There's something magical about seaside dining, when the sun is on your shoulders, the plate of seafood in front of you was probably caught that morning, and the atmosphere is low-key and friendly. It is hard to deny the charm of a dockside shack with bare picnic tables or red and white picnic tablecloths, Styrofoam plates, and the sound of your name being called to pick up your order before you dig into some unapologetically decadent fried food or a loaded lobster roll. There's no shortage of down-home shacks serving impossibly fresh and delicious seafood, but we've tracked down America's 35 best.
Each region of the United States offers its own twist on seafood. A big plate of blue crabs just doesn't taste the same in Minnesota as it does in Maryland, and if you find salt pork in your clam chowder, you know you’re in New England. And we're so obsessed with seafood that if there's a body of water, the odds of some industrious entrepreneur staking a claim and opening up a waterside restaurant are high.
While conducting our research, we sought out various shacks across the country that are highly rated amongst diners, are a go-to spot for locals, and have won awards and earned spots on various “best of” lists.All of these restaurants are beloved by locals and certainly worth a detour for those passing through.
Should you visit any of these shacks, a word of warning: expect to wait in line. But don't worry; it'll be worth it: You're about to sink your teeth into a buttery lobster roll, enjoy some perfectly fried belly clams, or squeeze lemon juice onto some super-fresh oysters. Don’t miss a chance to visit any of these top-notch casual seafood joints this season.
Reporting by Dan Myers, Alexandra E. Petri, and Nikkhita Bakshani.
Abbot’s Lobster in the Rough maintains a digital countdown clock on their website of the amount of time remaining until they serve their last lobster of the season, a very convenient reminder because you do not want to miss out on this. Abbott’s has been in business for more than a half century, and they put a spin on lobster rolls by low steaming them and serving them hot with melted-on butter — not that it makes them shirk on buttering the roll. Local oysters are on offer, too.
Had the Beach Boys known about Alabama Jack’s, Key Largo might have been featured as the title of their hit song “Kokomo” instead of just getting a shout-out in the chorus. This brightly colored floating shack is a no-fuss eatery equipped with plastic chairs, a laid-back vibe, and regular live music performances. Order the conch fritters and fried fish sandwich, as well as the crab cakes, which are a customer favorite.
Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar
Although it started as a drive-in clam shack, Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar has grown to become one of Cape Cod’s most popular eateries. Arnold’s has survived its fair share of struggles, from fire damage to cars crashing through its storefront, but it continues to thrive. The line moves fast, but if you get bored, there’s a mini-golf course on the property. Cape Cod locals voted their clams and fish and chips some the best in the area.
Established in 1971, Barbara’s Fishtrap in California’s Half Moon Bay, not far from Palo Alto, offers great views and is known for being generous with the amount of seafood used in their dishes. The most popular specialties are the non-cream-based “secret recipe” clam chowder that comes in a bread bowl and the perfectly textured fish and chips.
Big John’s Seafood Patio
Smack dab in Cajun country and surrounded by crawfish ponds, Big John’s Seafood Patio sells boiled crawfish in three- to 10-pound lots — but they are only open, of course, during crawfish season, which typically begins in March and ends in June. Due to the warmer-than-average winter Louisiana experienced most recently, the 2015 season is expected to last until July. So hurry!
Set among the marshes at the tip of a small, 13-acre island, Bowen’s was recognized by the James Beard House as an “American Classic.” This legendary restaurant — where customers are encouraged to write on the walls — is famous for its fried shrimp and roasted oysters. Bowen’s first opened in 1946, and through the decades has made a name for itself in the world of seafood shacks, even after a devastating fire in 2006.
Brown’s Lobster Pound
Family-owned and -operated, Brown’s Lobster Pound has been serving locals what is said to be the state’s best lobster and freshest catch since 1950. Order fried and grilled food at the counter, but if you want your lobster boiled (which we recommend), pick one from the tanks inside. It is BYOB, so make sure to bring a great bottle of white wine to go with your shellfish.
One of the best seafood shacks in America is in the Midwest? You better believe it — the James Beard Foundation and Anthony Bourdain do. Calumet Fisheries in Chicago is famous for smoking any seafood that comes to mind — including salmon, herring, eel, sturgeon, sable, rainbow trout, and shrimp. It is currently only one of two smokehouses still allowed to burn wood and to smoke its fish in the city. The French fries are also legendary.
The folks at City Seafood, located in a tiny fishing village, pride themselves on catching all of their seafood and stone crabs from their own fishing and crabbing boats. Enjoy your meals outdoors on the deck while manatees swim by. Most diners come for the stone crabs, but baskets of smoked mullet, grouper, shrimp, oysters, blue crab, gator, or frogs' legs are top-notch as well. City Seafood, conveniently, is also a market, so you can take some of those local delicacies home with you.
