I can’t think of Maine without dreaming of a succulent lobster roll. Because I spent many of my childhood summers in New England, eating a lobster roll outside in the warm sun evokes carefree and seemingly endless days. But, of course, vacations do have endings. They seem especially short for an adult. So where to get your precious few lobster rolls? Lobster pound, lobster shack, or seafood restaurant? And which one, specifically? Even with the high 2021 prices for lobster, Maine teems with people eager to devour the ever-favorite sandwich, and that means you can stand in line for up to an hour waiting for yours. You want to make the wait worthwhile by knowing in advance where to find the best lobster rolls on the Maine coast.
Best Fresh-From-the-Ocean Taste: Thurston’s Lobster Pound
Most Unusual Lobster Roll: The High Roller
Best Lobster-and-a-Beer Place: The Barnacle
Best Roadside Eatery: Sprague’s Lobster
First, a primer on the lingo, at least as this non-Maine resident understands it. Lobster pounds sit right on the water, and they use live lobsters are taken directly from the pots (or traps) and kept in saltwater tanks until just before cooking. Lobster shacks are roadside stands, often with picnic tables, that serve lobsters purchased from a middleman — that is, even though they may cook lobsters themselves, they haven’t caught them. Seafood and lobster restaurants offer sit-down service and also have purchased their lobsters from someone else.
While each type specializes in lobster, they usually offer other fare such as clams, oysters, corn, cole slaw, and even chicken and burgers. At lunch, however, almost everyone orders lobster rolls.
The Maine Lobster Roll
A traditional Maine lobster roll is a simple sandwich. It usually consists of cold lobster meat tossed lightly in mayo and piled on top of a single bibb lettuce leaf and into a New England hot dog roll – a top-sliced, flat-bottomed, buttery roll turned on its side. The competing Connecticut-style roll, with drawn butter instead of mayonnaise, can occasionally be found, listed side-by-side with the traditional preparation.
Although all lobster pulled out of Maine waters at the same time of year technically tastes the same, you can screw it up by overcooking. Fortunately, Maine cooks rarely do. And since a good coastal cook usually cooks his/her lobsters in seawater or, failing that, salt water, unforced errors can be made there, too. Last, the rolls can be key. Stale buns can ruin the best lobster in the world.
So, on to the best lobster rolls I discovered on a recent trip.
Best Lobster Pound: Thurston’s Lobster Pound
True to its name, Thurston’s Lobster Pound sits right on the water on a pier stacked with lobster pots. We arrived on a Saturday just as they opened, and already the line snaked down the stairs and into the parking lot. Fortunately, Thurston’s has perfected the art of mass food serving. You order at the window, take your number, and find an empty table to wait for your meal’s delivery. It took 15-20 minutes for our lobster rolls to arrive.
Thurston’s serves both regular size and jumbo lobster rolls. I found that the regular was enough for me, but my husband went for the jumbo. Each roll comes with a bag of Miss Vicky’s potato chips and a pickle, but you can order additional sides such as coleslaw, corn on the cob, potato salad, and green salad. For those who don’t want lobster rolls, Thurston’s offers other fare, although, except for the lobster stew, I didn’t see anyone eating those. You can even order beer, either by the bottle or, in the screened-in center area, on tap from the bar.
Out of all the lobster rolls I tasted while in Maine, Thurston’s tasted the most like the sea — and in a good way, with a light brininess that did not detract from the delicate, sweet flavor of the meat. The amount of lobster was generous, although not as much as Sprague’s (see below.) Our side of coleslaw was unremarkable.
Even though every table in the sprawling facility filled with diners, the atmosphere of sitting on the water, within view of hundreds of lobster pots, conjured up the relaxing Maine summers of my childhood.
Best Lobster Shack: Sprague’s Lobster
Even though Red’s Eats across the street often gets called the best lobster shack in Maine, Sprague’s Lobster has its own champions. The two competitors are forced to keep up their quality in the face of the other. Although I can’t speak for Red’s Eats, I can say that Sprague’s Lobster makes excellent rolls that are well worth the wait.
