Portland Lobster Company
The Portland Lobster Company is located at ground zero for tourist traffic on Commercial Street in Portland's Old Port. The careful design and corporate branding may seem a little too self-conscious, and the service seems oriented more toward maximum efficiency than earning repeat business. It's an understandable approach to a lobster shack in such a heavily trafficked area; the location is perfect for people watching, or for sitting on the pier losing an afternoon in the bottom of a pint glass of Geary's Summer Ale. The $15.99 lobster roll here is a kind of hybrid of Maine and Connecticut styles, the mostly claw and knuckle meat served chilled, but brushed with butter instead of mayonnaise.
The Lobster Shack at Two Lights
Sure, it’s not a favorite among some locals. With only about four to five ounces of lobster meat per roll, and costing anywhere from $16 to 18 according to the fluctuating market price, it’s not the biggest or the least expensive lobster roll in town. You’ll be amazed, though, at just how much better a lobster roll tastes when you are sitting smack on the coast on a huge slab of granite, looking at a lighthouse, and letting the cool Atlantic ocean spray on your face. It’s a lobster shack with easily one of the most scenic “dining rooms” on the East Coast, and it’s what you imagine in your mind when you picture eating a lobster roll on a perfect Summer day in Maine.
Located on Commercial Street in the middle of Portland's working waterfront, the lobster roll at Becky's Diner is stuffed to overflowing with cool, fresh-picked lobster meat, dressed very lightly with just mayonnaise. The lobster is the focus of this no-nonsense version of the sandwich, with nothing to get between you and a quarter pound of lobster meat. At $17.95, the lobster roll at Becky's may not be the best bargain in town, but it's hard to find a simpler, more straight-forward representation of the classic sandwich.
Susan's Fish n Chips
Susan's may seem like an unlikely stop for amazing seafood. The ocean isn't anywhere in sight; instead, Forest Avenue's hodgepodge of windshield repair shops and gas stations are the only other businesses nearby. Inside the restaurant, the rafters of the converted auto shop are littered with lobster traps, rowboats, and assorted shipwreck-style decorations. Cheerful, outgoing employees are pleasantly chatty and happy to bring your order to one of the large blue-painted picnic tables that make up the restaurant's "dining room." The $11.99 lobster roll, with a side of (quite good) French fries, is simply presented with the fresh lobster meat served naked atop a few strips of iceberg lettuce. A thin layer of mayonnaise is spread on the inside of the toasty warm split-top bun, rather than tossed with the lobster meat; for a messier sandwich, dip into the bottomless glass pints of tartar sauce that are served with every meal.
Old Port Tavern
On a hot day in the summer, particularly when Portland's historic Old Port becomes clogged with cruise ship visitors shopping for lobster claw-shaped shot glasses, it's a relief to walk into the relative calm and cool darkness of the subterranean Old Port Tavern. The restaurant's version of a Maine lobster roll may offend purists with its tarragon-infused mayonnaise, and the comparatively small amount of lobster meat sitting on a bed of romaine, served on an enormous warm toasted bun, but we love the light touch of grassiness the herb adds to the big chunks of lobster meat. They also do a "Lobster Philly" special ($18): a huge cheesesteak topped with chunks of lobster, finished with hollandaise.
Town Landing Market
OK, so the Town Landing Market, located in Falmouth, may be a short drive from Portland. Their location ten minutes northeast makes it a great first pit stop for anyone driving north to the midcoast, or embarking on a marathon lobster roll tasting session. Owner Daniel Groves also captains "The Lobster Queen," and brings the best of his catch into the market to sell. At 12.99, the lobster rolls here are a real bargain; freshly-caught Maine lobster gets tossed with mayonnaise and served with just a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
Town Landing Market: 269 Foreside Road, Falmouth, ME 04105 (map); 207-781-2128
When you see DiMillo's, the massive car ferry-turned-floating restaurant that dominates the north end of Commercial street, hang a left and try J's Oyster. You can sit outside on the patio, right on the dock, but the real action is indoors, where the bulk of the dining room is taken up by a giant, wood-paneled bar, populated mostly by hard-drinking locals. The sticky tables are almost an afterthought, crammed into the clam broth-soaked indoor/outdoor carpeted corridor between the bar and the walls of the building. It never fails to remind me of the Maine of my memory, as it existed in the 1980s; it's less a restaurant, more like a dive bar that happens to also sell seafood. The lobster roll here is not just delicious, but a real value at $13.50, served with a side of wavy potato chips and a pickle.
We flipped around on Route 1 after passing the "Try Our Famous Lobsta Rolls $9.97" sign at Scarborough Lobster just south of Portland. We parked next to two boats and a truck in the small lot out front. That had to be a good sign. Fresh lumps of tail and claw meat barely kissed with mayo (this is not a globster roll) go into a classic split-top bun, with a hearty shake of paprika on top. This whole thing (and a bag of Lay's!) for $10? Really. This had to be one of the cheapest, freshest, simplest, most satisfying lobster rolls, which we enjoyed on a bench out front.