Gorging in Gloucester

Bounty of the Sea

By: - May 23, 2022

After a hiatus of some three years, between Covid and recovery from spinal surgery, Astrid and I spent a week in Gloucester. We made a pilgrimage to the ancestral homestead, Beaver Dam Farm in Rockport. Spent time with my sister Pip in Annisquam. Did research for a memoir we are working on together, visited old and new friends.

Memorably, it was a week of feasting on the bounty of the sea in iconic Gloucester restaurants.

Back in the day with schooners and dories the men of Gloucester fished primarily for cod, haddock, American pollock, witch flounder, halibut, tuna, swordfish, Canadian plaice, yellow tail, herring, silver hake, menhaden, rosefish, goosefish, bluefish, wolfish, mackerel, smelts, northern shrimp, American lobster, steamer clams, razor clams, quahogs, mussels, scallops, and in recent years sea urchins a delicacy in Japan.

A once thriving industry has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Too few trawlers and draggers set sail. There are still lobstermen and up line the clam diggers of Essex. Enough to provide fresh off the dock ingredients for restaurants.

There are the expensive tourist trap restaurants but we eat with the natives off the beaten track. Unfortunately the word has spread and these fish shacks are packed.

Fortunately we visited in mid May which is still early or pre season. The weather, however, was simply glorious.

The other tactic is to hit the joints at off peak hours.

After a long drive from the Berkshires with brutal rush hour traffic on Route 128, we reached our destination, late in the day. It was nicely located across from Gloucester Stage and round the corner from Rocky Neck. But its two great restaurants, The Rudder and the Studio, had not yet opened for the season.

It was 6:45 when we arrived at Charlie's Place a local seafood hangout. While their hours are posted until 7pm and normally 7:30pm  they were shutting down on a Thursday night for lack of business. We managed takeout with two “bowls” of fish chowder, lobster bisque, and a large order of calamari.

In that it was a hop, skip, and a jump from our lodging we returned for an overwhelming breakfast. For the rest of the week we had breakfast at home. But packing up on the last day we visited the legendary Zeke’s a world class destination for breakfast. It turns out the owners were also our “innkeepers.”

Our first day was busy with three hours of research at Annisquam Historical Society. Normally, it is closed but there was a meeting from 9 to 12. With Pip and Astrid we pored over laser prints of some 2,000 scanned, vintage, glass plate negatives. From which we hope to negotiate some for our book in progress Pip and Me: Growing Up In Annisquam.

After which Pip provided a lovely soup and salad lunch on the deck. We soaked up the first rays of the season. Then visited my former colleague, the artist Gabrielle Barzaghi, and her husband Randy. They live in the woods near Dogtown Common.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the finest fish house in New England, the Causeway. The ambiance can be cacophonous but off peak it was tolerable.

We didn’t see lobster on the whiteboard menu of specials. Our friendly waitress said she would check. It seems they had just gotten a shipment and we went for broke.

It was $26 each for pound and a half lobsters with two sides. That’s about what restaurants are charging for a lobster salad sandwich.

Astrid had the time of her life cracking the shells. Shall we say that it was a highlight of our trip.

At Causeway you must have a heaping bowl of fish chowder ($11). It’s so full that the fish stands up and barks. The abundance come from the fact that the restaurant has its own boats so there is no middle man from sea to table. Causeway is unmatched for quantity and quality.

We returned the following day for a super spread. I went for full orders and steamers and mussels while she had a hankering for the dinner of smelts. There were bowls of clam broth and mussel wine broth.

The waitress recognized  us. “Oh,” she said, “You’re the lobster people back for more.”

Had we time for another visit I would have ordered the baked haddock dinner ($23) which is immense, or the fried oysters ($24) that a neighboring diner recommended.

Another day we visited Rockport with stops at Halibut Point and Pigeon Cove.

