As soon as we hit the coastal New England region, one food dominated the landscape– lobster, and more specifically, lobster rolls. Shacks along the road, fine dining restaurants, and even staple fast-food chains, like Panera and McDonald’s all featured this go-to seafood comfort food. The price of lobster leading into the summer was currently at a high, meaning that this once former “peasant food” turned roadside attraction was anything but “budget friendly”. Averaging nearly $20 bucks a pop, it runs heavy on the wallet, but it is a very tasty regional delight to enjoy if you get the chance!
Traditionally prepared in one of two ways, depending on the area and who you are asking, it either comes with a side of hot melted butter, or is served cold and lightly coated in a mayonnaise dressing. The majority of the versions we sampled were served with the lobster meat chilled, and the bun buttered and toasted. Purists tend to put only lobster meat in the bun, but others stray from this formula and add celery to the mix or lettuce or other ingredients. Most varieties come in what appears to be a folded slice of white sandwich bread, resembling the size of a typical hotdog bun, but dubbed the “New England-Style” bun (or the “split-top”). This split-top bun is top loading and has exposed white bread sides, rather than the crusted sides of your typical hotdog bun, which makes it easier to butter and toast.
Throughout New Hampshire, and primarily Maine, we sampled and ate our way thru our self-guided lobster roll education and noted our assessments along the way. By the time we hit Massachusetts, we were a bit “rolled” out, thankfully, because our budget had taken a hit!
The first lobster roll we ever tried came from a road-side stand, Tamarack, near our campground in Laconia, NH. At $18.99 + tax for the lobster roll basket (comes with a side of fries), their signature roll had the lobster meat coated in a light mayo sauce. From what we could tell in eyeballing the lobster meat and identifying 2 complete claws, it looked to come with the meat of an average size 1.25lb lobster (we ordered the “Famous Lobster Roll” and not the jumbo size). This was also our introduction to the aforementioned “split-top” bun, which is fairly small by itself as they are about the size of your traditional ballpark hotdog buns. Therefore, making these buns look full, is not too difficult. The Tamarack roll itself was perfectly fine and pleasing. The light mayo dressing didn’t overpower the natural taste of lobster. It was fresh, tasty, and a faster way to consume an entire lobster. The lobster roll by itself would not fill you up, and it thankfully came with a side of fries.
As we moved from upper New Hampshire and across the interior of Maine to Mount Desert Island, we resumed our lobster roll tastings in coastal Maine. Our first Maine lobster roll was from another street-side seafood shack, C-Ray Lobster, across the street from our campground. Their traditional roll comes with the lobster meat lightly coated in a mayo dressing, garnished with a wedge of lemon, and accompanied by a bag of chips and pickle for $19.99 + tax. The roll was tasty, but nothing extraordinary. The meat portion was fair, but again, not extraordinary. Having the option to spritz lemon onto the lobster meat was a nice touch.
Exploring more of Mount Desert Island, we grabbed lunch one afternoon at the Side Street Cafe in Bar Harbor, ME. Opting for a pub to catch the afternoon’s FIFA World Cup match, we weren’t even on the hunt for a lobster roll, but they had a lobster roll special going on that week, which included a cup of their homemade chowder, pickle, lemon wedge, and house-made chips all for around $25+ tax. I think the lobster roll was supposed to come with about 2 lobsters worth of meat (what size lobster?… didn’t say). We had no way to really measure the amount of meat, but it was a lot, as it was overflowing and spilling out with every bite. The lobster meat was very fresh, abundant, and was lightly coated in mayo and the bun was a grilled brioche bun that was far tastier than the usual Wonder-bread style split-top bun. The abundant meat and awesome bun made this one of the best lobster rolls we tried. The fact that it also came with a kick-ass cup of chowder and tasty homemade chips also helped push the experience over the top and made it a proper meal, rather than an expensive snack.
As we made our way down the Maine coast, we succumbed to FOMO and despite our disdain for lines, made our way over to Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, ME. Red’s is to lobster rolls what Voodoo is to donuts and Franklin is to BBQ. It probably gets more press and coverage than any other lobster roll shack we have heard of, at least in the state of Maine. Since we were staying in the Wiscasset area, we figured we ought to give it a shot. Red’s claim to fame is that they give you a lot of lobster and that they don’t measure it out, they just heap it on. The owner’s secret? Serve fresh, local, lobster. Red’s lobster roll comes naked with a side of melted Kate’s Maine Butter and rang in at $26.95 (including tax) for the roll by itself. Kate’s butter, being a local Maine butter, has garnered a cult following of its own.
Across the street from Red’s is another long-standing lobster shack, and one with almost no wait and a lot more outdoor seating. This is Sprague’s Lobster. Wanting to do a proper taste testing where we actually tried multiple lobster rolls at once, we waited in the 45-minute queue to get a Red’s lobster roll and then went across the street and picked-up a Sprague’s lobster roll for $23.70 (including tax). Like Red’s, Sprague’s traditional lobster roll comes naked with a side of hot melted butter and without any sides.