In a July 2007 article in The New York Times, Clam Bar owner Dick Elrich said, “We want the Clam Bar to be down and dirty in the best sense of the word.” And this red-and-white shack with yellow-and-white umbrellas has been just that since it first opened in 1981. They serve fresh catch from nearby Montauk. Customers recommend the steamers, lobster rolls, fish tacos, and/or the fried clams.
One of many along Massachusetts Route 133, also known as the famous “Clam Highway,” the Clam Box in Ipswich is an institution that can be considered the king of the fried clams — so much that it is even shaped like cardboard clam box. Best known for their whole-belly Ipswich clams, the Clam Box also has some exquisite fish and oysters that taste as good as the fried clams and clam chowder.
The Clam Shack not only serves award-winning fried dishes but can also put out traditional boiled lobster dinners. The hero of the menu at this New England seafood institution is, unsurprisingly, the lobster roll, which is served on a hamburger bun from a local bakery. With a riverfront location and lobster crates for tables and chairs, it’s a must-visit spot when you visit this fantastic beach town.
The Crab Shack is known as the local joint “where the elite eat in their bare feet.” It holds a reputation for serving excellent seafood by many local and national media outlets. Lucky for you, it is open year-round, so you can enjoy the famous steamed seafood and seafood platters any time you visit the idyllic Southern city of Savannah, which is a short drive away from Tybee Island.
Da Poke Shack topped Yelp’s list of the 100 best places to eat in America in 2014. You’d expect an institution in a huge city like New York or San Francisco to top that list, but instead it was this tiny seafood haunt on the big island in Hawaii. They’re known for their eponymous poke — salads that combine Japanese-inflected spices and greens like seaweed or kimchi with chunks of fresh, raw ahi tuna. No shoes, no shirt, no problem. While you sit outside, you might even see giant whole tuna being delivered to the shop.
Just because this is the South doesn’t mean everything is battered and deep-fried. Doc’s is equally famous for its fresh seafood, raw oysters, seafood gumbo, royal red shrimp, and build-it-yourself seafood platter as it is for fried shrimp. Make sure you ask for the house-made cocktail sauce on the side.
The deep, cold waters that surround the Five Islands area are considered to be the best conditions for attracting large numbers of healthy, meaty lobsters; it makes sense that the lobster roll at Five Islands Lobster Company is among Andrew Zimmern’s favorite sandwiches in the country. Couple that with an unbeatable view, and you’ve got yourself the most iconic of seafood shacks. Their fried shrimp, lobster rolls, fish chowder, and local-dug steamers are also worth a taste.
Hangar on the Wharf
While it is technically not a shack, due to its location in an old former seaplane hangar resting atop pilings right over the water, it would be criminal for us to not include Hangar on the Wharf, whose specialty is a dish very far from home: Cajun-style jambalaya. Their salmon dishes ain’t too bad either, nor is the view of the Gastineau Channel with Mounts Jumbo and Roberts just nearby.
Hudson’s on the Docks is one of the best spots for Low country dining, where you can drink in the views of the Port Royal Sound while indulging in the freshest seafood around. Hudson's employs the largest and one of only two remaining fishing fleets on the island, which brings fresh local seafood straight from the docks to your table, in the form of steamed oysters, crab legs, peel-and-eat shrimp, seafood pasta, and crab cakes, among others.
Iggy’s is known for its clam chowder, which won Best Clam Chowder on CBS’ The Early Morning Show’s “Taste of America” series. The clam cakes and fish and chips have also won awards. But you’re probably wondering, what on earth is a doughboy? At Iggy’s, it is a Road Island specialty consisting of a big square of pizza dough that is deep-fried and dusted with sugar.
You better believe it. Jolly Rogers Seafood claims to have Lake Erie’s finest yellow perch and walleye, along with onion rings and jumbo shrimp. It seems diners agree — this summertime destination, nestled along the shores of Lake Erie, has customers lining up to feast their stomachs on the region’s specialty dishes all season long.
Yet another landmark along the famous Clam Highway in Massachusetts, J.T. Farnham’s, which is more than 70 years old, is famous for its award-winning fried clams, fresh seafood, and live lobsters. The homemade seafood chowder is definitely a crowd pleaser. This marsh-side shack is located on Eben Creek overlooking the Essex River. Make a visit here and you’ll find that boats are welcomed and even encouraged to anchor and order.
Open from March through October, The Lobster Shack at Two Lights sits beside two lighthouses on the rocky shores of Cape Elizabeth. The Shack has been serving clams, scallops, fish, and fresh lobster, the latter caught right on the docks in front of the restaurant, since the 1920s — when lobsters were hardly considered the luxury item they are today. Eat your meal outside on the picnic tables dotting the shoreline, or just take in a good a view from the cozy seating inside.
This no-frills, Zagat-rated eatery is the classic shack of seafood shacks. Right off the Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu Seafood brings you market-fresh seafood that you can buy at the place itself, as it doubles as a casual, order-at-the-counter seafood shack and a fully operating seafood market. Enjoy your food at the picnic tables or bring a blanket and sit on the beach. We recommend going for the hand-battered Alaskan cod and famous tartar sauce or the homemade clam chowder. The BYOB policy makes this Malibu haunt the biggest fish in the sea.
