All regional American food begins with accessibility and simplicity, whether it’s culturally accessible or economically accessible. Lobster rolls remains a simple and delicious testament to the lobster communities in coastal New England. They’re just chunks of knuckle, tail and claw, lightly seasoned, perhaps buttered or lightly tossed in mayo and chopped celery (depending on location), on a regular old hot dog bun. That’s it – everything else is gravy. There’s a reason why the lobster rolls on this list don’t get too fancy: because a lobster roll is a lobster roll, and the only winning factors are freshness and tradition.
Every lobster roll aficionado knows that a true seafood shack doesn’t benefit from a Happy Hour or bourbon-laced French toast brunches or freakin’ Beef Tartare (what is this, New York?), but don’t let that deter you. The Smack Shack in Minneapolis started as a Smack Shack truck, but it was so overwhelmingly successful that they eventually started a true brick-and-mortar restaurant, with outside dining space and all. Their famous lobster roll isn’t a roll either, and that really shouldn’t deter you because it’s uniquely well-loved despite its unabashed tendency to stray outside the lobster cannon, heaping some chunks of chilled lobster salad, cucumber and tarragon on two slices of griddled milk bread. Diners who go, go for the classic lobster roll or their lobster boils, and those who return, return for the happy hour with $2 of all taps and oyster sliders.
Red Hook Lobster Pound has quickly give become one of the premier places to get a decent live or carved lobster, and thus given people a reason to go to Red Hook (other than Ikea). Their culinary dynasty has expanded to outpost stalls in Montauk and Manhattan, and trucks in New York and D.C., but the only place you can get real live lobsters from some of the best lobstermen and women in maine is from their flagship in Red Hook. While you’re there, grab a roll just to try it and have it your way: Maine-style is served with homemade lemon-tinged mayo and Connecticut-style is drizzled over with clarified butter.
The Mink family have been in the oyster business for three generations, having opened up a neighborhood seafood joint that regulars can really shuck their stuff in, and they have carried on their commitment to freshness and quality nearly every single day in that three-generation span: fresh Maine lobster is shipped in every morning, ensuring that not 24 hours elapse between fishing and eating, and the lobster roll is one of the more authentic offerings in Philly: the Main-imported split-top bun is warmed and loaded with ⅓ of a pound of fresh lobster before being drizzled with citrus-spiked butter for Connecticut-style rolls or served cold with the chunks tossed in mayo, diced celery and a pinch of salt. Sit at the bar during happy hour and delight yourself with $1 oysters and $3 draft pints.
Bostonians know their seafood, and they certainly know their lobster roll. While there’s no shortage of excellent lobster restaurants in the city, every serious diner will have their own loyalties, and increasingly, those loyalties are looking to B&G Oysters. The lobster roll, at nearly $30, is not cheap – but the large, succulent, perfectly seasoned and mayo-kissed lobster chunks on thick, toasted bread will prove worth it. Served alongside tarragon-laced fries, B&G Oysters simply has hordes of fans begging them to take their money.
This quintessential New England clam shack is actually called the Clam Shack. All the regular cues are there: a riverside view, limited seating if at all, take-out counter service, the word "Shack" in its title, vintage red Coca Cola sign and remarkably fresh fish unembellished by anything but a swipe of mayo or a drizzle of butter. The only difference is that what they offer is not so much of a roll than a burger bun, creating more surface area upon which to stack a few healthy chunks of the claw, knuckle, and tail. The unassuming sparkling gem of Kennebunk, the Clam Shack reputedly shells roughly 1,000 pounds of local lobster a day.