The results are in: We scoured the coast—and filled our paper plates—to find the seaside dives with the tastiest dishes, from fried shrimp to fish-and-chips.
Done right, this New England delicacy (whole-belly soft-shell clam meat, battered and deep-fried) supplies the ideal blend of juiciness and crunch. Kelly’s does it to perfection. What’s now a mini-chain with five locations began in 1951 at this Revere Beach take-out stand, where only the roast beef sandwiches outsell the fried clams. It’s still wildly popular and open nearly around the clock.
What you’ll shell out: $12.95 (clam roll on grilled bread with fries, onion rings, and excellent tartar sauce), $16.95 (clam plate with fries, onion rings, and tartar sauce)
Still hungry? Get the lobster roll and eat across the street at sheltered benches on the beach. 410 Revere Beach Blvd.; 781/284-9129 or kellysroastbeef.com
The garlic-kissed, totally fresh steamed mussels taste even better in this quaint, woodsy setting. The “dining room” (a brightly painted collection of picnic tables, some shaded and some not) really does sit on a pier over peaceful Chauncey Creek, where boats pass on their way to and from the tidal Piscataqua River.
What you’ll shell out: $9.95
Still hungry? Don’t miss the lobster. And in addition to the soft drinks and handful of side dishes on the menu, you can bring anything else you want in the way of food or drink. Open Mother’s Day to Columbus Day. 16 Chauncey Creek Rd.; 207/439-1030 or chaunceycreek.com
This buttery chowder (milky, in the New England style) uses whole-belly clams—yum! Around you swirls the happy bustle of local families and vacationers chowing down at picnic-style tables. The big, rambling building perches on a broad salt marsh decorated with stately herons posing like lawn ornaments.
What you’ll shell out: $3.50 (cup), $5.95 (bowl). No credit cards.
Still hungry? Try the overstuffed lobster roll or the fresh steamed mussels with drawn butter and a little garlic salt. 420 State Route 286; 603/474-2851
Everyone from surfers to suits gathers at this quirky bar a Frisbee throw from the beach. The memorable grilled-mahi tacos come loaded with salsa, cabbage, cheese, sour cream, and a lime wedge. Expect spillage.
What you’ll shell out: $3.25 (grilled-mahi taco)
Still hungry? Share a mini taco platter or shrimp-stuffed jalapeños at the bar, and explore the 22 tequilas, 40 beers, and various mixed drinks. 5059 Newport Ave.; 619/226-4577 or southbeachob.com
Among the produce and food vendors at rambunctious Lexington Market, Faidley sells crab cakes so packed with subtly spiced crabmeat that you won’t mind having to stand at counters to eat them. We can’t decide between the lump and backfin versions; try both.
What you’ll shell out: $4.95 (backfin, 4 ounces), $12.95 (jumbo lump, 61⁄2 ounces)
Still hungry? Everybody we know comes for the crab cakes, but the soft-shell crab and the oyster bar also get good reviews. 203 North Paca St. (Lexington Market); 410/727-4898 or faidleyscrabcakes.com
This waterfront general store makes an immense version of the classic New England lobster roll—chilled meat in a buttered, toasted, split-top bun. You can eat it there, among the postcards and rental DVDs, or cross the street and gaze out over the harbor.
What you’ll shell out: $9.99
Still hungry? Join the locals here for a no-frills eggs-and-bacon breakfast, and catch up on the town gossip. 1 Main St.; 207/326-8625
Light, part-cornmeal breading keeps it tasting fresh, not greasy. And we love the rémoulade dipping sauce! Get the tartar and cocktail sauces, too; they’re all homemade and add just the right amount of zest. Enjoy the sea breezes at picnic tables under the live oaks.
What you’ll shell out: $7.95 (appetizer), $9.95 (with two sides, lunch only), $12.95 (with three sides and hush puppies, dinner only)
Still hungry? Have the fried shrimp or any of the other seafood offerings—they’re all fresh from nearby Bulls Bay. 4808 Hwy. 17 North; 843/928-3609 or seeweerestaurant.com
Some places neglect the “chips” part, but here both the flavorful Alaskan halibut and thick, Texas-style fries share the spotlight. The setting and atmosphere serve up the essence of the Pacific Northwest: Fir trees line hillsides surrounding a busy little harbor. Everyone from tattooed hipsters to tech execs mingles here.
What you’ll shell out: $12.95 (two pieces of Arctic cod), $13.95 (two pieces of Alaskan halibut), $16.95 (three pieces of Alaskan halibut)
Still hungry? The clam chowder is a smart choice while sampling the Oregon and Washington beers and wines. 2925 Harborview Dr.; 253/858-3982 or tidestavern.com
This seafood-filled gumbo achieves the perfect balance of richness and delicacy. The restaurant stands on pilings on the beach, with a view of the sparkling Gulf of Mexico.
What you’ll shell out: $3.50 (cup), $4.50 (bowl), $10 (take-out quart)
Still hungry? Order the fried oysters and shrimp—and mix your own cocktail sauce. 405 East Beach Blvd.; 251/948-7894 or sea-n-suds.com
You’ll probably have trouble finding it among the shrimp docks on Shem Creek, and The Wreck accepts neither reservations nor credit cards. But ah, the shrimp! Absolutely fresh, lightly battered, and precisely fried so that they’re still sweet and juicy.
What you’ll shell out: $8.45 (3 ounces of shrimp), $17.35 (quarter-pound shrimp dinner, which includes red rice, slaw, hush puppy, and fried hominy square), $19.18 (half-pound shrimp dinner)
Still hungry? Treat yourself to the oysters and a side of your choice—fried hominy, hush puppies, boiled peanuts, or fried green tomatoes. 106 Haddrell St.; 843/884-0052 or wreckrc.com
Ruddell’s serves “the ultimate tuna sandwich.” Says so on the menu. And with a big, perfectly cooked piece of smoked albacore and what amounts to an entire salad all in an oversize roll, it really is. This hut, across the street from the beach, makes everything to order and even provides a guitar for customers to strum while they wait.
What you’ll shell out: $9.50
Still hungry? All of the smoked seafood carries exactly the right infusion of woodsy tang. 101 D St.; 805/995-5028 or smokerjim.com
A long marble counter and gleaming stainless steel tables give this cozy joint classic style. Anchor ships in live oysters from all over the continent, so you never know which varieties you’ll get to sample each day. Go mid-afternoon to avoid the crowds.
What you’ll shell out: $2.95 (oyster shooter), $2.95 or market price (oyster on the half shell)
Still hungry? We love the steamed shellfish. Save your bread for sopping up the buttery broth. 579 Castro St.; 415/431-3990 or anchoroysterbar.com