Overall, Rockport is more quaint, precious and touristy than working class, down and dirty Gloucester. Back in the day it had three classic restaurants; The Blacksmith Shop, Peg Leg and Oleanna's by the Sea.

The Blacksmith Shop was original and baked stuff lobster was prepared on the forge. As kids we loved the “make your own sundae” deserts. There was seating overlooking the harbor. Alas it fell into disrepair and is waiting for someone to invest in costly renovation.

The Blacksmith Shop next door is a small café with no resemblance to the former landmark. The former Peg Leg is now an upscale inn.

There were limited dinner options. We declined Roy Moore’s Lobster Company which is too pricey on the cusp of Bear Skin Neck.

Parking is also an issue but we lucked out. It was precisely 5 PM and Brackett’s Ocean View Restaurant was just opening. Though we did not have a reservation as early birds we were given a choice table with spectacular ocean view. As we dined the tables filled quickly.

Our waitress was super friendly and the venue seemed familiar. I asked her “Is this the former Oleanna’s by the Sea.” The answer was yes indeed after major renovation. She goes back and we talked about the iconic Finnish food on the former menu.

Despite the charm and ambiance the food was disappointing. The fish cakes ($17) fell short of their touting on the menu. The newburg sauce sounded enticing but was barely visible under two tough, dry, deep friend clumps. Astrid fared better with grilled fresh fish. The best part of the meal was the mussels appetizer. They were huge with an intriguing sauce.

Pip had us for a wonderful family dinner on Sunday. It featured fresh salmon and haddock. I brought the Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

On Monday night, as usual, we went for the cateplanas specials at our Gloucester favorite The Azorean. Fortunately it has survived Covid. We were joined yet again by my artist colleague, Harry Bartnik, and his wife, the conservationist, Mary Reilly.

We all ordered the same special seafood cataplanas. It comes in its own domed pot. They had enough for leftovers the following night. While I wiped up every last morsel of the delicious sauce with fresh bread.

On the way back from a day at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem we dined in much changed Beverly. There has been a massive influx of development related to the commuter line. The town has become a bedroom community for Boston. We made a bad choice for an expensive and basically lousy Anmol Indian restaurant. The mixed grille tandori was a dried up mess likely refired from the previous day.

After another busy day we hit Charlie’s Place again being sure to arrive by 6:30. I had the cod cheeks which is a poor man’s version of scallops. Astrid had an avocado BLT. Like a scene from Five Easy Pieces it was “Hold the toast.” I ordered a cup of clam chowder which was a major mistake. It was the usual library glue with potatoes and a soupcon of clam. You don't need to travel to Gloucester to get that.

My mother made the best chowder. It was fish or clams, potato, softened onions, with milk and a can of condensed milk. Careful to heat but not boil the milk. The final touch was a bar of sweet butter and sprinkle of paprika

Our friends Jay Jaroslav and Susan Erony, Gloucester artists, hosted us for dinner. It was lovely baked haddock with a medley of vegetables. The evening was notable for me climbing three flights of stairs which is a milestone of my recovery. I didn’t even break a sweat.

There was so much to discuss and catch up on. While a curator at the Cape Ann Museum Susan worked on a study of Gloucester artists. That proves to be crucial to my current research. Driving home Astrid noted that we had conversed for four hours. How we regret not seeing them more often.

For our final adventure Pip took us to lunch the famous Farnham’s in Essex. It overlooks a tidewater marsh and has outdoor seating. But the weather was too brisk for that. I had the pricey fried clam (full belly) plate. It comes with onion rings and fries. Pip, a vegetarian, had a veggie burger which was big enough to split with Astrid.

Packing up for the trip home we hit Zeke’s Place for a hearty breakfast. I had Irish benedict which meant the eggs over hash and English muffins. Astrid tried the Phoenix Oyster Mushroom Omelet with their home grown mushrooms, bacon and onion. She thought there was more bacon than mushroom. She bought mushrooms and made wonderful omelets.

After week of so much fabulous seafood I am now on an all beef diet.