Eat It Up and Walk It Off in New England
By Shelley Seale
Summertime along the East Coast not only offers breathtaking scenery, a wealth of history and nearly endless attractions — but it also offers food. Lots of delectable, local, amazing food.
On a recent trip from Maine down into Rhode Island and Connecticut, I explored the New England coastline while indulging in some of its culinary delights. Here's my shortlist for eating your way along this route; and plenty of activities for walking it off afterwards!
My home state is Texas, a long way away from the Atlantic Ocean and any type of fresh lobster. So I arrived in Maine craving lobster. I started my first night at Portland Lobster Company, an unpretentious waterside restaurant with lots of deck seating and frequent live music (there was a fun band playing the night we went).
You order at the counter and then sign up for a table (if there's a waiting list) while you wait for your food, which you pick up at the window. We went with a lobster mac-and-cheese, clam chowder and crab cakes.
While the chowder was good but not outstanding (definitely not the best I had on this trip), the lobster mac was everything one could dream of in such a creamy seafood delight.
For a more upscale dining experience, head over to Eventide Oyster Co. I kept hearing about this place, locally and from several friends who recommended it. They have a beautiful raw bar, and small plates that are affordable and let you sample lots of things.
We wasted no time with a half-dozen local oyster varieties, followed by their brown butter lobster roll, which was the #1 dish on Spoon University's "50 Things to Eat in Portland Before you Die" list. It was the best of many lobster rolls I had on the trip.
Get out on the Water
When you're in Portland, you're really missing out if you don't get out on the water. Ferries depart all day long from the harbor to the Casco Islands, a group of dozen of islands off the mainland, with a few that are inhabited or have activities. Long Island and Peaks Island are the largest of these, but for a unique dining experience head over to Diamond Cove on Great Diamond Island.
This used to be Fort McKinley, constructed around 1900 as a coastal defense and in use through World Wars I and II. After its decommission, years later it was restored into a community with individual homes and a hotel that were remodeled out of barracks and officers quarters.
There's a fantastic restaurant right at the Diamond Cove ferry dock, Diamond's Edge Restaurant, with gorgeous marina-side dining. The Inn at Diamond Cove also has a restaurant. It's worth coming here for a meal, or to spend the whole day as there are amenities including beaches, the marina, and other activities. We had some of our best breakfasts here, and a delicious shrimp pasta dish one night.
From Maine, I drove down into Rhode Island, visiting Providence and Newport. We enjoyed one of our best nights of the entire New England trip in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence, also known as Little Italy due to the early Italian population here (though it's more of an international dining mecca now).
Dining al fresco in the pretty DePasquale Plaza at Costantino's Venda Bar & Ristorante. The Costantino family has been making pasta for more than 70 years, selling it fresh (along with an overwhelming selection of other foods and cookery items) at Venda Ravioli, also in the plaza along with the family's two restaurants.
Our cocktails were divine — the fresh peach bellini martini — as were the light and beautiful housemade pasta dishes. The entire courtyard was lively and fun, obviously a place where locals hang out, with a big-band swing era live music duo.
Down in Newport, a seaside town drowning in mansions and money, we checked out lunch at The Mooring Seafood Kitchen & Bar , which had been recommended by our B&B host at Old Court Inn in Providence. Sitting dockside at Newport's lively, historic waterfront we enjoyed more fresh oysters from their raw bar, before getting down to business with entrees.
I had the salmon BLT, with deliciously moist, grilled fish; and my mom had the clam chowder (better than Portland Lobster Co) and lump crab cakes topped with fresh beet salad. Both the setting, local beers and seafood were top notch.
This is one of my very favorite East Coast towns. Small, charming and full of maritime history, it became famous nationally with the 1988 Julia Roberts movie, Mystic Pizza (based around an actual pizza parlor in town, opened in 1973 and still serving today). You can stop in to get a slice and it's a popular place, although in full disclosure I did not. Not with all the amazing seafood around!
For a casual waterside seafood shack experience — and the hands-down best lobster concoction I had on the trip — drive about 15 minutes out of Mystic to Noank, and Ford's Lobster. This place started as a simple marina and fuel dock a decade ago, which also sold retail fresh lobster. Owners Kristian and Kerrie Nyman decided to add to the business and bought a hot dog cart, from which they sold lobster rolls.
Word spread about the rolls and people began arriving in droves — expanding them into a full-menu, sit-down restaurant. What Ford's is really known for today is their unique concoction called the Lobster Bomb.
It's hard to describe this in a way that does it justice. They take a homemade sourdough bowl, butter it up and grill it. It's then filled halfway with their creamy lobster bisque, add in a half-pound of lobster meat, then top the whole thing off with more bisque. My mom and I shared one — they are gigantic — and were seriously in seafood heaven. If you want to see how they make the Lobster Bomb in action, check out this video from the Hartford Courant:
Two other spots (sister establishments with the same owner) in Mystic that really impressed were the Engine Room and Oyster Club.
We started with cocktails and appetizers at the Engine Room, where I fell head over heels in love with the Purple Rain, a delicate lavender concoction with a hint of lemon and mint.
House-made deviled eggs and steamed mussels followed — the latter sitting in a broth that was so tasty it was all I could do not to pick up the bowl and drink it.
They have a great happy hour daily from 4-6 pm, with $5 Old Fashioneds, wine and cheeseburgers, and $4 craft beer, as well as half-price bar bites.
Over at Oyster Club, they specialize in casual fine dining that they call "farm and sea to table," showcasing local bounty from the water and land. You can start off with a platter from the raw bar or an artisanal cheese plate; then progress to entrees from a menu that changes daily. I had a pan-roasted monkfish with a creamy bean salad, sun gold tomatoes, capers, farro and fresh herbs. The dish was served with a Calabrian chili-basil pesto that was truly unique and refreshing. The restaurant also has an upper deck called The Treehouse, with a different menu and great views of the harbor.
This is only a small sampling of the culinary treasures to be found along the New England coast, and places I highly recommend if you have the chance to try them. But one thing is for sure: in this part of the country, you're not likely to go hungry!
Shelley Seale is an Austin, Texas-based freelance journalist who writes about lifestyle, travel, health, education, business, and nonprofit issues. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Andrew Harper Traveler magazine, Yahoo, CNN, the Austin Business Journal, Austin Woman, and many others. Her favorite quote is by Helen Keller: “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”