The Sunday we visited Wiscasset, the line at Red’s was twice as long, so we opted to try Sprague’s. As it was, we waited almost an hour for our lobster rolls, both by standing in line to order and then by waiting at our picnic table for our number to be called. We might still be in Maine if we had waited for Red’s Eats.
The lobster rolls at Sprague’s deviated from others we encountered: generously mounded lobster meat in a toasted New England roll with either cold drawn butter or mayonnaise on the side and without lettuce lining the bottom of the roll. Here, using your fingers, you dip your lobster into your chosen condiment to eat outside of the bun. Once the amount of lobster meat becomes manageable enough, you can eat the rest in the bun. At that point, you dip the sandwich in the butter or mayo for each bite.
Although the lobster rolls cost a couple of dollars more than elsewhere, they had more lobster meat per roll than any other. You get what you pay for.
Sprague’s Lobster is a cash-only operation, and its lobster rolls, plus any sides, can add up quickly. Make sure you have enough cash on hand so that you won’t be disappointed when you finally get to the front of the line.
Best Casual Lobster Restaurant: The High Roller Lobster Company
High Roller Lobster Company, located near the Portland waterfront on artsy Exchange Street, specializes in lobster rolls and, for dessert, whoopie pies. They also offer an extensive array of fresh oysters. Unlike the shacks and pounds we visited during our Maine trip, High Roller adds a twist to its lobster rolls: fifteen different toppings to dress up your sandwich. You can select up to three, all drizzled over the lobster. I chose lime mayonnaise, and my husband went for butter. The lime mayo tasted like it belonged on lobster, with its citrus zest balancing the more traditional mayo.
In retrospect, I should have chosen three toppings, not just one, for an even more interesting combination. But not having encountered that kind of choice before, I feared I would overdo it.
In terms of quality, High Roller didn’t score quite as well as other places on my list, mostly because the meat was all knuckle and claw meat, no tail meat, and because the lobster seemed slightly tougher. They get high marks, however, for providing delicious twists on the classic. Their lobster tasted fresh, sweet, and flavorful.
Expect to wait for a table. Locals and visitors alike clamor to get into this quirky, yet simple, casual restaurant. High Roller has a system that sends you a text when your table is ready, freeing you to poke around nearby stores while you wait.
Because of the pandemic, High Roller has adopted a QR code at each table that you scan to both see the menu and place your order. A server brings your food to the table, and, for better or worse, that’s the end of your interaction with the staff. You pay and tip in advance.
Best Bar Setting: The Barnacle
Bar Harbor, ME
The Barnacle sits sandwiched — no pun intended — between souvenir shops on the main street of Bar Harbor. The narrow, bright blue building hides a long, cozy bar that doesn’t open until 2 pm. Because we spent the day in Acadia National Park, we opted for a late lunch. We arrived right at opening as the first customers, and within fifteen minutes, every table had filled with patrons. Some customers had to stand, making it a little uncomfortable for a pandemic. I figured that the sudden crowding at opening had to do with the downpour outside that had just begun. The bartender, however, said that the establishment could get immediately crowded even on a gorgeous day.
Not surprisingly, because it’s a bar, The Barnacle specializes in cocktails, beer, and wine with food designed to accompany drinks. Both the oysters and the lobster roll proved favorites among the clientele.
The Barnacle’s lobster roll uses the most mayo of other lobster rolls we tasted, but it didn’t use so much that it hid the flavor or otherwise took over. Lobster meat remained the main event. It tasted fresh from the sea and perfectly cooked to tender sweetness. The accompanying chips and pickle rounded out the lunch with salt and sour to balance the rich lobster meat.
Although you can find lobster rolls all up and down the Maine coast, you will have to 1. pay a high price for them during scarce lobster years such as 2021 and 2. choose your source with care. Much also depends on the kind of atmosphere you want. I find that lobster pounds such as Thurston’s offer the perfect balance between Maine coastal ambience and straight-from-the-ocean freshness. But you might not always be within easy reach of one. Just remember that, while the lobster itself may taste the same from place to place, its preparation will vary, and that’s what makes the difference.
Most importantly, kick back and enjoy the lobster.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann