For an island of its size (fifty square miles, many of them conservation land) and number of year-round residents (only around 10,000), Nantucket Island has an awful lot of restaurants: most of them, of course, catering to summer residents and tourists, who swell the summer population at least five-fold.
Given that they've got a captive audience—when you're thirty miles out to sea, you're not going off-island for dinner—plenty of restaurants aren't particularly good, serving $20 baskets of sub-par fried seafood or $25 lobster eggs Benedict because they know there's a market for such things.
Many of Nantucket's newer spots echo urban Northeast restaurant trends, island versions of mainland favorites, spots that seem familiar to those coming out from Boston or New York. Within the last few years, those have been the sort of openings you'd see: a gourmet burger counter (with truffle oil fries, natch); a good-looking bakery whose cupcakes sport towering crowns of frosting; bars serving specialty cocktails with house-infused vodkas and syrups. (It's only a matter of time before a frozen yogurt spot opens in a shingled shack on N. Water Street.)
These establishments come and go, some of course much better than others, of course. But other places have much more staying power, standing out from the pack; places that are, or become, quintessentially Nantucket.
After twenty-five years of visiting family on the island (and a few recent, exhaustive research weekends), I've eaten at just about every restaurant Nantucket has. Here are the spots I'd recommend.
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Black-Eyed Susan's, on India Street right in the center of town, is the place to start your morning, particularly if you're an early riser or don't mind a wait. By night it's a fantastic but essentially casual bistro (we'll get to that later); by morning, it does a mean breakfast. Straightforwardly appealing plates include sourdough French toast with Jack Daniels-spiked butter and cinnamon pecans; other favorite of mine is the homemade corned beef hash. Sitting at the bar stools along the counter, so that you can watch your pancakes flipped and your eggs fried, adds a bit of diner-like charm, letting you be part of the short-order action.
Black-Eyed's generally fills up with weekend visitors and town-living summer residents, whereas Downyflake, mid-island, gets you a much wider cross-section of the island's population. It's where to go if you want to experience Nantucket as a small New England town, not a resort town. "There are three things to get here," someone sitting next to me once said to his friend; "Doughnuts, pancakes, and anything with linguica." The guy was dead right. Pancakes are properly fluffy and crisp-edged (try them with wild blueberries), the Portuguese sausage (which you'll see all over Nantucket) a smart addition to any order of eggs, and the doughnuts—well, we'll get to those in a minute. The rest of the menu is simple, serviceable diner food, served fast and hot and cheap.
The Boarding House is an exceedingly pleasant place for a wedge of frittata and a Bellini, with a huge patio that makes for unparalleled people watching; their food is better than many restaurants around it, and I've never been disappointed by a morning meal there. It's pricey, even for Nantucket—very easy to drop $40 per person without realizing. But if your visiting boss or wealthy in-laws want a brunch recommendation? That's where I'd send them.
Black-Eyed Susan's: 10 India Street, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-325-0308; www.black-eyedsusans.com; Downyflake: 18 Sparks Avenue, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-228-4533; Boarding House: 12 Federal Street, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-228-9622; www.boardinghouse-pearl.com
If it's baked goods you're after, a few places to know. Downyflake, the diner mentioned above, makes superb cake doughnuts that haven't changed in my decades of eating them: small, tender-crumbed, and when they're piping hot, a teeny bit crusty right at the fried edges. Only three ways to get them: plain, sugared, and chocolate-glazed. When fresh, they're memorably good; go in the mornings and they will be fresh.
If you're after glazed or filled doughnuts, head to Nantucket Bake Shop (Boston Cremes are a highlight); for great pastry (particularly morning buns), Daily Bread.
Downyflake: 18 Sparks Avenue, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-228-4533; Nantucket Bake Shop: 79 Orange Street, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-228-2797; www.nantucketbakeshop.com; Daily Breads: 147 Orange Street Unit 2, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-228-8961
Several island sandwich shops have gone downhill over the last few decades (former favorite Provisions, I'm looking at you), but Something Natural has never disappointed. The magic's in the bread, which they bake and also sell around the island; at the shop, it's always made-that-day fresh. While I'm partial to the flake-crusted oatmeal bread, the Portuguese bread is the one people go nuts for, a slightly yeasty white bread that's a distinct local speciality. Whatever you're ordering, the sandwiches are massive but well-constructed, cold-cuts and cheeses freshly sliced and piled high, the vegetables crisp and ample.
The free-standing shack has an enormous garden with picnic tables to eat at, but calling ahead for takeout is less of a hassle. Don't forget to grab a chocolate chip cookie, perhaps my favorite anywhere; they're about six inches across and a deep, deep brown, but thin and pliant, with crusty edges and so much butter they tend to soak through the paper bag. A Something Natural chocolate chip cookie brought to the beach, and sun-warmed for two or three hours while you're tanning or swimming, reaches such a perfect stage of meltiness it's as if it were oven-fresh.
