American Roadtrip, Part III: New England

I was born and raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts, about an hour south of Boston and a half an hour east of Providence, Rhode Island. Although I left New England in 1980 for graduate school in Virginia and subsequently southern California, it is still “home” to me, and I make visits back there several times a year, with a cross country road trip every summer and every Christmas. Because I have made the trip so many times, I begin to feel like I’m already on home turf by the time I reach Pennsylvania, but crossing the border from New York into Connecticut, one of the six New England states, means I’m “home”.

New England is a beautiful place to visit, regardless of the season. In winter, popular ski areas are a big draw, particularly in Vermont and New Hampshire, while across the entire region tiny villages decked out with Christmas lights after a newly fallen snow make one feel as if they’re walking or driving inside a Christmas card. Spring is characterized by trees sprouting brilliant green foliage and explosions of pink, red, purple and white in almost every yard as flowering trees and shrubs start to bloom. Summer is the time for hitting the beaches, traveling to islands like Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, seeking cooler temperatures in the northern mountains, and gathering with friends for local traditions like clam boils, cookouts, or lunch outings in search of lobster rolls, scallops, clams, and blueberry pie. But of course autumn is when New England offers its most wonderful gifts: crisp, sunny days with brilliant blue skies and fall foliage that makes country roads and mountainsides glow with oranges, reds, yellows and golds. There are pumpkin patches, corn mazes, apple picking, and hay rides, and seasonal treats like cider donuts, pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin ice cream.

Regardless of the season, there are some fundamental truths about New England. New Englanders, I have read, eat more ice cream per capita than people in any other region of the country and those ice cream stands that stay open year-round are often crowded, even on a cold January day. But even more so than ice cream, the true life blood of those who live here is Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee. TV commercials proclaim that “New England runs on Dunkin’”, and they are not kidding. If you’re driving for more than 15 minutes and have not found a Dunkin’ Donuts yet, you may have crossed into New York without realizing it. Kaitlin, a former student of mine, and her boyfriend Kyle, both from California, moved to Boston last year and when next I saw them they had many observations to share and several questions to ask me about New England. I will never forget Kyle taking a very serious tone and lowering his voice slightly as he said, “Can I ask you something?  What is the deal with Dunkin’ Donuts? It’s like…it’s like a cult!”

Kyle had made the mistake of pointing out a Starbucks to his very blue collar, very Bostonian co-workers and they scoffed. Dubbing him “Hollywood” because he’s from California, even though he grew up in a tiny town in the far north of the state, they explained in no uncertain terms that, “Here in New England we don’t do Starbucks, Hollywood. We go to Dunkin’ Donuts!” I assured Kyle that in New England, there are five things people get almost religiously passionate about: The Celtics, the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Bruins, and Dunkin’ Donuts.

New England accents, coupled with a tendency toward a very dry, sarcastic, and earthy sense of humor make for amusing interactions. I recall entering a Boston restaurant with a friend from L.A. a few years ago, and he was wearing an L.A. Lakers cap on his head. The spunky waitress, who bore a strong physical resemblance to the character Carla on Cheers, gave him the once over and then said,

Youse ah takin’ your life in your hands wearing that thing in heah. Youse ah likely to get pummeled!”

Still, a careful listener will note that the accents of people in Boston are different from you might here in northern New England, and Rhode Islanders sound a bit different from their neighbors across the border in southeastern Massachusetts.

There is no limit to the attractions available to visitors in New England. Boston is, of course, the major city and is actually nicknamed “The Hub.” It’s a vibrant city, with distinctive Italian and Irish neighborhoods, many parks and gardens, the bustling Faneuil Hall Marketplace, various museums, and a world-class aquarium. The city simply exudes history, from the Boston Tea Party site, to Paul Revere’s House and the old North Church, to nearby attractions like the Revolutionary War battlefields at Lexington and Concord and the infamous Plymouth Rock. There is a strong appreciation for theater and the arts, and the city offers some of the best cuisine in the country.

But New England has several charming smaller cities to visit as well, such as Providence, Rhode Island which hosts an event called “Waterfire” with live music, bonfires, and even gondola rides on the Providence River. Portsmouth, New Hampshire is a bustling town of historic brick buildings that house trendy bars and seafood restaurants, while Burlington, Vermont is a classy town built on the shores of Lake Champlain, surrounded by mountains and boasting museums devoted to folk art, historical sites and even the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory tour,

Some of the most scenic routes through New England include Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway, a slower and more scenic alternative to the traffic clogged I-95 if you’re traveling from New York City. From Albany, one of the most scenic routes in all of New England is Massachusetts Route 2, also known as the Mohawk Trail. It is a famous drive across valleys and mountains from the New York border to Boston, and is simply stunning during fall foliage season. Vermont’s Route 100 is a scenic, winding road that makes its way from south to north through the Green Mountains, while New Hampshire’s Route 112, also called the Kancamagus Highway hugs the Swift River and ascends into some of the highest elevations of the state’s White Mountains. New England is definitely a place to get off the interstates and seek out the roads less traveled, which will take you through idyllic towns with homespun general stores and gleaming white-steepled churches, across classic covered bridges, and along beautiful stretches of coastline.

