Nothing quite says “New England summer” like the first bite into a thick, meaty lobster roll. The seafood-filled bread roll (split-top being the operative form here) has become demonstrative of New England culture, food, ingenuity. A product of the rich legacy of lobstermen and communities that rely on lobster fishing year-round, the lobster roll has become a mainstay of summer eating along America’s East Coast. With most lobster roll shacks being open only during the summer months, it’s not uncommon for lobster roll shack owners to get calls from visitors looking for the year’s opening months and hours, eager to plan their visit to the East Coast specifically around when they can get their lobster rolls.
Likely emerging as a hot dish around 1929, the lobster roll is said to have made its first appearance in Milfod, Connecticut at a restaurant named Perry’s. Overtime, the lobster roll found its way into restaurants and lobster shacks across the East Coast. Eventually, Connecticut became known for serving the rolls hot, with the lobster meat tossed in butter, and served on a warm bun. Maine, the largest producer of lobster in the United States, became known for serving lobster meat cold, tossed in mayonnaise, and served in a split top bun. There have been ongoing, friendly competitions over which state lays claim to the best lobster roll, and why. All across the New England coastline showed that lobster rolls aren’t as binary as we’ve been made to think, and what really makes a good lobster roll goes far beyond how the lobster is dressed, and instead often has to do with who’s leading the way in the kitchen. Regardless of how you like your lobster rolls, lobster and seafood shacks, cafes, and restaurants across the New England coast are sure to have just the right roll for any taste.
One of the foremost states in early American history, Connecticut is home to fascinating U.S. history, fragrant spices like nutmeg, and some of the country’s most respected universities. It’s also home to the first recorded lobster roll, and holds its legacy as the home of the hot lobster roll near and dear in lobster shacks and restaurants across the state. In most places I visited in Connecticut, I noticed the approach of many establishments tends to skew towards a key philosophy: simplicity is best. This method lends itself towards bright flavors, lobster meat that shines, and a perfectly relaxed atmosphere to enjoy it all.
The Lobster Shack
540 Riverside Ave
Westport, CT 06880
Overlooking the Saugatuck River, The Lobster Shack has served visitors and locals since 2016. Owned by Bill Rizzuto, who also owns the nearby Italian restaurant Rizzuto’s, The Lobster Shack highlights the local love of seafood and lobster. Their warm, Connecticut-style lobster roll consists of lobster tossed in butter served over a bed of Boston lettuce. They also offer a Maine version of the roll that includes a chilled lobster “salad” of mayonnaise, celery, and salad, on top of Boston lettuce. My own lobster roll was a simple roll. The lobster wasn’t too buttery, and a hint of citrus taste from the slice of lemon amplified the taste of the fish. The coleslaw, often the ignored side to most meals, was surprisingly delicious and complimented the full lunch meal. The restaurant has a number of other lobster rolls styles and other food offerings, including steamed lobster, a jumbo crack cake sandwich, a hamburger, and soups and salads.
514 Whalley Ave
New Haven, CT 06515
Westville Seafood can seemingly turn anything into a sandwich. Soft shell crab, whiting, and shrimp all find their way into two ends of bread. Their lobster roll, however, is by far one of the restaurant’s most famous meals. Huge chunks of lobster meat are butter and smashed between a split top bun. The accompanying fries—perfectly crisped on the outside and soft and flaky on the inside—don’t disappoint, and make the full meal one that’s indulgent and filling for a ride across the coastline. The restaurant also serves whole belly clams, hamburgers, sandwiches, and even barbecue ribs.
Lobstah on a Roll
254 Newbury St
Boston, MA 02116
Boston may not be part of the traditional Connecticut vs. Maine New England lobster wars, but the city has put its hand in the game by offering both Maine and Connecticut-style rolls, as well as its own versions of the sandwich. At Lobstah on a Roll on the famed Newbury Street, I found a sandwich with six ounces of lobster meat. Their lobster rolls vary in size and flavor, meeting the varied tastes of large groups of family and friends. Lobstah on a Roll has three locations throughout the Boston area. At the Newbury location, the restaurant stands in a former sushi shop. One of the former owners brought on some of the old shaved iced desserts, including honeydew, pineapple, and red bean. After inhaling your lobster roll, cool down with a shaved iced dessert—or two.
Driving into Maine is like driving into an idyllic, natural dream-world. The landscape, even during the summer, is covered in massive trees found at Christmastime, and though it’s a bit warmer, cool temps are still the norm for visitors. As the country’s largest lobster producer, many of Maine’s lobster shacks are family-owned and operated, and value the use of local ingredients—from the butter and toppings used, to the desserts and sodas served at various restaurants and shacks. There are excellent lobster rolls across the state, and finding them can lead to adventures in the great outdoors, and enjoying some of the best lobster meat in the country.
McLoons Lobster Shack
315 Island Rd
South Thomaston, ME 04858
Located on Sprucehead Island, McLoons has become a quaint, gorgeous gem of Maine’s lobster roll culture. The restaurant is led by the guiding principle that lobster can and should shine on its own. General Manager Bree Douty has worked to communicate that message to her staff, including Meredith Mitchell. Mitchell began working at McLoons in 2017, along with other college-aged students from the area, and has watched as the business has grown within the community, and has become an especially popular destination for hungry, lobster-enthused tourists.
