Tie on your bibs: T+L tracks down the juiciest claws, the tenderest tails, and the most overstuffed lobster rolls Maine has to offer.
Five Islands Lobster Co., Georgetown
Gawk at the sunset: Five Islands has become a bit overrun these last few summers, but the crowds can’t detract from the setting: a windy promontory with 360-degree views of the five pine-shrouded islands. There’s no indoor seating (not that you’d want it), so bring a sweater, come at sunset, and watch the sailboats and gulls chase one another across the bay—one of the coldest and deepest in Maine, which locals say makes for the best lobsters. Choose your dinner from the tank, add a cob of sweet corn, then head next door to the fry shack for an order of crisp onion rings. Step outside, crack open a knuckle (the tastiest part, bar none), set gaze on horizon, and swoon. Repeat until both sun and lobster vanish.
Waterman’s Beach Lobster, South Thomaston
Feel like a native: First, there’s the drive in, a lovely trip along the peninsula south of busy Rockland (where the Maine Lobster Festival is held every August). Down here it’s a scene from a Wyeth canvas: forests of black spruce abutting saltwater farms; the scent of pine mingled with seaweed. Between a meadow and a rocky beach sits Waterman’s humble shack, with two dozen picnic tables scattered around a lawn and a tented deck. The day’s haul is steamed over salt water, which gives the meat a briny tang while keeping it firm. Kids and grandparents hunt for shells on the beach while a dog chases a Frisbee across the field. Was that a "for sale" sign you saw on that house down the road?
Shaw's Fish & Lobster Wharf Restaurant, New Harbor
Eavesdrop on fishermen’s gossip: True fishing villages are hard to come by these days, which is what makes New Harbor such a find. Hollywood knew it: the Kevin Costner/Paul Newman film Message in a Bottle was shot in this salty sea dog’s town. Shaw’s wharfside bar is filled with fishermen from morning till night. From the second-story deck, you can watch as boats pull up and drop their catch onto Shaw’s rickety wooden scale. Be sure to get a lobster roll—Shaw’s serves over 10,000 of them each year. A scarcely buttered hot dog bun cradles glistening chunks of perfectly shredded, bite-size meat, nicely chilled yet not overly so, with a touch of mayo and lemon that doesn’t overwhelm the lobster. Most places frown on garnish, but Shaw’s rolls come with crisp, bitter lettuce that adds a satisfying crunch and complements the sweetness of the meat.
Red's Eats, Wiscasset
Escape a traffic jam: Few highway snarls are as loathed as the one that forms on the Route 1 bridge in Wiscasset. On summer weekends, cars wait up to an hour to cross. Relief can be found at Red’s Eats, a gaudy roadside hut just south of the bridge. The market-price roll is ridiculously generous: a whole lobster’s worth of nearly intact, unadorned meat (mayo or butter comes on the side), overflowing from a tiny hot dog bun that’s too unwieldy to pick up. The solution? Use your fingers to eat the plump morsels, dipping them in melted butter: instant lobster cocktail. Perfect for whiling away the next 30 minutes in traffic—and don’t worry, you’ll be going too slowly to spill.
Estes Lobster House, Harpswell Neck
Visit a hidden haunt: Maine’s Mid Coast hides some of its best secrets on the “reaches”: long, narrow peninsulas that stretch like fingers into the sea. The sleepy Harpswell peninsula is just a half-hour’s detour off I-295, yet it could be 200 miles away. Estes Lobster House is surrounded by water—Harpswell Sound and Potts Harbor—and has outdoor seating and a fire pit. The tables are occupied by families of Harpswellers, who know their way around a crustacean: watch that 10-year-old rip open a claw bare-handed. In the evenings, torches are lit and fading sunlight shimmers across the sound.
Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster, South Freeport
Take a break from shopping: So you’re making the pilgrimage to L. L. Bean and the outlets of Freeport. When you can’t face another discounted duck boot, retreat to this popular spot on the South Freeport marina. Lit up like a small-town carnival at night—with a jovial clientele who picnic on their car hoods when the tables are full, as they often are—Harraseeket is a few steps above a shack (and pricier). But it’s got the requisite old-school ambience, the devoted following, and the juiciest, lushest lobster for miles around—not to mention golden fried “onion middles” (the core, not the rings) and sea-tangy steamed clams to dunk in drawn butter. Try not to drip on your new Patagonia pullover.
The Clam Shack, Kennebunkport
Find humility amid sstentation: Bet you never expected a bare-bones, roadside hut in the Bush-friendly resort town of Kennebunkport. The unassuming Clam Shack is the Pa Kettle of seafood joints. Owner Steve Kingston insists on using only hand-shredded meat for his rolls—knives, he says, cause oxidation, tainting the flavor. The Shack pumps in seawater from the tidal river outside for both the holding tanks and the steaming cauldrons. Rolls arrive with the meat still warm—served with butter or mayo or, frighteningly, both—on toasted homemade dinner rolls. (Some old-timers swear the original lobster roll was round.) Take a stroll alongside the marina and wave at the yacht owners—they’re probably enjoying the same lunch.
Young’s Lobster Pound, Belfast
Dig in at the docks: First-rate lobster and a BYOB option make it easy to while away a summer afternoon here on the Belfast docks. Young's has a no-frills restaurant highlighting what's brought in fresh from the sea to the table daily. Get your lobster steamed or boiled (nothing fried) to perfection, then head out to the picnic tables overlooking Penobscot Bay. It's an easy spot for families and groups of friends to spread out. Couples will appreciate the "bucket list for 2": two lobsters, two ears of corn, four steamers, mussels, shrimp, and a mallet just for you to get cracking. 4 Mitchell St, Belfast, ME 04915; (207) 338-1160. —Megan Soll
Holbrooks Wharf Lobster, Harpswell
Try something novel: At the end of Cundy’s Harbor Road, Holbrook’s Wharf treats diners to a view of boats bobbing on the sparkling water. Take your pick of everything from lobster rolls to fish tacos to fish ‘n’ chips, paired with fries and drawn butter. The staff isn’t afraid to get creative; their lobster quesadilla special has been a huge hit. (Traditionalists can stick to the clam chowder or fresh lobster stew.) Finish off your meal with another Maine delicacy: blueberry cobbler. 994 Cundy’s Harbor Rd.; (207) 729-9050. —Megan Soll
Bagaduce Lunch, Brooksville
Get hooked on a classic: The ospreys are often circling overhead at Bagaduce Lunch, a no-frills take-out restaurant on a tidal river in Brooksville—and recipient of a James Beard “American Classic” award. At “the Bagaduce,” the seafood menu hasn’t changed since current owner Judy Astbury’s father, Sidney Snow, first hung out a shingle in 1946. Since then, this shack (which shutters from late September to April) has built a thriving summertime business catering to Blue Hill–area locals and travelers en route to Deer Isle who can’t get enough of the house specialties: plump lobster meat served on buttery toasted hot dog buns, golden fried haddock, and fried clams. Angle for a picnic table with a good view of the neighboring falls. You may even see a seal. —Adrien Glover