Off the bat, they were fairly similar in size, but Red’s did appear to have a bit more lobster meat. Both had the traditional split-top bun that came buttered and toasted- the bread tasted the same for both rolls and both were a generic white bread. The lobster meat in Red’s was a little redder in color than Sprague’s, and the meat itself in Red’s roll was a little bit more tender to the bite. Taste-wise, they both tasted pretty much the same in their naked state, but it was the butter that made a noticeable difference. The Kate’s Maine Butter that came with the Red roll was sweeter, richer, and tastier than the un-named butter served with the Sprague roll. Also, as we ate, you could noticeably see a difference in the butter as the Kate’s butter got cloudy and began to solidify at room temperature. The butter that came with the Sprague roll had a slightly synthetic taste, leading us to think it wasn’t pure butter. Our suspicion was strengthened by the fact that it maintained its melted, translucent state, and did not start to solidify at all throughout our meal. All in all, the rolls were fairly comparable. Red’s had a slightly higher price point but came with a little more meat. It was really the butter that made the difference. We preferred the taste of Kate’s butter and only preferred Red’s for that reason. If butter is not your thing, nor long line waits, then Sprague’s offers-up a good alternative lobster roll spot in the area- though both run on the pricier side when you consider the rolls are à la carte.
In Portland, ME we strayed from the traditional lobster roll had tried a New England- fusion restaurant called Eventide Oyster Co. This is a popular spot that frequently has long waits, particularly on the weekend. Rather than wait for a table, I decided to call and see if we could place an order for pick-up. I was told I could only place an order for pick-up there in-person. Since I was calling from right outside the restaurant, I told her that wouldn’t be a problem and walked in. Turns out, as we were preparing to order our takeaway, they made a room for us at the standing bar. Among the items we ordered, we had heard good things about their lobster roll and wanted to try it for ourselves. I cannot stress enough that this is a departure from the traditional New England lobster roll. Purist “lobster rollers” will be disappointed. If you are a non-purist, or simply “roll curious”, then I cannot recommend enough giving this lobster roll a try (if you can stomach the wait). At $15 + tax this lobster roll has a lower price-point, but it is also significantly smaller than a traditional lobster roll. This is a “gourmet” spot and they serve “gourmet” portions. The lobster roll was about the length of a finger and amounted to around 2 small bites each, but they were the 2 best bites of lobster roll I have ever had. The roll itself was more like an unsplit dumpling-style bun topped with lobster meat. The bread tasted like the steamed buns used to make Chinese pork buns and had a very soft and chewy texture. It was super tasty, by far the best tasting bun we had had yet with a lobster roll and the most untraditional. The lobster meat was mixed in a “brown butter” concoction, and we weren’t entirely sure what was in said “brown butter”, but it was fantastic. The entire creation was consumed far too quickly and much enjoyed.
Moving on down the coast, we tried our last Maine lobster roll in the town of Wells, ME. On advice from our campground host, we headed to a small seafood spot called the Fisherman’s Catch Restaurant. More than a walk-up seafood shack, this small seafood joint has some indoor seating and was busy during our lunch-time sojourn, as it is a popular spot with locals and tourists alike. The going rate for a lobster roll meal was $19.99 + tax and came with a side of coleslaw, French fries, and a cup of their homemade chowder. The lobster meat was coated in a light layer of mayo and served on a little bit of green-leaf lettuce inside the bun. The bun was the traditional split-top bun we had come to know and expect in New England. The roll had a decent portion of lobster and tasted nice and fresh and it was a good overall value considering all the sides that accompanied the roll. It was a perfectly pleasant meal, that filled us up, but nothing outstanding.
Our last foray into the lobster roll experience, which was recommended to us by a friend, was the Portsmouth Gas Light Co. in Portsmouth, NH. For a little more money, they offered a “double” lobster roll, which we thought meant it would come with double the amount of meat, so we went with this option. It came with a side of fries (really nicely seasoned!), pickle, and ½ an ear of corn and rang in at $21.95 + tax (single roll meal was $16.95 + tax). We were shocked when the plate came and it was 2 whole lobster rolls– the “double” really meant double! The lobster meat was coated in a light layer of mayo and served on top of a large leaf of lettuce. The specialty brioche buns were toasted and larger than the typical split-top bun. The bun itself had a sweet, almost Hawaiian bread flavor, which we both really enjoyed, as it was both unique and accentuated the natural sweetness of the lobster meat. The softness of the lobster meat and the bun itself was contrasted by the added crunch of lettuce, which I didn’t mind, but Cay didn’t like. If lettuce is not your thing, or you prefer to have a “no crunch” experience, I am sure they can hold the lettuce, we just didn’t think to ask ahead of time.
In the end, lobster rolls are pretty standard. Unless you are at a place like Eventide that is purposefully putting a twist on the recipe, there won’t be a whole lot of variation, making it tough to differentiate them. Aside from the way they are prepared (cold and coated in mayo or naked and served with a side of hot butter), the thing that really makes the lobster rolls stand out, for me anyway, was the bread choice. I tended to like the spots that used more flavorful bread. Interesting bread choices really made a lobster roll distinctive and lead the pack in my mind over those spots that used the generic, multi-packed, split-top hot dog buns. In our experience, fewer places served the rolls with hot butter, but when they do, having real butter over a synthetic alternative definitely made a huge taste difference.
Based on taste alone, our favorite lobster roll was the very non-traditional one at Eventide in Portland, ME. In fairness, I realize that this is not a traditional lobster roll, and therefore is unfair to compare with the rest. So, of the “traditional” rolls, our pick was the one from Side Street Cafe in Bar Harbor, ME based on the tasty brioche bun and the overflowing fresh lobster goodness. It had also come with a really great cup of chowder. A very close second in the traditional lobster roll category was the double rolls from Portsmouth Gas Light Co. in Portsmouth, NH. While we would have skipped the lettuce, the sweet bun was fantastic and in terms of value, getting two large lobster rolls with a side of fries, pickle, and ½ ear of corn for $21.95+ tax was the best deal we found on our New Hampshire/ Maine lobster roll quest.