“Lobster in general is super important in this area, just because so many families make their entire years living off of four or five months in the summertime lobstering,” Mitchell told KitchenAid.
McLoons, like other nearby shacks, uses locally-caught seafood, supporting the many lobstermen making a living in the industry. Describing McLoons as a “hidden gem,” Mitchell pointed to the importance of using local lobster to make the most fresh and appreciated roll possible.
“We let the lobster meat shine on its own,” said Mitchell. “We don’t mix it with anything. We use tail, knuckle and claw—use all three parts of the lobster. You just let it shine on its own. It doesn’t need a bunch of mayo on it. We give people the option of having a slice of mayo on the inside of their split top, but the lobster itself should be able to stand on its own.”
And stand on its own it does. The lobster roll is unfathomably delicious. Rather than dousing the meat in sauces, the lobster’s meaty, seafood tastes apparent in every bite. The toasted bun and lobster meat is evenly distributed in each bite, and the stunning views that you get of the harbor and nearby islands makes it an equally delicious and picturesque eating experience. Served with Cape Cod chips, the meal feels like the perfect ode to a New England summer. True to their commitment of supporting and serving locally, McLoons also serves locally-made whoopie pies, a devilishly sweet treat that puts the store-bought versions to bed.
While many of the shack’s guests are locals, Mitchell and the team get calls regularly from visitors planning a trip around their open dates (McLoons is only open during the summer months). It’s an experience Mitchell hopes everyone has.
“They’re coming in for that lobster roll experience, or they want to crack open their own steamed lobster, which is definitely something that everyone should probably do in their life.”
In addition to steamed lobster and lobster rolls, McLoons also serves other dishes like crab cakes, crab meat rolls, creamy lobster stew, and roasted littleneck clams. You can call or visit McLoons’ website to stay updated on hours and dates of operation.
41 Water St
Wiscasset, ME 04578
There’s perhaps no lobster shack as storied and recommended as Red’s Eats, home to one of the largest lobster rolls in the state, and endless lines of eager customers to match. Red’s Eats has been featured across numerous magazines and shows, with good reason. The lobster meat is fresh, the boasted perfectly toasted, and the experience of getting one in this quaint local community is one that every American should experience.
General Manager Deborah Gagnon has helped transform Red’s Eats into one of the must-go travel eating destinations in the United States. Her father purchased the business in 1977 when it was defunct. Though she didn’t understand his decision at the time, her dad assured her that the family would turn it around.
Forty-four years later, Red’s Eats sees lines of customers daily, some of whom happily wait more than an hour just to get a taste of the famed role.
“It makes me so proud when I have repeat customers that come year after year or plan a vacation and come 234 times,” Gagnon told KitchenAid.
Noting that Red’s Eats serves other excellent dishes like hot dogs made of Black Angus, fried zucchini and fried scallops are a must, Gagnon has kept the philosophy simple like her father did.
“Make sure it’s the freshest food, and then the rest will speak for itself.”
Red’s Eats is known for their generous lobster offerings within each role. They use fresh meat every day, and give customers an entire tail, along with knuckles and claws.
“We have claws sticking out the side, we fill the middle with tails, knuckles and claws—ripped up; we top the whole thing with an entire tail, so you get way more,” said Gagnon.
The sauces and spread are up to the customer. Red’s Eats serves it how you’d like (no Connecticut vs. Maine wars here), and pride themselves on their use of local butter and ingredients. Guests can dress however they wish, and their consistent approach to making the rolls has kept visitors coming back from all over the country each and every year.
“I can’t tell you how many came up to me when I was out here the other day and said, ‘You know, I wondered, is this going to be worth the wait.’ They go, ‘Oh, my God, that was amazing, and I would do it again.’”
Along with hot dogs and lobster rolls, Red’s Eats serves other offerings, like fried zucchini and fried scallops, both of which aren’t overly battered, and let the core of their dish shine. Each and every visit, though, the lobster roll is a must-order.
Lobster rolls come in many shapes, flavors and forms. Even outside of the East Coast, you can find lobster rolls with chili crisp, Cajun lobster rolls, and other rifts specific to regions and culture. But, traveling throughout New England, meeting with some of the owners and managers who’ve spent their lives doling out the best and brightest lobster meat to their charmed customers, it’s clear that what makes a good lobster roll isn’t just about who uses the freshest meat, who stuffs their lobster rolls just the “right way,” or even who uses butter, mayonnaise, or both. It’s about the heart and soul of the people behind the roll. It’s clear, from the dining experience to the unforgettable taste of the lobster rolls themselves, that the businesses behind the family or locally-owned lobster shacks have a lot of it.
“I am so proud of everything that we do,” said Gagnon. “But we’re just a little family-run business, and so this is humbling. These folks you see waiting in line down the road. It never gets old to me.”