The Great Lobster Roll Road Trip
Driving out for shore dinners on the midcoast, we’re on a quest for takeout fare while the weather’s fine. Our destination: dock and dine.
The Great Lobster Roll Road Trip
Take a tour of the Pine Tree State’s waterside seafood shacks in pursuit of the best takeout fare.
by Sandy Lang
Photography by Peter Frank Edwards
Issue: June 2021
On a T-shirt-warm July night we’re in the dinghy, motoring up the Passagassawakeag River at the head of Belfast Bay. When we’re close enough to hear a band playing from the middle of the town’s pedestrian bridge—it’s a community concert—we drop anchor and float a while in the last hour or so before sunset. It’s sublime to be on the water on a calm Maine summer night. A veritable flotilla is forming of other boats of all sizes and a few people (and a dog or two) on stand-up paddle boards.
Then I pull from a paper bag the pièce de résistance. Nested in separate paper trays is our takeout order of a lobster roll, hot dog, and a stack of hand-cut fries (still hot) handed to us minutes earlier from the Must Be Nice Lobster truck that’s parked steps from the docks of the Belfast Marina. The white and sea blue truck is seasonally situated along the Belfast Harbor Walk. It’s an enterprise of Captain Sadie Samuels of the fishing vessel Must Be Nice, who began her retail venture by selling lobster rolls from a booth inside the United Farmers Market of Maine just up the hill.
The roll is just right: fresh-picked chunks of claw that are briny-sweet and tender and a lemon wedge on a buttered and toasted split-top bun. A few bites in, and it’s as if all’s suddenly okay with the world, as if carefree normalcy has returned and thoughts of the pandemic have disappeared into the gentle night.
That roll—and the tasty hotdog and fries—becomes the inspiration for a summertime quest for waterfront takeout spots. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I start making a list. We think of classic waterfront stops Red’s Eats and Sprague’s Lobster in Wiscasset and Bagaduce Lunch overlooking the falls on the way to Brooksville. On the return boat ride we look to the landmark Young’s Lobster Pound on the opposite shore from downtown, and we know we’ll definitely spend some dock hours there sharing trays of just-steamed lobster and clams. Young’s is where we first noticed other customers bringing along picnic baskets stocked with tablecloths and silverware, glasses and wine, and even a vase or two of wildflowers to outfit their stretch of the wharf’s long wooden tables. We’ve made bringing extra comforts our tradition, too. (Because takeout places may be BYOB, we often travel with a cooler of our favorite beverages.) By the next day, we’ve mapped out several possibilities for more midcoast destinations.
The next week, we drive in our mid-1980s convertible toward Round Pond, which means going to a section of the midcoast that’s unfamiliar—already an enticement. By following Route 32 southward on the Pemaquid Peninsula past signs for the towns of Bremen and Bristol, Lusty’s Lobster Dock, and the Hog Island Sanctuary, we eventually roll into the coastal village of Round Pond. Here, the narrow Town Landing Road ends at a bowl-shaped bay of saltwater brimming with boats and edged by handsome wooden cottages and fishing piers.
To the left is Muscongus Bay Lobster Company, which is in a newer building with tables arranged on the wharf. Across the road is the compact, cedar-shingled Round Pond Lobster Co-op with a handful of tables on its dock and a painted wooden sign noting its 1986 founding. (Artists often paint this rustic-classic scene, and the restaurant sometimes shares their works on its Facebook page.) That’s not all. Also at this fishermen’s landing is the Anchor, but the indoor restaurant, which dates back more than six decades, paused for 2020 due to pandemic concerns. It is set to reopen this summer. It’s a sister property to the open-air dining at Muscongus Bay Lobster (both owned by the Reny family), where we’re soon looking up at a menu board loaded with options that include locally caught seafood and locally grown ingredients.
After so many nights cooking at home—something we love, but it’s been oh so many nights by now—we order with abandon. When our name is called to pick up our meal, it’s a hefty tray to carry. In one steel pan are four large, baked Pemaquid oysters au gratin—the hot pan set atop a wooden board—and in another pan is a thick cut of grilled halibut paired with heaps of potatoes and squash and topped with a Dijon-butter sauce. We’re also sharing a large summer salad of local tomatoes, mozzarella, cucumbers, and peppers. It’s an elegant array for takeout dock dining, to be sure, and we add to the experience by pouring glasses of Italian white from a cooler-chilled bottle (Muscongus Bay Lobster is BYOB). It’s a delicious afternoon. From our perch overlooking the harbor we see three children captaining a Laser dinghy each, sailing in wide circles. More couples and families pick up to-go orders or find their places at tables across the dock as the evening gets closer, and often we hear the pop of champagne corks.
Edge of Lobster
Hold on to those paper cups of lobster stew, packets of oyster crackers, and baskets of roasted little-neck clams with melted butter! An onshore wind is blowing chilled ocean air toward McLoons Lobster Shack. I almost spill the stew in a gust, but make the save.
