A Tale of Two Lobster Shacks
There’s a bridge and a slow road that passes through the town of Wiscasset—the old coastal Route 1—and a queue that snakes down Main St and onto Railroad Avenue. The source of this patient waiting doesn’t look like much, really, a low building that slopes on the pavement in faded red and white, an American flag jutting out from the side and a sign overhead that reads Red’s Eats. This is the most famous lobster shack in Maine and, in all likelihood, America.
Like with all things that are massively popular, Red’s might be the best restaurant in the country, a sacred purveyor of the lobster roll—an entire crustacean stuffed in a brioche bun and doused in butter, or massively overhyped, a Netflix-fuelled tourist trap, the source of the town’s infamously crawling traffic… or it might be a bit of all of them. What is objectively true is that people will queue on a little slice of pavement for two hours for a chance to order.
A woman with a megaphone emerges from the shack and announces that “Red’s has won Maine’s number one lobster roll!” The crowd cheers and applauds. They already know. “There’s really no secret to this amazing lobster roll,” says Debbie Gagnon, the CEO and GM of Red’s, a smiling beacon in a red baseball cap whose father took on the site in 1977 and turned it into a success story.
“We take these fresh, locally-made, New England-style buns and Shannon rolls them on the butter and grills them to perfection. She passes them over to Sam who puts claws on either end, she’s going to stuff the middle with ripped up tails, claws and knuckle, we don’t measure, we just pile it high! We catch the lobster over at Boothbay Harbour, literally the next town! We then serve it with Kate’s Maine butter, or extra heavy mayonnaise.”
“When people come to Maine, they think lobster!” says Gagnon, gesturing around her tiny kitchen and a single window that will serve thousands of people throughout the season. “And this is Maine!” We sit on plastic chairs on an outdoor seating area (the veranda is under construction after a truck crashed into it a few weeks earlier. No one was hurt.) There’s lobster, so much lobster, deep fried scallops, onion rings, and cans of something called Moxie, a New England soft drink that tastes like Irn-Bru took a wrong turn on the way to the bottling facility.
The sky is a heavy autumn grey, DebbIe flits in and out to check on our lunch before rallying the crowd with the megaphone. “Get ready for the best lunch in Maine!” It’s good, it’s great, it’s early lunch and a show.
On the opposite side of the traffic-choked road is Sprague’s, a ramshackle assortment of cabins and benches in the same red and white palette as Red’s. There’s less of a queue and a seating area that faces out towards the Sheepscot River. A point of pride among more contrarian diners is that Sprague’s doesn’t have the same queue or sense of fervour surrounding it. Families mill around the deck and join the short line. In an adjacent shack, Frank Sprague, wearing a lobster-print shirt, sticks whole lobsters into a steaming stainless steel pot. Flags printed with images of lobster and crabs flutter in the breeze overhead.
Experts reckon that the Sprague’s offering is slightly brinier and maybe not quite as heaped as it’s over-the-road neighbour. We order lobster and crab rolls and clam chowder and stare out towards the shallow water and skeletal trees, trying to avoid the glassy-eyed terror of the local seagulls, jacked up on some of the world’s best seafood. As expected, it’s delicious. It’s all delicious. Which is better? We’re going to, as they say in these parts, plead the fifth on that one.
Speaking to the Portland Press Herald earlier this year, Debbie Gagnon commented on the perceived—but non-existent—rivalry between the two family businesses. “We get asked this every day. Those are my friends over there. We’ve all been friends for years. My boyfriend and I go over to listen to David (Sprague), who’s Frankie’s son. He’s in a band, and we hang out with them. I always say to people that it’s more important to support local than to choose sides.
“There’s enough sun for everyone to get a tan.”