Joan Wilder: Journalist, Writer, Editor

Clam shacks mix fried fare, beach memories

As Art D’Allessandro lowers codfish into hot oil at Arthur & Pat’s, he’s doing what cooks have been doing at this Marshfield institution since his parents opened it almost 40 years ago.

Not much changes in the world of the seaside clam shack, and that’s just how people like it.

True, a few notable places have opened in recent years, and vegetable oil has replaced lard as the standard frying medium. But for the most part, this cherished New England tradition can’t get any better: the cool and casual clam shack is the perfect declaration of summer and the joy of living near the sea.

It’s not rocket science, just coastal chemistry: As the weather turns warm, the mind thinks ocean, the body heads to the beach, and the stomach rumbles.

Although each clam shack is different, they’re also somehow the same. You can’t miss a clam shack when you see one — even if it’s been renovated over the years. You know the menu’s going to have fish and chips, fried clams, lobster rolls, and onion rings. You know how it’s going to smell; you know it’ll have goofy seafood signs, weathered boards, and driftwood.

Favorite clam shacks offer more than just a meal: They’re a destination.

“We have people who fly in just to eat here,’’ Keith Douglass, president of Shoreline Aviation Inc. at Marshfield Airport, said of Arthur & Pat’s. “They love it. They come from New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, even from the North Shore — from Beverly, Hanscom, Nashua. We have a van, we drive them over.’’

Gary Kandalaft at Tony’s Clam Shop in Wollaston Beach has a similar story. “Everybody’s first stop from Logan [Airport] is here,’’ he said. Tony’s manager, Shawn Bulman, thinks that a big part of the appeal is people’s nostalgia for a favorite spot from years ago that remains unchanged.

Almost all clam shacks are family-owned, eluding the stultifying sameness of chain-owned businesses. Profits are hard to count on with the vagaries of weather, and scheduling staff isn’t easy when you don’t know if the place will be desolate or packed — the result of rain or shine. Only families have the kind of flexibility that can handle that.

“Last week it rained and it was dead, and the next day it was nice, and we were mobbed,’’ said Tillie Kandalaft, who opened Tony’s Clam Shop in 1964 with her husband, Tony. Today, the whole family runs Tony’s, which includes the Kandalaft’s three children and seven grandkids.

When the couple bought the place, it was a house with a clam shack and a tiny walk-up window out front. A one-way mirror in the living room let them see when a customer arrived. Over the years, they’ve renovated, bit by bit, until the house became all restaurant and the family moved next door.

“That grill used to be my bedroom,’’ said Karen [Kandalaft] Djerf, who works in the restaurant with her brothers, Roy and Gary, doing whatever needs to be done.

“It’s hard, that’s why generations keep them going, I think,’’ said Karen.

The story is similar wherever you go. Siblings De and Art D’Allessandro took over the wonderfully eccentric Arthur & Pat’s in Brant Rock from their parents, who opened it in 1972 after having owned “clam shack after clam shack’’ in Quincy, South Weymouth, and Braintree, said Art.

A couple of towns over, Jack Daily bought the Hingham Lobster Pound in 1979 from his parents, who bought it in 1958.

Over in Hull, the Jacobson family opened Jake’s Seafood Restaurant and Fish Market on Nantasket Pier in 1949 and sold it to husband and wife Barbara and Ed O’Brien in 1984. Today, the O’Briens run the restaurant — greatly renovated from its original state — with their son Jimmy.

Even most newer clam shacks are family affairs.

Not far from Jake’s is Hull’s Kitchen, which opened on Nantasket Beach in 2006, and is owned and operated by husband and wife Jeff and Jane Wicks.

All three of Jay Kimball’s daughters work or have worked at Wood’s Seafood on Plymouth Harbor in the 20 years Kimball has owned the 54-seat shack, which opened with six seats in 1957. And all of Sandy Cotti’s kids “pop in and out’’ of Sandy’s — a small building with a tented area on the beach in Plymouth; one of few shacks that has a full bar.

As for the food, the most popular eats are fish and chips and fried clams — with fried scallops and lobster rolls next in line. Right up there, too, are whole boiled lobsters, and, of course, the iconic side dishes and condiments: french fries, onion rings, cole slaw, and tartar sauce.

So, who makes the best what? Well, that depends on whom you ask.

People have their favorites and they can be pretty opinionated about it. Year after year, they migrate back to the place they love, often talking down the competition.

“It’s really hard to find good clams, most people overcook them,’’ said Lorraine Linnell of Dedham, while eating them at Arthur & Pat’s. “These are great.’’

Criteria include the greasiness (or non-greasiness) of the fish; the size of the clams — some people like extra large bellies, some average-sized. And the batter, of course.

“I love that these have a super light batter,’’ said Brian Blais, while eating an order of fried scallops at Wood’s Seafood.

Up the coast, a couple days earlier, Tom Brumer shared a similar sentiment while awaiting his order at the Hingham Lobster Pound.

“I like the fish and chips, the scallops, and the whole clams here. They taste fresh, they’re not greasy, and they’re a good value. On a nice day, we like to go down and eat at the park by the beach,’’ said Brumer, a Quincy resident. “It’s a New England tradition. It’s part of our heritage.’’

Joan Wilder can be reached at joan.wilder@gmail.com.

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