Clam dish  at Abbicci's in Yarmouth Port on Cape Cod. Credit: Alex Howell
Clam dish at Abbicci's in Yarmouth Port on Cape Cod. Credit: Alex Howell

On Cape Cod, Desperately Seeking Seafood

By Phuong Ly
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 5, 2007

As I contemplated my first visit to Cape Cod, I imagined quaint colonial villages, endless unspoiled beaches and, best of all, restaurants that gloried in the bounty of the sea.

Well, I got the villages and beaches right.

My first meal on the Cape was at a seafood shack that my husband's family traditionally goes to every year on the night they arrive for their annual summer stay. The decor wasn't particularly distinctive, so I presumed the crowds happily standing in line to order were there for the food.

I presumed wrong. The fried clams were indistinguishable from the onion rings, which tasted remarkably like the fried shrimp. After a few bites I felt as if I had rubbed a bowl of grease onto my face.

"You don't come to the Cape to eat," my husband explained, polishing off his french fries, or were they clam strips?

Look at the famous images of the Kennedy clan in Hyannis Port, he added. They're in the back yard playing football, not chowing down at the local restaurant.

Still, it's a little mysterious. The Maine coast is renowned for its lobster. Rhode Island and the North Shore of Massachusetts are celebrated for chowder and clams. Cape Cod is best known for its cranberries, grown in giant bogs, and Cape Cod Potato Chips. Tasty, of course, but not exactly reasons to spend a fortune on a rental house.

People go to the Cape, as David's family has for two decades, because it's what New Englanders do. There are so many ways to play -- kayaking, sailing, whale-watching, nature hikes, biking, golfing, antiquing, swimming, sunbathing -- that good food becomes an afterthought.

Which doesn't mean, I discovered, that it's nonexistent. You merely have to seek it out, to distinguish by trial and error the few spots that are good from the many that are adequate or worse. My hunting grounds were in the middle of the Cape, east of Hyannis and south of Provincetown.

The most ubiquitous sign on the Cape seems to be "Best Fried Seafood." Only a handful of the seafood shacks manage live up to it.

At first glance -- or sniff -- Arnold's Lobster & Clam Bar in Eastham (3580 Route 6) doesn't seem as though it will be one of them. It claims to sell two tons of onion rings a week. You can smell them from the highway, long before you join the inevitable line under the restaurant's yellow-striped awning.

A lobster roll erased my anxiety. The bun was nicely toasted and the meat abundant. The famous rings were good, too, sliced thin and lightly breaded without an oily aftertaste. The chowder was less seasoned than I would have liked, but that's typical of the Cape, which prefers it bland.

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