Moby Dick’s is somewhere between a seafood shack and a family-style restaurant. You order at the counter, but servers will bring your dish to your table. The line is long, but you can use it to scan their extensive menu, and on warm days, they serve freshly cut watermelon to "hangry" patrons. Of course, the best thing to order is Wellfleet oysters, but the day-boat scallops, clambake special (which comes with steamers and corn on the cob), and signature key lime pie are also bound to satisfy.
The Nantucket Lobster Trap
While the Nantucket Lobster Trap is a restaurant rather than a shack, it made the list because of its fresh-caught seafood and rustic feel that other Nantucket restaurants tend to lack. The restaurant has two large saltwater tanks on the premises, so the lobster is guaranteed to be fresh when you order one of their famous lobster dinners or clambakes. For appetizers, get the quahog-only clam chowder or clams casino, or any of the bay-caught scallop dishes. If you’re only driving by, their food truck is a great place to grab a Nantucket Bay scallop roll.
There are a handful of Mo’s locations dotting the coastal region of Oregon, but travelers are encouraged to make the pilgrimage to The Original Mo’s in Newport. Mo’s makes you question New England’s claim to clam chowder. In fact, Senator Robert Kennedy so loved Mo’s Chowder that he took a couple of buckets home with him. The halibut fish and chips and oyster stew are other must-tries.
If lines are anything to go by, then Red’s Eats certainly seems like landmark you shouldn’t miss. Though it has been in operation since 1938, Red’s moved to a spot along the Wiscasset waterfront in 1954, making it one of the longest-running seafood spots on this list. The lobster rolls, which are served in toasted, split-top buns with drizzle-ready drawn butter or mayo, are the champions here, but the fried clams are another top choice.
Rita’s Seaside Grill
Located right on the beach, Rita’s Seaside Grill is known for a lot more than just its seafood, but the shrimp and grits are some of the best the region has to offer, as are the blackened tuna nachos with watermelon pico de gallo and yellow tomato gazpacho with blue crab. It’s not as informal as some New England seafood shacks, but it is a little more creative.
Snoopy’s Pier is swimming in a seafood shack vibe — no surprise, given that it was once an old fisherman's hangout. Its menu is small and simple, with fried fish, fried shrimp, crabcakes, fried drum fish, and fried oysters receiving a heap of praise from the locals — probably because Snoopy’s has an on-site fish house and shrimp-breading facility. Grab some of the state’s best seafood and take in the view from a table on the pier.
This tiny lobster shack might play second fiddle to the much more famous Red’s, but you’d be hard-pressed to figure out why. The lobster is brought in fresh and served in huge chunks in toasted split-top buns with a light layer of mayo, it’s located right on the water, and it's delicious. One other advantage over Red’s: the line is at least an hour shorter. When it comes down to it, the lobster roll here is still one of the finest in the state, and is the place where the locals go when they don’t feel like waiting two hours for their lobster roll. The clam fritters are also second-to-none.
Tides Tavern stretches out into Puget Sound and has become an iconic destination for locals and tourists alike. Famous for its clam chowder, award-winning halibut fish and chips, and extensive list of craft beers, the poetically named Tides Tavern offers great seafood and poetic views indeed.
Woodman’s of Essex, one of the hottest spots on the so-called “Clam Highway,” claims to have invented the fried clam in 1916, two years after it first opened for business. If that isn’t enough reason to position this joint at the top of your list, how about the fact that Woodman’s is listed at No. 769 in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, a favorite book of world travelers? Take in the view from the rooftop deck and choose between fried clams, fresh New England lobster, steamed clams, shrimp, clam chowder, or scallops. We have their recipe for clam chowder here.
At Woody’s Crab House, you can expect to find local Maryland blue crabs crawling all over the menu, — Chesapeake Bay is the world’s largest exporter of blue crabs, after all. Woody’s is known for its Chesapeake Bay-sourced dishes, and its award-winning crab cakes are made fresh every day from jumbo lump crab meat.
The Wreck of Richard and Charlene is named after an old North Atlantic-style trawler that was shipwrecked during a storm in September 1989. It is located in a hard-to-find spot in Mount Pleasant, but the persistence it takes to get to this seafood spot pays off. The Wreck offers guests a great view over Shem Creek, with incredible food to match, all served on plastic plates with plastic utensils. The seafood is fresh and local, and you can expect to find grilled or fried fish, award-winning fried shrimp, scallops, fried oysters, deviled crab, and stone crab claws.
Located along a shipping channel and first established in 1993, the Yacht Provision Company serves a top-notch grouper salad sandwich and fresh steamed shrimp, both of which are ideally washed down with some craft beer. While you're eating, sit back and watch the sun set at the mouth of Cape Fear. All this seafood making you hungry? Cook up one of these foolproof seafood recipes!
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