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Put down the cracker and bib—in the past few decades, the lobster roll has usurped the old-school shore dinner as Maine’s big prize for traveling gourmands. Half the appeal is the sweet simplicity of a griddled bun all buttered up and filled with fresh lobster. The other half is the setting: the best rolls are usually consumed someplace where you can smell the sea and have to watch out for hungry gulls. Our south-to-north guide to the Maine coast’s best lobster rolls includes suggested outdoor-rec pairings, because you may want to preemptively burn some of those calories.
The roll: Five and a half ounces of fresh, boiled-in-seawater Cape Porpoise lobster mixed with a little mayo, a little melted butter, or both. The Clam Shack’s roll is a delicious iconoclast, eschewing the classic split-top bun for a round, locally baked yeast roll. It’s soft as a cloud and totally works.
The scene: A tiny white shanty on a bridge over the tidal Kennebunk River, the Clam Shack is smack in the middle of the town’s trafficked tourism quarter. You can eat at the adjacent fish market or outside at picnic tables or lobster traps topped with plexiglass. The bad news: during the peak of summer, expect to wait in line as long as an hour.
The side dish: Fried full-belly clams. Sweet and plump and cooked in a crunchy crumb coating, they rival the roll for regulars’ affections.
Explore: Surfers find consistent swells at two beaches a few minutes away: Fortunes Rocks, in Kennebunkport, and Gooch’s, in Kennebunk. Aquaholics Surf Shop, a quarter-mile west of the Clam Shack, can point visitors to the breaks and offers rentals and lessons. At the height of the season, water temperatures can even reach the low sixties!
The roll: You can go classic—Maine style, with mayo and chives, or Connecticut style, with drizzled butter—or go avant-garde, choosing to dress your roll in wasabi, coleslaw, smoky chipotle, or yellow-curry mayo.
The scene: The Bite into Maine food truck is right next to Portland Head Light, one of the world’s most photographed lighthouses. Lay a blanket on the grassy lawn, and watch the waves crash into the rocky shoreline.
The side dish: Nothing pairs with lobster like more lobster. The creamy bisque has generous chunks of claw and tail and a sprinkling of chives.
Explore: The food truck is stationed in the middle of 90-acre Fort Williams Park, where a mile-long loop trail skirts ocean-side cliffs and a few abandoned military batteries. Six miles south, the trails at Two Lights State Park access 41 acres of headlands, full of tide pools ideal for clambering.
The roll: Lobster meat dressed in brown butter, lemon, and chives, served in a split-top, Asian-style steamed bun. Purists may scoff, but Eventide’s fancy-pants roll is to die for.
The scene: The heart of Portland’s Old Port district, where cobblestone streets are lined with 19th-century brick buildings housing restaurants and boutiques. This restaurant is a hip spin on a seafood shack, with indoor picnic tables and a 1,500-pound granite basin filled with ice and oysters.
The side dish: Any of a dozen varieties of fresh Maine oysters served on the half shell.
Explore: On East End Beach, a dozen blocks northeast, Portland Paddle rents kayaks and leads trips to Fort Gorges, a 19th-century garrison on Hog Island in Casco Bay. The two-mile paddle out crosses boat channels with heavy commercial and recreational traffic, so it’s best to go with a guide.
The roll: The correct order is “the Big Boy,” a roughly ten-ounce roll with lobster that’s lightly dressed in mayo and overflowing from its split-top potato bun.
The scene: The setup looks straight out of a movie—picnic tables on a working wharf, menu on a chalkboard, traps stacked up nearby, lobster boats bobbing in the bay, and a cluster of spruce-studded islands behind them.
The side dish: Fried things, particularly the giant onion rings, which are battered in-house. BYOB.
Explore: The tiny Ipcar Preserve, immediately adjacent to the lobster shack, is a popular spot for an after-dinner stroll through mossy woods, while the Ledgewood Preserve, a quarter-mile south, has a trail to a little-visited, boulder-strewn beach.
