License plates proclaim Maine as “Vacationland” and for this Southerner, the state always makes good on its promise. In Maine, summer’s sky and breeze is to be soaked up and celebrated—when nights can dip into the 60s and 70s and days go on until 9 p.m. That was the case in early July as I caught my first glimpse of a lonely white house on a dune with a whipping American flag on top as I drove US Route 1 past Cape Neddick toward Kennebunkport. It would not be the last time this week that I would feel I was living an Edward Hopper painting.
Kennebunkport is known as much for the Bush political dynasty as it’s picturesque bays. It’s also known for the Clam Shack. In operation since 1968 the shack—indeed, it’s a shack—is on a bridge over the Kennebunk River, next to one of the longest-operating seafood markets in the state. Owner Steve Kingston has owned the shack and market since 2000 and serves up one of not just the best rolls in the state, but perhaps in the country–if his win at New York City’s Lobster Roll Rumble three out of the last four years is any indication. Each roll is made to order, with Kingston serving up about five ounces of soft-shell lobster on a buttered and toasted hamburger bun (a departure from the usual hot dog bun). Customers get a choice of butter, mayonnaise or both—I was recommended “both” and heartily agree. The combination of the warm bun and the cool lobster makes for a heavenly roll.
Portland is about an hour up the road, Route 1, and I opted for the long way, considering the stretch of two-lane highway is parallel to more water than any other roadway in the country. The small city has rightfully gained renown over the past few years for its thriving culinary industry. I checked into the Press Hotel, a new addition to downtown and set in a 1920’s building that was home to the Portland Press Herald newspaper. I quickly set out for the lobster roll that many say is Portland’s finest, at Eventide Oyster Co.
Owners Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley took the James Beard Award for best chefs in the Northeast last year, and the line around the block before the restaurant opens at 11 am is a testament to their critical and commercial success. If you’re lucky to sit outside, do so, and if you’re there just for lobster rolls, you can easily eat two. What has earned Eventide all the starred reviews and enough success for a second location in Boston is the brown-butter that coats the local lobster and the inventive use of steamed buns—akin to a Chinese bao bun. (Across town, at the new bar and restaurant Blyth and Burrows, look for a similar use of the steamed Asian starch.)
Before I left Portland, I had to stop by the Francis Hotel, which opened earlier this year in the city’s West End, for to have what was actually my second dinner. The small 15-room hotel is a cozy option to the slicker Press and, for my purposes, serves up an inventive lobster roll. The hotel’s Bolster, Snow & Co. restaurant is helmed by executive chef Nicholas Verdisco, who most recently worked at the Inn at Pound Ridge with Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The roll, as it were, is simply offered on the menu under “toasts” and comes lightly dressed in garlic, lemon, and dill and indeed served on dark rye bread. (A perfect cup of after-dinner coffee can be found across the street at the Tandem coffee shop.)
From Portland, I carried on further north toward Camden. Friends had told me to be sure and stop at Red’s Eats along the way and when we got there, it seemed that my friends had told everyone to stop there. In nearby Harpswell, Erica’s Seafood is well worth the short detour for not exactly a lobster roll, but a cousin called the Crabster—a hearty and entirely complimentary blend of lobster and crabmeat and served with onion rings.
Camden, Rockland, Rockport are three little towns tucked right off Penobscot Bay in Maine’s mid-coast. Rockland is where the art is—don’t miss the great seascapes from local heroes Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth at the Farnsworth Art Museum—and where the Maine Lobster Festival is held every August.
Rockport is where you’ll find the marine park, a very Instagrammable statue of Andre the Seal, and coastal hiking in Beech Hill Preserve. And Camden is where to relax, at the Victorian-style Camden Harbor Inn. Situated on a hill overlooking the harbor, the 20-room Relais & Château property (built in 1874) is a prime location from where to explore the neighboring towns, book an Anjacaa sailboat (seats six), and explore the bay and see some real seals.
But locals are across the harbor. They head to the Rhumb Line after they dock their sailboat. Tucked back off a shipyard, hidden behind a dry dock, this restaurant and watering hole is best enjoyed at sunset—as it’s the only restaurant on this side, the eastern bank of Meguntook river, offering a great view of Camden. (Reservations are offered, just not for outside.) The Rhumb Line serves a classic lobster roll, with enough bread, just enough mayonnaise, and small enough to eat in about four bites. This lobster roll is very basic and in all the best ways.
From Camden, I forged further north, snaking around Penobscot Bay, and turning east, and finally south and onto Mount Desert Island. Pronounced dessert or desert, depending upon whom you ask and how local they are, the island is the second largest on the Eastern seaboard (behind Long Island) and home to the 50,000-acre Acadia National Park, which offers some of the best hiking in the country. It’s also long been the summer playgrounds for American aristocracies, including the families of J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller—he donated one-third of the land that now makes up the National Park.
On the island, there’s the calmer Southwest Harbor and the more bustling Bar Harbor, within a short distance to hiking in Acadia. And there, right on the water is the West Street Hotel, Maine’s first hotel with a roof-top pool. It was a radical change of scene from the Victorian porches of Camden, but with only adult-aged hotel guests allowed on the roof deck, the pool is a nice, peaceful respite. And the view of Frenchman Bay at sunset can’t be beat.
For my final lobster roll, I skipped the touristy Stewman’s Lobster Pound across the street and drove through Acadia to the other side of the island to Beal’s Lobster Pier. The third generation of Beals operates both a wholesale lobster business with a restaurant attached. While there are five different varieties of lobster rolls available the best lobster sandwich they have isn’t a lobster roll at all. It brought together two thick sliced of homemade bread, Maine cheddar cheese, tomatoes, and fresh lobster—a lobster grilled cheese. On the way back I noticed Side Street Café in Bar Harbor, and stopped to admire an enormous lobster roll (with the meat from two lobsters) that was surprisingly, scandalously coated in Old Bay seasoning. It was delicious. Two dinners on my last night. Simply perfect.