consistent: Each of these local favorites, in big cities and small towns, is a catch.