From The Ocean
On Straight Wharf, where the Hy-Line ferries dock, there's a Straight Wharf restaurant that you'll see first (with waterfront dining and a more-than-lively late-night bar scene), but head a bit behind that to the Straight Wharf Fish Store for my favorite lunch on the island.*
It's a seafood market first and foremost, but they serve prepared food to go: a killer lobster roll, clam chowder, and my favorite, the fish sandwiches. A small fillet of tuna, swordfish, or cod is tossed into a searing-hot pan, cooked just through, and served on a squishy butter-toasted bun. You get tartar sauce on the side, but I don't think I've ever used it: steaming-hot fish and buttery bread don't need any adornment.
*I spent a summer working at the Juice Guys around the corner, a smoothie shop owned by the Nantucket Nectars team; rather than avail myself of endless free fruit drinks, I'd sneak over to Straight Wharf on my lunch breaks, just about every day. I think I squandered every quarter of tip money I made, but man, was it worth it.
Straight Wharf Fish Store: 4 Harbor Square, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-228-1095
If you're eating a summer meal at any of Nantucket's nicer restaurants, you're almost guaranteed to see "Bartlett's Farm Tomatoes" or "Bartlett's Farm Corn" featured prominently on the menu. Bartlett's is the island's biggest farm (and oldest, in continuous operation from the 1800's). Though they'd long been selling from carts on Main Street and from a small stand at the farm itself, they opened a much bigger market in 2006, with all sorts of specialty foods, baked goods, and of course all their own produce. During strawberry season, you can grab baskets from the farmstand and pick your own berries, paying by weight to take them home. A great foggy-day activity for kids, or anyone else; pies taste better when you've picked the berries yourself.
Looking for seafood? If you're out at Bartlett's, head across Hummock Pond Road to 167 Seafood. If you're in town, Straight Wharf Fish Shop.
Bartlett's Farm: 33 Bartlett Farm Road, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-228-9403; www.bartlettsfarm.com; 167 Seafood: 167 Hummock Pond Road, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-228-2871; Straight Wharf Fish Store: 4 Harbor Square, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-228-1095
Cisco Brewery now sells their beer (Whale's Tale Pale Ale, Sankaty Light Lager, and more) all up and down the East Coast, but it's still headquartered on Nantucket. Head out to the brewery, just down the road from Bartlett's Farm (see above), and you'll get a chance to taste those beers and more, along with cocktails made with spirits from Nantucket's Triple Eight Distillery and wines from Nantucket Vineyard.
The experience you'll have at Cisco depends on the day. If you're looking to learn about the brewery, perhaps try to arrange a tour, and quietly appreciate a few craft beers, you're better off early on a weekday, and not during high tourist season. On a July Saturday, it'll be a lively patio party by 2pm and an awful lot messier with every passing hour. (To the extent that I try to avoid driving anywhere near it in the early evening.) Go on the off-hours to taste beer; go during the weekend to drink it.
Pi Pizzeria started in the back of cheese-and-wine shop Fahey & Fromagerie about a decade ago, and moved to its own space (the former West Creek Cafe) in 2006. It's Nantucket's only wood-fired pizzeria, and a good one. The pies are wider and flatter than your classic Neapolitan, but otherwise in that style: super-thin middles, raised edge crust, San Marzano tomato sauce and small pools of mozzarella and prosciutto San Daniele on top. It's not all orthodox, though. Their pizzas include a garlicy, Pecorino-laced white clam and an arugula-topped stracchino-pancetta "Rustica" that, while it may appear here just salad on a crust, is a nicely composed pie. (Full writeup to come.)
Late-night drinkers often end up near "The Strip," a few short blocks of eateries stretching out from Steamboat Wharf; rather than dropping $15 on a burger and truffle fries, or any money on from-the-freezer fried seafood, stop by Steamboat Pizza. It might not be the best slice you've ever had, but it's hot and cheesey and satisfying and, at one o'clock in the morning after a few too many Dark and Stormies, easily your best bet. Plus, when you've accidentally rung up a three-figure drinking tab at the Boarding House, you probably want to keep your refueling stop under $5.
Steamboat Pizza: 10 Broad Street, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-228-1131
When I think of New England scoop shops, I think of places like the Juice Bar: old-fashioned ice cream done right, creamy and soul-satisfying, traditional rather than adventurous. It's the place to go for dessert (which is unfortunate in July and August, as lines stretch out both screen doors and often down the block). All the ice cream's homemade, and comes in at least a few dozen flavors, many of the sweet tooth-friendly sort (the "Green Monster," mint chocolate chip with cookie dough), many Northeast classics (Rum Raisin, Grape Nut).
