A recent trip to visit friends and relatives on Cape Anne in Massachusetts provided the opportunity to revisit one of my all-time favourite restaurants 'Woodman's of Essex'. Happily, although I had managed to clock a full decade between visits, it hadn't changed one iota. Founded in 1914 by 'Chubby' and Betsy Woodman and still run by their descendants the weekend queues for tables here testify to wisdom of doing things simply but well. Woodman's is all about fresh seafood and there are no frills. As they proudly proclaim you 'Dine in the Rough', meaning that there is no table service, napery or forelock tugging – you place your order at one counter and collect your food when your number is called from another. Diners sit on benches by bare wooden tables and drinks are dispensed from a bustling bar.
The signature dish is fried clams which Chubby apparently chanced upon after immersing fresh clams in the oil of his chip fryer. This serendipitous discovery was soon packing the crowds in and the Woodman family have never looked back. Not to be over-looked are fried shrimp (actually prawns albeit big ones), fried scallops, fried calamari and fried fish - depending on the day's catch. I think it's fair to say that if you don't like seafood, specifically fried seafood, then Woodman's probably isn't the place for you. They do also sell hot dogs and burgers but I've never heard anyone order either and they are definitely not the main draw.
Fried clams are a bit of an acquired taste as they are, by nature, a bit gritty. Those who fail to develop a penchant for this textural treat can order 'clam strips' which is the muscle without the belly – which is all very well but is (literally) a bit of a soft option. My preferred order is a 'Down River' Combo which contains 'clams, shrimp, scallop and fish' which costs $33.99 for a 'plate' which is ample for one (trencherman) and less so for two. Coleslaw, French fries and onion rings are all recommended side dishes. One can also order 'broiled' lobster but it is necessarily quite expensive and arguably a dish best served at home.
The wine offering is minimalist, more so than the beer selection, but the local Mill River Winery 'Pinot Grigio' was cold and neutral and a pretty good accompaniment to the piping hot seafood. (Incidentally, I've been unreliably informed there are now only two states in America that don't produce wine. I'd guess Alaska and Hawaii but look forward to being corrected).
Anyway, Woodman's remains a delightful throw-back to a simpler era and I wish I could dine in the rough more than once a decade. If you're Boston-bound in the near (or distant) future it definitely merits a detour.
With special thanks to Susie Talbot – Essex resident and generous hostess!