I come from a family of shellfish pickers. My mom and aunt grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where blue crab feasts are a way of life, and my aunt lived for many years on Cape Cod, where we'd spend summers eating lobster and hot buttered corn just about every night. I've been jamming my fingers into crustacean crannies since before I knew how to use a fork. We don't judge people on much, but I think I can speak for my entire family when I say that we measure the worth of a person by how well they clean their shells of meat.
As much as I love meticulously dissecting my meal with my bare hands, I have a deep, deep appreciation for what lobster rolls offer, namely, the opportunity to devour hunks of sweet, tender meat right away, without any work at all. That they're seasoned and dressed in either mayo or warm butter and served on a toasty top-split hot dog bun is just gravy. Really good gravy.
We've already given you our favorite lobster rolls in New York City, and Kenji has written at length about what goes into the very best mayo-dressed and warm buttered lobster rolls, with recipes. Now we're casting the spotlight on Boston, unofficial capital city of New England, and, therefore, a place where visitors understandably seek great lobster rolls.
Well, after countless lifetime visits and, more importantly, a very recent one with my colleague Max focused on finding the best lobster rolls (along with the best ice cream), I'm going to be frank: Boston is not a great lobster roll town. No, for the best lobster roll experience, you'll have to travel the New England seaboard, venturing, for instance, farther north to Maine and its iconic seafood shacks.
Many of the rolls we ate in Boston suffered fatal flaws, from meat that was tough and chewy from too much time in the lobster pot, to deflated and cottony, presumably from having been frozen. Several had problems with their bread; one, for example, was served with a too-large and dense brioche bun that overwhelmed what was actually a fairly generous serving of lobster, while another had a bun that was flattened to a pancake below an avalanche of lobster salad—we actually had to dig and pry under the tightly packed heap just to find it. In many cases there wasn't anything overtly wrong with the lobster rolls, aside from the kind of lackluster execution that comes from cooks who have lost the joy they should feel every time they assemble one of the world's greatest foods. Sad, really.
But it's not all bad news. While not overflowing with them, Boston does have a handful of lobster rolls that reach truly great heights—a couple of them that I'd argue are absolutely required destinations if you're in the city. These superlative rolls are the only ones I'm sharing here; if you want a bigger list filled with good-but-not-great options, the internet is full of them. But why would you bother with that when you have the below to keep you busy?
The One Lobster Roll You Absolutely Must Eat in Boston: Neptune Oyster
If there's just one lobster roll you eat in all of Boston, it should be this one, but be prepared to wait. Neptune Oyster Bar in the North End doesn't take reservations, and the perpetual crush of visitors is pretty much a guarantee that you're not going to sit down right away. Don't be scared off, because this is the kind of lobster roll dreams are made of. In fact, it should be lobster rolls, plural, because Neptune serves both a classic Maine-style roll with chilled mayo-dressed lobster and a hot buttered one. Get both.
They aren't exactly traditional—the buns are grilled brioche and don't have the crust-free sides that are so good for developing a crisp toasted surface—which I know will elicit objections from purists who have strict ideas of what a lobster roll should be. I tend to share such views, but I'm also stringently against dogma for dogma's sake, and Neptune's lobster rolls are so damned delicious that it simply doesn't matter what rules have been broken to achieve those results.
What makes them so good? For starters, impeccably cooked lobster meat that's sweet and tender, spot-on seasoning, and a meat-to-bun ratio that works. There's also a generous amount of fresh black pepper in both kinds, another non-traditional touch that takes these rolls to even greater heights.
The Seafood Shack Experience: Kelly's Roast Beef
Neptune's lobster roll is the one that will haunt my dreams until my next trip to Boston, but it's admittedly a little fancy. For the best down-and-dirty seafood shack experience, I'm pointing you to Kelly's, which, for some inexplicable reason, thought to plug its roast beef sandwich in its name instead of the real reason you should be there—the lobster roll. (I have no idea if the roast beef sandwich is good or not; feel free to share wisdom in the comments if you do.)