The boozier flavors, a little softer and smoother than the rest, are my favorite. I've been a sucker for Rum Raisin since I was about five years old, much to my dad's amusement. Whatever you order, get it on a waffle cone or in a waffle cup, both made throughout the day right in the shop. (If you don't take my word for it, just get a whiff of the cookie-like smell as you walk in, and you won't need any more convincing.)
If you're with young kids who don't like lines and don't need two dozen choices, head instead to Nantucket Pharmacy on Main Street, with an old-fashioned soda fountain in front. The ice cream's not too memorable, standard-issue Sysco-style stuff, but it's served with a smile, in soft, generous scoops, and you get to sit at the counter on swivel stools as you order and eat. I've yet to meet a kid who doesn't love spinning around as they eat an ice cream cone.
*Main Street used to have two pharmacies with soda fountains next door to each other, Congdon's Pharmacy and Nantucket Pharmacy, all but identical, though most people would profess allegiance to one or the other. Now Congdon's is a jewelry store. I was always a Nantucket Pharmacy girl (they had rainbow sherbet, my preschool-aged self's ice cream of choice), not a Congdon's girl, but I was still pretty devastated when Congdon's closed a few years ago. What fun is loyalty when the rivalry's gone?
Nice Meals Worth The Price
The town of Nantucket has no shortage of higher-end restaurants, but they vary wildly in quality. Although there are others I like quite a bit, the two I return to again and again, and recommend without reservations, are Black-Eyed Susan's and American Seasons.
Black-Eyed's is the less formal and less expensive of the two, with bar seating facing the flat-top, rough-hewn wooden walls, and an internationally-inflected, often-changing menu. A few standbys I love are their tuna tartar (not on the menu, but almost always a special), their simple cappellini (with fresh-tasting, nicely garlicky tomato sauce and a fluffy mountain of grated Parmagiano-Reggiano on the side; great for kids or pickier eaters), and linguini with local quahog clams. But the rotating apps and entrées tend to be a little more interesting: Ritz cracker-encrusted halibut with a bacon-corn chowder made a recent appearance, and a stir-fried veal liver with chive blossoms.
A few things to know: they're BYOB, they're small, they're cash only, and they fill up quickly; there are three seatings each night, around 6pm, 7:30, and 9. Traditional reservations are only taken for the 6pm seating, but as soon as those folks are seated, you can put your name down for a spot at either of the two later seatings. The best plan is for one or two of your party to head down around 5:30 (on weekends) or 5:45 (in less crowded times), wait outside the door, and get your name in at the stroke of 6. Then go grab a cocktail or find the wine you want with dinner before wandering back.
American Seasons is a little more traditional—reservations, credit cards, wine list—and more formal, though things only get so formal on Nantucket. A bit more of an occasion restaurant, it's the sort of place you may be compelled to dress up for, but you certainly don't have to. Now more than twenty years old, the restaurant was purchased in 2004 by husband and wife Michael LaScola (chef) and Orla Murphy-LaScola (general manager and sommelier), and under their tenure, it's been a restaurant that's not just one of the best on the island, but excellent by any standard. (We're not the only ones who think so: LaScola has been nominated for several James Beard Awards as Best Chef: Northeast.)
The restaurant's philosophy is aptly expressed in its name; until a few years ago, the menu was actually divided by United States region, with a section for dishes inspired by the South, a section for the Northeast, and so forth. These days, it takes a more traditional appetizer-entrée format, but its pan-American influences are just as apparent. (Suckling pig with shrimp and grits can appear on the menu above New England fluke with a lobster vinaigrette.) In the many meals I've had here, LaScola's dishes have without exception been thoughtful, creative, and as tasty as they are beautiful. He seems to have fun with this country's myriad culinary traditions, without ever seeming like he's trying to do too much. And the restaurant, despite its wide-ranging focus, never forgets it's on Nantucket: half a dozen local farms supply the kitchen, and local seafood never leaves the menu. As for the chef's wife and partner, Orla, it'd be hard to say which of her contributions matters more: her award-winning (and entirely American) wine list, or her gracious welcome, setting the tone for relaxed but eminently professional service. Both LaScolas spend the off-season traveling extensively, as is reflected in the number of small-production wines, all finds of Orla's, that they serve.
Not up for a full meal? Stop at the bar for equally tasty (and even more fun) small bites, each plate $6: we love the foie gras doughnuts with rhubarb jam, and crispy pig ear fries.
Black-Eyed Susan's: 10 India Street, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-325-0308; www.black-eyedsusans.com; American Seasons: 80 Center Street, Nantucket MA 02554 (map); 508-228-7111; www.americanseasons.com
Any islanders out there? Where do you like to eat on Nantucket?