And then there’s the food. New England is famous for its distinctive cuisine, which centers on fresh fish and seafood, fruits like apples and blueberries, and dairy products and has strong Irish, Portuguese and Italian influences. Maple syrup is produced here, and Massachusetts is known for its extensive cranberry harvests. Regional dishes, some which have been widely adopted across the U.S. and some which are known only in New England, await visitors. Clam chowder, clam cakes, lobster rolls, baked beans, Johnny cakes, Portuguese specialties like kale soup, linguica and sweet bread, and desserts like Boston cream pie, blueberry pie, or Indian pudding are just a few of the things you’ll want to sample during a visit to New England.

So where should you go to try some of these delicacies? Starting with Rhode Island, a wonderful place for fresh seafood, a delicious shrimp & corn chowder, and innovative cocktails and desserts is the Boat House, on the waterfront in Tiverton. It is a perfect place to sample happy hour drinks, watch the sunset, and enjoy an upscale dinner.

For a more “down home” experience, try Gregg’s, a chain of four restaurants located in the greater Providence area. Gregg’s serves up reasonable priced comfort food like their turkey dinner, the New England Boiled Dinner (corned beef and cabbage), huge salads, and a number of seafood offerings, but the big draw at Gregg’s is dessert. At Thanksgiving and Christmas locals pre-order their holiday desserts from Gregg’s and lines are out the door. There are foot-high cakes (chocolate layer, golden layer, carrot, lemon, Boston cream), gigantic eclairs that must weigh a pound each and could be used as a weapon if one were attacked by a dessert thief, and a wide selection of fruit and cream pies.

South of Providence near the airport in Warwick you will find Rocky Point Clam Shack, a seasonal business operating out of a parking lot in a small shopping center. Named after a popular local amusement park that existed in the 1960s and 1970s, Rocky Point features take-out food that can be enjoyed on covered picnic tables. They are famous for their clam chowder and clam cakes, and they also offer a reasonably priced lobster roll with delicious fries. Finally, for a delicious breakfast in an idyllic small town, head to Little Compton and visit The Barn, and do not miss a slab of their warm coffeecake of the day, their Rhode Island Johnny cakes, or the Portuguese sweet bread French toast. With food like this, I would not have minded being “raised in a barn” if the barn was The Barn!

A few minutes east of Providence you cross the border into southeastern Massachusetts, and if you are in the mood for pie, then you need to find the tiny little shop called Sweet as Pie, located in Somerset, Massachusetts. Here you will find both sweet and savory homemade pies. If you have a specific craving, call ahead and order what you want. The shop offers frozen pies that you can take home and bake yourself, and a smaller selection of ready made pies. On a recent visit there were only three fruit pies on the shelf at 1:00 PM.  The wonderful woman who runs the place told me that the blueberry-pear was still warm from the oven. Those are some of the happiest words in the English language. I grabbed a plastic fork and I swear I devoured a third of it before I left my parking space. Making pies from scratch is probably my greatest culinary skill, but the quality and prices of the offerings at Sweet as Pie have really made me question whether I need to go to all that work to make my own!

Another 20 minutes east of Somerset is the area where I grew up. If you’re in the mood for Italian food, head to New Bedford or neighboring Fairhaven to one of the two locations of Riccardi’s. I have been dining at Riccardi’s since 1976 and in all this time, the quality of their food has remained unchanged and their prices seem to be stuck in a time warp. Imagine a lunch special featuring a generous portion of their delicious lasagna (my absolute favorite) or any of their other pasta dishes with a salad and delicious bread for $6. Their excellent thin crust pizza is about $9, depending what you want on it. I always go for the Portuguese linguica and roasted red peppers. This is a place where you will find locals who know a good meal and a good price when they see it.

Also in Fairhaven are the “sister” restaurants of Margaret’s and Elisabeth’s, located a short block apart on the same street and managed by the same family. The menus are similar, though I am more of a fan of Margaret’s as it has a cozier atmosphere, much more attentive service, and serves breakfast too. Breakfast at Margaret’s features Norwegian pancakes with real lingonberry sauce, sweet bread French toast, and all the usual egg dishes. However, lunch is my favorite meal here, with a variety of seafood dishes, sandwiches and desserts that are innovative, delicious, and very, very reasonable. Who’d have expected a tiny restaurant in Fairhaven, Massachusetts to make the best quesadilla I’ve tasted anywhere in the country? The chowder and the fish and chips are fantastic, and dishes featuring shrimp and lobster feature freshly made pasta. There’s lemon-basil encrusted haddock, baked scallops, several chicken entrees, and most feature homemade mashed potatoes and fresh seasonal vegetables. Desserts are also homemade and are excellent, and most entrees are under $10! Prices are higher at night for dinner and you must bring your own wine or beer, but the consistently outstanding food here should compensate for that.

Heading further east toward Cape Cod and Plymouth, stop at Erickson’s Homemade Ice Cream in Carver. Their ice cream is some of the best I have ever had, particularly the Death by Chocolate and any of their coffee-based flavors. They have another location north of Boston in the town of Maynard, Massachusetts too. However, be warned that they are a seasonal business and are not terribly reliable regarding informing everyone when they will close for the season or what their hours are. I have made more trips than I care to remember, only to find an empty parking lot.

If you are heading toward Boston, stop in the neighboring suburb of Quincy for one of the best lobster rolls to be found in the state. Tony’s Clam Shop on Wollaston Beach features some of the fattest, chunkiest lobster rolls I have had anywhere. They are not cheap, but they are about as big and as fresh as you will find anywhere else. And of course Tony’s features a variety of other seafood specialties like scallops, swordfish, shrimp and fried clams and you can take a nice walk along Wollaston Beach after your meal, with distant views of the Boston skyline across the water.

In Boston itself a great find if you’re craving clam chowder and lobster rolls is the Boston Chowda Company, with locations in the Faneuil Hall Market downtown, as well as in the northern suburbs of North Andover and Haverhill. This is a self-service deli with friendly staff; order your meal and then take it to one of the indoor or outside tables. The prices are very reasonable and the quality is excellent. If you’re in the mood for wonderful pastries, coffee or freshly made soups and sandwiches, check out Flour, a Boston bakery/restaurant with several locations around the city. For an authentic lobster roll in a very rustic, bare bones setting, try Yankee Lobster on Northern Avenue in the Seaport District. If you prefer a more upscale dining experience, then visit any of the many locations of Legal Seafood. When it first opened, Legal was a very informal and cheap place to get great seafood, but over the years it has morphed into a much fancier and much more expensive restaurant and has opened locations as far away as Warwick, Rhoe Island. Still, it is a very reliable place for excellent seafood and the lunch menu is much easier on your wallet. I spent New Year’s Eve at their Prudential Center location a few years back, and had a good laugh when after finishing a bowl of chowder and a lobster roll, my waiter asked if I would like Boston cream pie for dessert so I could experience the “New England Trifecta”. I said yes, and I did not regret it!

Another new discovery in Boston is the Summer Shack on Dalton Street in the shadow of the Prudential tower. They have all the usual New England fare: chowder, lobster, Boston Cream Pie… but also innovative twists like grilled cornbread with molasses butter and grilled scallops and shrimp with a pumpkin-lobster sauce. Finally, if you are looking for the best breakfast or brunch experience, head to the north and west suburbs to find the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, the Deluxe Station Diner in Newton, or the Deluxe Depot Diner in Framingham. They have some of the best pancakes you will ever taste, and of course they have a wide variety of egg and meat dishes as well.

Within a 45-minute drive north from Boston you will cross into New Hampshire, the “White Mountain State.” Here license plates bear the state motto, “Live Free or Die”, and the people here march to their own drummer, despite a regular influx of tourists and former Massachusetts residents who have fled north to escape the high taxes there. New Hampshire natives point out that these newcomers have begun voting in the same policies they had back in Massachusetts, leading the natives to refer to them as “Massholes.” There’s that wry New England sense of humor I mentioned earlier.

New Hampshire has a number of places to fill up before or after your leaf-peeping, skiing, or hiking activities. Just west of the state capital, Concord is the town of Henniker and the Intervale Farm Pancake Restaurant, a place I only recently discovered and will definitely come back to for another helping of their fluffy hotcakes and good, strong coffee. Another pancake hotspot that shouldn’t be missed is Flapjacks in the town of Lincoln at the start of the scenic Kancamagus Highway. Their pumpkin pancakes are one of the things I like best about autumn in New England. And of course, wherever you find your pancakes up this way you will also find locally made real maple syrup. You will never go back to Mrs. Butterworth again.

