Celebrating 60 years of Bob’s Clam Hut, a staple of classic New England Roadside seafood.
When Robert Kraft opened a small seafood shack in his parents’ backyard in 1956, a gallon of clams cost around six or seven dollars. Kraft, who passed away in 2003, used that inspired summer of cooking clams—pairing them with his own mother’s baked pies—to develop the kernel idea that would eventually become Bob’s Clam Hut. And as far as icons of the Norman Rockwell-esque summer noshing persuasion, there’s none greater.
“There’s such a rich tradition of belonging, and community, and sense of history.”
Kraft’s mojo in the clam game soon caught on and became a hit with locals, catapulting Bob and his Clam Hut to the status of legends among roadside eateries. 60 years later, the menu has expanded only as far as the local bounty of the Maine shoreline supplies.
“It’s quintessential Maine,” says manager Brian Pajak, who has seen the ebb and flow of coastal seasons for the past decade through the sliding windows of “The Hut,” the nickname for the amphitheater of fryolators and clam-ery. “Outdoor eating, no frills, and traditional Maine food; Lobster rolls. Clams. Whoopie pies. All things Maine.”
In 1986 at just 26 years old, emerging from under the tutelage of Kraft, current owner Michael Landgarten took to the helm. He has since remained steadfast in his dedication to Kraft’s tradition, maintaining and preserving the original moxie and simplistic beauty behind Bob’s Clam Hut.
“This retired realtor kept pointing me to Bob’s, kept saying to go there,” says Landgarten. “I worked there one day, came home, and couldn’t believe it. It was so real. Such genuine people, so much fun. Customers so out of their minds in love with what we’re doing. You never get that much affirmation unless you’re a pro athlete. We just get adulation all day long [and] I just fell in love with it. It was meant to be, for me.”
For Michael, the secret isn’t in the (tartar) sauce, but in the feeling of anyone who has been smitten by the service and atmosphere of this Kittery staple, flanked by Maine’s Spruce River. “It means [a lot] to people,” he says. “There are customers who had the same Friday night parking spaces for years, everyone knew the orders. There’s such a rich tradition of belonging, and community, and sense of history. That kind of permanence is significant to folks.”
“We change but we stay the same,” says Pajak. “We had a guest come here [recently] who hadn’t been here in eight years, and was really happy because he said it was exactly how he remembers it.”
A quick overview of Bob’s by the numbers reveals their changing-by-never-changing pathos is a winner. In a given year, Bob’s easily clears over 3,000 gallons of fresh clams, 47,000 lobster rolls—about equal to the cost of 7,000 pairs of duck boots from Maine’s own L.L. Bean—not to mention over 4,000 gallons of their made-from-scratch, original recipe house tartar sauce—about as much as it would take to fill Maine’s Whaleback Lighthouse from base to balcony. With that kind of output, it’s no surprise that Bob’s and its family of workers are experts when it comes to summers spent eating-well from the old guards of classic Maine Americana.
And while the recipes have stayed true to the originals, one 25-plus-year employee named Lillian amended Bob’s history to include the very specific way she liked her clams cooked, resulting in the “Lillian” option for all forms of fried seafood. Traditionally you have raw clams, put them right in the flour, then fry them. But the Lillian includes an extra dip in an egg wash and condensed milk batter; makes for a crunchier, golden-yellow clam, with a slightly sweeter taste.
On employing the stoic simplicity of Bob’s famous clam baskets and lobster rolls for your own New England seafood fest, Landgarten has some tips. First and foremost, leave the seasoning to the people, “Even salt and pepper overcomplicates it. You don’t season a great wine. [You want] naked and natural, so you can really taste the freshness and origin of the clam. To make fries [like Bob’s], source local potatoes, use a great peanut or sunflower oil, and make sure you’re precise.”
“The unadorned flavor of really fresh clams is just undeniably good”
“We do a lot of great precision—amount of butter on a split hot dog bun for a lobster roll, the bun itself, the kind of mayo, amount, etc. Seafood can be very inconsistent. You’re not dealing with a manufactured product, so sourcing really good seafood is an art in itself. Those are the rudiments for [us], sourcing great products, having a palate for them, and being able to reject things that aren’t up to snuff. [If you] learn how to execute well, [you] don’t have to bother with all the accoutrement.”
On whether or not there’s another 60 years in Bob’s future, Landgarten says, “As long as [humans] don’t mess things up so badly you can’t get fresh seafood anymore, I have no doubt these flavors and this presentation has legs [and] I don’t see it going away for a long time. The unadorned flavor of really fresh clams is just undeniably good.”
Ho ho. Happy summer eating, people.
Bob’s Clam Hut, 315 US Route 1, Kittery, Maine.