Mike Urban knows his clams, his bellies, his chowders and the merits of fried flounder or haddock. He ought to, having spent the past year researching and sampling just about every clam shack from coastal Connecticut to Maine.
The result, “Clam Shacks, the Ultimate Guide to New England’s Most Fantastic Seafood Eateries,” hot off of the presses this month, promises the inside scoop on 55 of the best clam shacks along the mainland shores of Long Island Sound, around Narragansett Bay and Cape Cod, through the North Shore of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, up to the likes of Cod End in Tenants Harbor, Maine.
“There’s always room for another good book about a subject,” said Urban, an Old Saybrook resident who admits that after 30 years of book publishing and editing, it’s a bit different being the author. After years as vice president and associate publisher at Guilford’s Globe Pequot Press, he hung out his own shingle as writer, editor and book packager.
Since Urban has had his hand in more than 100 travel guides, this soft-back book is a fun read and escape to quirky little coastal eateries, with tales about the people behind the counter and what led them to launch, or buy, a clam shack. It’s loaded with trivia, photos snapped by Urban plus some historic ones, and a few recipes.
Who knew the fried clam was invented by “Chubby” Woodman and his wife, Bessie, on July 3, 1916? Desperate for business at their little roadside shack in Essex, Mass., they decided to try frying the clams in batter and had an instant hit on their hands at the town’s Fourth of July parade.
Urban also explains how the fried clam strip was a 1930s invention by Greek immigrant Thomas Soffran in Ipswich, Mass, which Urban calls the “Garden of Eden of soft-bellies.” Soffron thought the strips would make a nice addition to Howard Johnson’s roadside dining menu and the craze took off.
Although Urban states there’s no strict definition of a clam shack, he does set some criteria: the establishment must offer deep-fried seafood, the more the better, and an order window. Look for some kitschy décor and outdoor seating for dining “in the rough.” Most often these are seasonal, cash-only operations, with burgers and hot dogs on the menu, and usually ice cream.
Some of Urban’s most colorful experiences were up in Maine. At Cindy’s Fish and Chips on US Route 1 in Freeport, Bob Potter, the curmudgeonly owner and founder who named it after his daughter, is never at a loss for words with customers.
“He runs the place out of two or three colorful, dilapidated trailers, but he’s got some of the best fried clams in all of New England,” Urban said. In fact, the website www.weloveclams.com, declared Cindy’s’ clams Best Fried Clams on Earth.
Then there’s Calder’s Clam Shack on Chebeague Island. It sits in Virginia Tatakis-Calder’s front yard.
“She always wanted a clam shack, so they’re in this little house, no bigger than a playhouse, frying up clams, making pizza and serving as town hall for the locals on the island,” he said. “This place is for social diners. While you’re there, you might be asked to go get a case of soda out of the barn. It’s totally relaxed and fun, there’s an old red fire engine in the yard for kids to play on.”
Urban hits the New London County favorites, including Hallmark Drive-in, in Old Lyme which recently celebrated its 100th year of making memories, if not always in the same location. Fans of Luanne Rice’s novels will recognize it from her fictional “Paradise Ice Cream Stand.”
Fred’s Shanty at 272 Pequot Avenue, which Urban discovered last summer, is one of his local favorites.
“Fred’s is right there in the city of New London, woven into the fabric of the neighborhood, with as many walk-ins as drive-in customers,” he said.
For water views, one can’t beat Costello’s, little brother to Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough, perched at the end of a pier in Noank. Urban says it holds its own with lobster rolls and steamers, plus its fried bivalves. Or for Mystic River views, there’s Sea View, with its can’t-miss turquoise building and picnic bench outdoor dining.
He also tells how the Sea Swirl, or as locals call it, the Swirl, at 30 Williams Avenue in Mystic, was discovered first by local food writer Lee White, and then by the New York Times, Boston Globe and even Food TV’s Rachael Ray.
He also recommends the Cove Clam Shack in Mystic. With its signature fish sandwich, it was named one of the top 25 sandwiches in the country by Esquire magazine and Connecticut magazine’s pick as best sandwich in the state in 2008 and 2009.
Urban, who did most of the tasting himself, says he didn’t gain much weight on this quest, although he doesn’t want to check his cholesterol. His wife, Ellen, and their four children also offered opinions. The family’s long-time favorite shack is Lenny and Joe’s Fish Tale in Madison, with its wooden carousel.
What’s next for Urban? Stay tuned for a companion book about lobster shacks in New England. He’s in negotiations with a publisher now.
“Clam Shacks, the Ultimate Guide to New England’s Most Fantastic Seafood Eateries” by Mike Urban, Cider Mill Press, is $16.95 and available at local bookstores and online. See mikeurban.net for more information about the author.