If you are not as big a pancake fan as I am (and admittedly, I set that standard high), seek out Cider Bellies Donuts, located on a scenic farm just outside of Meredith, New Hampshire. Apple cider donuts in 3 or 4 varieties (maple frosted, cinnamon-sugar, etc.) are made to order and served warm, $5 for a half dozen. There is nothing quite like a warm doughnut, and Cider Bellies will convince you of that! I once stopped at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and when the waitress asked if I wanted any doughnuts, I confessed that I was on my way to Cider Bellies. She laughed and said, “I do the same thing! Those things are awesome!”

Also in Meredith is Hart’s Turkey Farm, a popular place that has been serving homestyle turkey dinners and all the fixin’s since 1954. If you are not up for a full turkey dinner, but still need comfort food, an unusual eatery called Mr. Mac & Cheese can be found in Manchester and Portsmouth, and as the name implies, they serve 24 different flavors of mac and cheese for dining in or take out. Try Garden Veggie Mac, Tuna Mac, Lobster Mac, Pulled Pork Mac or my favorite, a classic Bacon Cheddar Mac. Now that is comfort! And over on New Hampshire’s short strip of coastline, The Beach Plum in Portsmouth serves up various sizes of fresh lobster rolls and virtually any other seafood you want including fried clam and fried scallop platters. One of their lobster rolls should hold you until you drive about 5 miles north, across the Piscataqua River and into the land of lobster, Maine.

Maine is almost synonymous with lobster, and you won’t have to drive far to hit one of the best places to get your first lobster dinner. As soon as you cross the bridge and enter Maine on Route 1, look for Warren’s Lobster House in Kittery. This place has been serving up lobster and other seafood since 1940 and is really an institution in this area. While it’s been getting pricier in recent years, Warren’s guarantees you fresh lobster cooked a variety of ways, and a big draw is their enormous salad bar that has really varied and high quality ingredients; you could make a meal of it by itself, but save room for the “lobstah.” Also save room for dessert, as they offer both wild Maine blueberry pie and traditional Indian pudding, a local treat made with cornmeal and molasses.

Further north in the charming resort town of Ogunquit, stop at Bread & Roses bakery on Maine Street, but be warned: if you have a sweet tooth, you are doomed. This place has every pastry known to humankind. I am especially fond of their raspberry pie, though the blueberry is also great. They have Boston cream pies, whoopee pies, cookies, eclairs… and the list goes on. Continuing north on Route 1 you next come to Wells, and if you have not gorged yourself on pastry at Bread & Roses, look out for Congdon’s Doughnuts. This place serves both breakfast and lunch, but the big draw is their doughnut’s. I can steadfastly recommend the blueberry bear claw. Now THAT is a doughnut! And also in Wells you can find the famous Maine Diner, a bustling and authentically New England place that has been open since 1983 and claims to have served over 7 million customers! They have been featured on the Food Network’s Diners Drive-Ins and Dives and have received many accolades. Open for breakfast, lunch or dinner, the diner serves a wide variety of seafood and meat dishes, sandwiches and lobster rolls, and all day breakfast. One stand-out is the seafood chowder which has won a local chowder competition for 7 years. Order the bowl and be amazed when you find perhaps a half a pound or more of scallops, shrimp, and lobster in your bowl, along with potatoes, onions and cream. It is one of their best dishes and is served with a warm cornbread muffin. It could be the perfect meal in and of itself, but in my opinion, it’s is the perfect meal if followed by twin steamed lobsters and some blueberry pie ala mode. Oh, the humanity!

By the time you reach Portland and points north, you may already be full from your eating activities along the south coast, but if you want a no-frills, very authentic lobster roll experience, seek out McLoon’s Lobster Shack, located south of Rockland, across the causeway to Sprucehead Island, nestled in the village of South Thomaston. Order at the window, grab a picnic table and enjoy a beautiful view of the Maine coast while you wait for your food to be delivered. Periodically lobster boats arrive next door, and you can watch them deliver fresh-from the Atlantic lobsters to McLoon’s. It does not get any fresher than this. Closer to Portland, look for Bite into Maine, a food truck parked near the Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse that serves lobster rolls prepared several different ways. My roll was simple, very fresh, without filler, and amazingly low priced, and you can eat it on a bluff above the ocean in the shadow of the lighthouse.

A funny coincidence regarding Bite into Maine happened during a recent visit to see my cousin Marsha in Virginia Beach. A native New Englander herself, she told me excitedly about a new food truck that brings fresh lobster down from Maine and parks in a lot in a commercial area of Virginia Beach. It’s called Bite into Maine and is run by the same folks. So never fear… if you spend a wonderful time in New England and are driving south, memories of your Bite intoMaine lobster roll dancing in your head, you have the chance to have ANOTHER Bite into Maine 600 miles south. I think it’s obvious. New England is contagious.

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