The roll: Arguably Maine’s most famous lobster roll, Red’s has an ultra-generous portion of meat—whole claws and tails—dropped naked on a grilled split-top bun. That’s it. Extra-heavy mayonnaise or drawn butter on the side are optional.
The scene: In the pretty, historic village of Wiscasset, this eatery, which looks like a little red caboose, is parked on the bank of the Sheepscot River. Seating is on a shady deck behind the stand or along the grassy riverfront. The line to order can get long—waits of over an hour aren’t uncommon.
The side dish: Fried zucchini crisped in a golden, puffy batter.
Explore: Mountain bikers head across the river and down a couple miles of back roads to the Schmid Preserve, in the town of Edgecomb, where more than ten miles of singletrack and old forest roads crisscross a 270-foot hill called (appropriately, for our purposes) Mount Hunger.
The roll: The standard roll, brushed with mayo or butter and filled with super-fresh meat. Lobsters are held in floating crates right next to the dining patio, then plucked from the seawater and tossed straight into a pot.
The scene: Far from the Route 1 tourist traffic—on bridge-accessed Spruce Head Island, off the St. George Peninsula—this little shack overlooks Seal Harbor, which is dotted with islands and lobster boats coming and going from the McLoons wharf.
The side dish: The grill-roasted littleneck clams served with homemade garlic-herb butter are smoky, briny, and delicious.
Explore: At the tip of the peninsula, 14 miles south down ME-73 and ME-131, Port Clyde Kayaks and SUPs offers rentals and tours, including a morning paddleboard excursion around Marshall Point Light, an iconic beacon and popular photo op for distance runners.
The roll: Lobster for it is purchased each morning from the fisherman’s co-op across the harbor, cooked in salt water, and mixed with Hellman’s mayonnaise and a little pepper.
The scene: The deck overlooks lobster boats and wharves piled high with traps. Former lobsterman Joe Young runs both the restaurant and an art gallery, an old fish house full of photos of mid-20th-century Corea.
The side dish: The blueberry pie—three-inch-deep wedges filled with wild Maine blueberries and set in a perfectly flaky crust.
Explore: Corea is just down the road from the Schoodic section of Acadia National Park, which sees far fewer visitors than neighboring Mount Desert Island. Some eight miles of hard gravel perfect for bikers wind through woods and along the rocky shore, and hiking trails reach the summits of Buck Cove Mountain and Schoodic Head, offering knockout views of the Atlantic and the rounded peaks of Mount Desert Island.
The roll: Shredded lobster dressed generously with mayo and topped with a whole claw.
The scene: Connected by a bridge to the mainland town of Jonesport, Beals Island is well off the tourist track. Diners sit at picnic tables overlooking a harbor filled with fishing boats.
The side dish: Locals eschew the roll in favor of the ginormous fried-haddock burger, which comes stacked with multiple fillets. But you can eat both, right?
Explore: A mile south, the Nature Conservancy’s Great Wass Island Preserve is a peaceful place to spot seals, dolphins, eagles, and ospreys. A 4.5-mile loop trail cuts through a jack pine forest and over the island’s vast, exposed granite headlands.
The roll: Mix your lobster with mayo, Miracle Whip, drawn butter, or any combination of the three. Feeling snackish? The junior roll has just two ounces of meat. (The regular has four, and the jumbo piles eight into an eight-inch bun.)
The scene: Quoddy Bay’s picnic tables offer front-row seats to Friar Roads, the watery passage between Eastport and Canada’s Campobello Island, where minke, finback, and humpback whales regularly surface in July and August.
The side dish: The yummy, comforting fish chowder—a creation of of haddock, potatoes, and onions in a creamy stock.
Explore: Fundy Breeze Charters organizes whale-watching and deep-sea fishing excursions into Passamaquoddy and Cobscook Bays. If you want to work for your supper, Eastport Windjammers offers daily trips on a lobster boat that passes by the Old Sow whirlpool and East Quoddy Lighthouse, while the crew stops to pull traps along the way.
This story was produced in partnership with Down East magazine.