In search of the best fried clams on Massachusetts' North Shore, a group of friends and I set off to visit four North Shore restaurants. Three of them - The Clam Box in Ipswich and Farnham's and Woodman's in Essex - are famous "destination" restaurants for fried clam lovers; the fourth - Charlie's Seafood in Lynn - is not so well known by tourists but fast becoming a favorite of locals.
The plan was to visit all four places in a single day, ordering small amounts at each restaurant and pacing ourselves to avoid "fried food overload." We stuck to the plan remarkably well but even so, the next time I do a clam crawl I'm going to try to spread it out over two or three days instead.
First stop: Charlie's Seafood, Lynn
Located in a dubious neighborhood on Essex Street in Lynn, Charlie's Seafood is a diamond in the rough. I was last there back in June while scouting clam shacks for the Clam Crawl and for the most part, they were just as good now as they were then.
We ordered a combo platter (flounder, scallops, shrimp, clams, fries, and onion rings) as well as an extra box of clams. Stuffed clams were on the chalkboard as a special, so I ordered one out of curiosity to see how it would stack up agains my own, and I got a small clam chowder too.
The clams were as delicious as last time. Plump and tender little mouthfuls of clammy joy. The scallops were also excellent, as was the flounder. The shrimp, though, were disappointing - they were small and butterflied and cooked too long, past the point of dryness.
Also disappointing was the stuffie (stuffed clam.) It was sticky, wet, and bready with lots of celery and sweet red pepper bits. But there wasn't much in the way of clam inside. The fact that we passed this along to eleven people to taste and there was still half of it left over says pretty much all we need to say about it.
The chowder was somewhat better. Flavorful, and with plenty of clams and potaotes, it was typical of many restaurant chowders: thickened with gluey wheat starch. Adequate, but not exceptional.
Second Stop: J T Farnham's, Essex
Farnham's, set up against a beautifully scenic salt marsh, was an excellent choice for our second stop. Of all the clam joints on the North Shore, Farnham's is my personal favorite. Charlie's has slightly better clams, but Farnham's has outdoor tables overlooking the marsh, a beer license, and fantastic homemade-tasting chowder.
We ordered a cod cheek platter with onion rings, a box of fried shrimp, and a box of clams. The clams were exceptional, very fat and succulent but just a bit chewier and with a bit heavier coating than Charlie's. The shrimp, though, were excellent, and the cod cheeks proved to be quite popular. Small round codfish pieces from close to the jaws of the fish, cod cheeks are delicate, flavorful little nuggets of fish, and they're delicious. Along with the fried stuff, I ordered a cup of clam chowder, and was delighted to find that it was virtually identical to homemade. Briney and milky, with a pat of butter melted on top as it's served, it was capital-E excellent. Because Farnham's doesn't stretch it out with any kind of added starch, some poorly-informed diners have complained that the chowder is "watery." Ignore comments like that - there is a difference between "unthickened" and "watery."
While we enjoyed the food, the sunshine, and the sea breeze, we were visited by a mother duck and her brood. They came in from their swim and sunned themselves in the grass a few feet from our table.
We resisted the temptation to toss them snacks, however. Feeding shore birds is never a good idea - friendly ducks are vastly outnumbered by bold and aggressive seagulls who quickly become dangerous pests when they start getting handouts. Most of the North Shore communities have ordinances against feeding the birds.
One other note about Farnham's: You can buy a beer there to enjoy with your meal, but you have to drink it indoors. That's not a restaurant policy - I'm sure they wouldn't mind a bit if patrons were allowed to have a beer out on the picnic tables - it's yet another ridiculous Massachusetts blue law.
When we were done at Farnham's, the group decided to do some sightseeing in nearby Rockport. We agreed to regroup at The Clam Box at about 3:30 that afternoon and temporarily went our separate ways.
Third Stop: The Clam Box, Ipswich
We arrived at The Clam Box in Ipswich at about 3:30 pm, after a pleasantly meandering drive along the coast from Rockport. The line was huge, snaking out the door and across the parking lot, slowed down by the Clam Box's policy of changing the frying oil daily at 2:30 pm. It's a testament to The Clam Box's reputation that there was such a line outside. We waited a little more than three quarters of an hour to place our order, but once it was in it only took another ten minutes to have it in hand.
We ordered two batches of "big belly" clams and an order of scallops at The Clam Box, as well as a bacon cheeseburger for Lynnafred, who was good-naturedly gagging at the sight of another clam.
The clams were delicious - almost better than Farnham's if it weren't for the utter blandness of the crumb coating. The scallops were excellent (described by one participant as "big, juicy, and extra fine.")
Although the location isn't as pretty as Farnham's, The Clam Box has a comfortable indoor dining room (no table service - you pick up your tray at a service window and carry it in yourself) and a big shady deck on the other side of the parking lot where you can dine alfresco. Just be sure to get there early...or just bring a friend who can help you pass the time in line.
Fourth Stop: Woodman's, Essex
We got out of the car at Woodman's and the scent of stale cooking oil was in the air. Ten years ago after eating here, I wrote: "The cooking oil had seen some mileage and was overdue for a change that night." How comforting that tradition seemed to run so deeply here.
Woodman's has, for generations, sold cooked lobsters out in front under an awning by the front door. With lobster prices at an all-time low in New England, I thought that perhaps we'd pick up a bug or two while we were there. I was stunned at the price posted, though: $12.99 a pound. Dang. A restaurant on Newberry Street in Danvers was offering a twin lobster dinner for $9.99, and the Market Basket in Salem was selling them, cooked and ready to go, for $3.99 a pound.
We ordered a box of fried clams which turned out to be the most expensive item we purchased that day at a little over $46. At Farnham's and The Clam Box, our clam orders were piled high and overflowed the box. Not so at Woodman's where our skimpily-filled box worked out to two dollars per clam.
Two dollars per inedible clam, as it turned out. It was obvious at a single bite that the cooking oil was rancid. Michael and I brought them to the attention of a manager, who chomped through two of them before admitting that there was, indeed, a problem with the oil and refunded the selling price and tossed in a $25 gift card to boot.
A big order of steamers (3 pounds for $27 and change) was better. The clams were delicious and fresh and a few of them were a bit gritty (this bugged a few of our party, but didn't bother me all that much - I expect to find sand in steamed clams, and that's why they serve them with a cup of clam broth.)
One of my fond memories of Woodman's was of the upstairs raw bar where we went in search of bivalves on the half shell and beers, intending to spend that $25 gift card. Time was not entirely unkind to my recollections: the cherrystones and oysters were still wet, luscious, and refreshing. But I admit to being a little annoyed that I paid $1.50 for each inch-and-a-half diameter littleneck and $1.75 for each tiny oyster. At least the beers were somewhat cold (and flat.)
So, how would I rate the restaurants?
My favorite of the four is still Farnham's for the intangibles like a beautiful setting, great atmosphere, and very short wait times in line. The clams are a bit better at Charlie's but the chowder at Farnham's is as good as my own homemade.
Charlie's is a close second. Great clams and friendly service.
The Clam Box is a solid third. The food is great but that line is a killer.
Woodman's...I don't know about them. I'm surprised we were the only ones who complained about the nasty cooking oil that night. And the prices are obscenely out of line. They're going to really have to change in substantial ways before I ever go back there.
Links and info:
J. T. Farnham's (no website at time of publishing)
88 Eastern Ave
Essex, MA 01929
Charlie's Seafood (no website at time of publishing)
188 Essex St
Lynn, MA 01902-1745
The Clam Box of Ipswich
246 High St
Ipswich, MA 01938
Woodman's of Essex
121 Main Street
Essex, MA 01929