Now, technically this one bends the rules just a tad, since Kelly's is in Revere, MA, not Boston proper, but it's part of the Greater Boston Area and just a 20-minute walk along the beach from the Wonderland station on the Blue T Line, so I'm considering it fair game. Don't let the extra travel time dissuade you from making it up there, because Kelly's offers everything you want in a full lobster-roll experience.
First, there's the roll itself, light and simple with a healthy eight ounces of mayo-dressed lobster meat, tiny bits of crisp celery, and just a hint of pickle brine. The bun understands its place, and performs its role well. I'm here to deliver wonderful texture to every bite, says its crisp buttery toasted surface as you sink your teeth through. Now I'm going to get the heck out of the way so you can appreciate the lobster—enjoy! it reassures you as its soft, airy crumb falls away into delicious nothingness.
And then there's the setting. The Kelly's in Revere (there are four other locations scattered around the Greater Boston Area) is right on the beach overlooking the bay, so your meal comes with a complimentary sea breeze and the sound of waves breaking, which is part of what true lobster-roll eating is all about.
The Minimalist: James Hook & Company
"Your first lobster roll," Max says after biting into this beauty from James Hook & Company, a small red seafood shack on the Boston harbor. He's right—this thing is so simple in its construction, with gorgeous chunks of mostly claw meat dressed in mayo with very little else, that it's an excellent entry point for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals of a good, basic lobster roll. If I had any complaint, it was that I wanted the toasted bun to be just a little more buttery, but otherwise this is a solid example of the virtues of restraint.
The Sleeper Hit: Legal Harborside
When Max and I were putting together our list of must-try lobster rolls before embarking on our "research" trip, we asked far and wide for suggestions. We queried our social media circles, hit up food world colleagues and friends, reached out to trusted contacts in Boston, and read every recent article on Boston lobster rolls we could find. And Legal Sea Foods, the Boston-based seafood restaurant chain, got nary a mention from anyone. That isn't really shocking—it's rare for chains that span multiple states to maintain destination-level status in the eyes of the food obsessed. The last time I can remember eating at one of their Boston spots was when I used to visit my sister, who lived there in the '90s.
But then on our recent trip, as we were walking along the harbor, bouncing from one lobster roll target to the next, we passed by Legal Harborside, the upscale flagship restaurant run by the Legal Sea Foods company, and lo and behold, they had a to-go counter. Max, I said. I know we've already eaten six lobster rolls today and have 12 more to shovel in before we call it a day, but maybe we need to go in there and give the Legal one a try. He agreed that it only seemed fair given that we were standing right in front of the place.
We went in, ordered one to go, and had it split in half for easier sharing on the sidewalk. Outside, we quickly popped open the takeout container and grabbed our halves for what we thought would be mere due diligence ("Yes, we tried a Legal Sea Foods lobster roll, no it wasn't good enough..."), and took a bite.
Then our eyes slowly met. Max raised his eyebrows as a smirk started to spread across my face.
Hm, I said.
It's...not...bad..., Max slowly let out.
No, it's not bad at all...it's actually pretty good, I agreed. This one could maybe make it onto the list.
And so it did. It's a good, classic roll with plenty of fresh, juicy lobster meat tossed in mayo with scallions and a perfectly toasted bun. It's also pricey at $30 a pop, but otherwise we found no fault, something we can't say for many other lobster rolls recommended above it.
The Legal Sea Foods chain has over 30 locations, so I can't vouch for the quality of the lobster rolls at all them, but this one gets the stamp of approval from us.
The It's-Not-a-Lobster-Roll-But-That-Doesn't-Matter-Because-It's-Really-Good: Select Oyster Bar
Take a look at the photo immediately above. I have two things to say about it. First, as you can see, it is not a lobster roll in any conceivable sense. The bread is ciabatta, the avocado is...California?...and the mayo is a roasted tomato aioli. That's fine, because it's not pretending to be a lobster roll. It's a lobster sandwich, spelled out clear as day on the lunch-only menu at Select Oyster Bar in Back Bay, and it is fantastic: tender, well-seasoned meat, ripe, flavorful condiments, and bread that announces its presence but doesn't get in the way.
Just don't go judging it by lobster-roll standards because a) that's not fair, and b) you'll be disappointed. Meet it on its own terms and you will not.