The view makes it worth getting out on this blustery day. Another road’s-end destination, the red buildings of McLoons are on fishing wharves atop granite slabs on Spruce Head Island, about 10 miles south of Rockland. The display of lobster traps, from vintage homemade wood versions to today’s coated wire traps, are part of the scenery on the grassy grounds with picnic tables and outdoor chairs. Wooden ladders affixed to the granite are used to step down to boats below when the tide is low, and while we eat a lobsterman is using a winch to lift crates of the latest catch from a boat at McLoons Wharf, the wholesale lobster buying station next door.
Sails Under the Bridge
Just after driving over the towering 1930s suspension bridge that spans Eggemoggin Reach from the mainland to Little Deer Isle, we take a right turn into the parking lot of LDI Lobster Dock and Dine, begun as a sister location to the Boatyard Grill in Blue Hill. This is another takeout charmer in all its simple glory, with two small blue buildings and two separate order windows: one for meals and one for ice cream (I take note of the sea-salt caramel).
I want to try one of the fresh-catch specialties, such as the grilled swordfish sandwich with pesto sauce, but the whole menu is tempting, from fried clams to lobster rolls and lobster macaroni and cheese to mussels in a broth of tomato and tarragon, garlic butter, and white wine.
After we find an open picnic table under the trees, one of the LDI staff arrives to say hello and let us know she’ll bring items when the order is ready. This is a BYOB setup, too, and customers are sitting at tables and on picnic blankets. The wide-open, park-like setting takes center stage. When our order is ready, we dip into hot chowder, fish sandwiches, and french fries while watching a steady stream of sailboats gliding under the bridge from the direction of nearby Brooklin, home of the WoodenBoat School. It’s a relaxing view that makes you want to hang out a while. A family arriving by boat walks in from the long dock that stretches into the Reach, and a pair of golden retrievers romps in the grass. Meanwhile, I go for that ice cream cone to make the day last a little longer.
Neck Views to MDI
Perry’s Lobster Shack, the last in our summer tour, is another modest-sized building—a classic roadside take-out along a rock-and-sand strip of waterfront on a peninsula edged by Union River Bay. Trenton and Mount Desert Island are across the water, and Perry’s dock takes full advantage of the broad view. A key feature is the lineup of high-top tables and chairs along one side of the dock, with a view of the water and boats. When we arrive, a woman at one of those seaside seats sits with elbows bent, cracking into a lobster that looks to be at least a two-pounder. Besides Surry locals, many of the customers drive over from MDI, the server tells us. “Perry’s is a change of pace from Bar Harbor and Acadia,” she explains. It’s an easygoing scene, with briny steam rising from the waterfront cooking shack and music wafting in and out from what sounds like an old-school radio somewhere near. Bits of summery songs by Harry Styles and Coldplay are the backdrop as our orders arrive, including a crab roll, steamer clams, and a lobster, of course.
As we start in to taste everything, I think about how take-out food made on a small scale is one of the little pleasures of life. But on a summertime day, when the evening light’s getting soft on the bay and there’s a lobster roll or french fries in front of you, the feeling sure is big.
Waterside Fries: a Rite of Summer
When summer hits, we hit the takeouts. Typically only open seasonally—from May or June to early fall—these small-but-mighty food sheds and shacks are often rustic and modest, and food orders are taken at a walk-up window. Some are offshoots of a lobster pound or fishermen’s cooperative or a larger dine-in restaurant nearby. All feature local specialties, but there’s usually lobster, crab, haddock, and hotdogs on the menu, plus french fries, chips, soda, ice cream, and maybe blueberry pie.
Precisely where you’ll sit to eat is up to you. That’s the beauty, particularly in pandemic times. Maybe you’ll dine on a dock, at a picnic table, in your car, or on a boat. And the view is part of the experience—whether it’s watching seabirds in flight, fishing boats motoring in, or sailboats bobbing. It can be helpful to have a small kit at the ready, if needed: a basket or a canvas bag stocked with a tablecloth, utensils like claw crackers and forks (to avoid plastic), chilled beer or wine if it’s BYOB, and maybe even a votive candle or two for the romantics.
Day tripping to takeout destinations is a great way to explore unfamiliar locales and add to your outdoor favorites. Note: We ventured mostly by car—plenty of convertible time!—but each of these is also reachable by boat.
1. Red’s | 41 Water St., Wiscasset | redseatsmaine.com
2. Sprague’s | 22 Main St., Wiscasset | facebook.com/spragueslobster
3. Round Pond Lobster | 25 Town Landing Rd., Round Pond | facebook.com/roundpondlobster
4. Muscongus Bay Lobster Company | 28 Town Landing Rd., Round Pond | mainefreshlobster.com
5. McLoons Lobster Shack | 315 Island Rd., South Thomaston | mcloonslobster.com
6. Must Be Nice Lobster Co. | Belfast Harbor Walk near Belfast Marina | instagram.com/mustbenicelobster
7. Young’s Lobster Pound + Seafood Restaurant | 2 Fairview St., Belfast | youngslobsters.com
8. Bagaduce | 145 Frank’s Flats Rd., Penobscot | facebook.com/bagaduce
9. LDI Lobster Dock + Dine | 202 Little Deer Isle Rd., Little Deer Isle | ldilobster.com
10. Perry’s Lobster Shack | 1076 Newbury Neck Rd., Surry | perryslobstershack.com