Lobsterpalooza: Tails of the City

How do we love lobster? Let us count the ways: Piled atop buttered rolls. Plucked alive from icy tanks. And in some cases, so much that our traditional boiled lobster dinners may be at risk (!). Presenting our indispensable, unabashedly gluttonous guide to New England’s favorite summertime dish.

First up: Three weeks. Twenty lobster rolls. One woman’s quest for the perfect summer sandwich.

I am obsessed with lobster rolls. At least I was until I oh-so-graciously offered to test every one in Boston. Or nearly every one; like any good reporter—in this case one facing an upcoming wedding, and wedding dress—I pared down my list based on recommendations from chefs, friends, and chowhounds-about-town. That left me with 20 rolls, served either cold, as they are in Maine, or hot, the Connecticut way.

First, my criteria: The bun had to be simple. Traditional hot dog rolls are my favorite but I’d make exceptions for brioche and French baguettes. The meat should be fresh and with enough chunks to prove it was hand-chopped, not processed. The dressing shouldn’t mask the flavor of the lobster—that’s what you’re paying for, after all. Finally, based on the theory that the closer I got to Maine, the better the roll would be—they do get the freshest haul—I’d stay within Boston’s limits to keep it fair. Sorry, North Shore. Maybe next time.

My quest taught me two things: who’s got the best lobster roll in town (keep reading), and that nothing spoils a passion like overkill. These rolls tested my metabolism and my cholesterol levels, not to mention my career conviction. What follows are my top 15. (And in case you’re wondering, yes: The dress fit.)

B&G Oysters
550 Tremont St., 617-423-0550.

Quite possibly the world’s most perfect lobster roll. The bun is Pepperidge Farm and packs a full 8 ounces of meat, dressed with a little lemon aioli, chive, and celery. It’s a top-heavy torpedo requiring a few preliminary forkfuls, but once it’s up and in, it delivers a deliciously balanced bite. ($24) 5 out of 5 stars.

Neptune Oyster
63 Salem St., 617-742-3474.

Neptune’s decadent sandwich partners warm butter-basted claw and tail meat with drawn butter and butter-soaked brioche. Diners whose lobster roll experience is limited to the cold variety might be loath to try this hot alternative—but they’d be making a huge mistake. ($19) 5 out of 5 stars.

James Hook & Co.
15–17 Northern Ave., 617-423-5500,
A man wearing waders and looking as if he’s just come back from raising a trap pulls a roll out from behind a glass display case. I finish it in about five bites. This is a classic: a hot dog bun filled with salad dressed in nothing more than celery and a little mayo, which, while plain, perfectly complements the freshly picked meat. Plus, at $10, it’s the best value in town. ($10) 4 out of 5 stars.

Belle Isle Seafood
1267 Saratoga St., 617-567-1619

Blink and you’ll miss this counter-only shack perched disconcertingly close to the edge of the Winthrop Bridge. But tiny waterside shanties always seem to get seafood right and this is no exception. A still-warm grilled bun, a leaf of iceberg lettuce, and huge chunks of chilled lobster make Belle’s the best reason to get lost in East Boston. ($15.99) 4 out of 5 stars.

Nine Zero Hotel, 90 Tremont St., 617-772-0202.

The décor at swanky Spire is an affront to clam stands everywhere. So it comes as little surprise when my roll arrives containing corn, tomato, and bacon. I’m skeptical, but one bite convinces me that the crunch of the kernels, the smokiness of the swine, and the silkiness of the lobster meat together pack some serious flavor. Nestled into a toasted roll, it’s delicious and (gasp) utterly stylish. ($18.50) 4 out of 5 stars.

199 Clarendon St., 617-536-3500.

“Boston’s biggest lobster roll!” screams the menu. And it’s true. The extra-wide bun, overflowing with shiny red, parsley-flecked meat, nearly covers the plate, forcing me to abandon the hands-on approach and go for a fork-and-knife assist. Ten minutes later, I find myself polishing off the last bite, shocked by (and at the same time not a little bit proud of) my capacity. ($21.95) 4 out of 5 stars.

The Barking Crab
88 Sleeper St., 617-426-2722.

This is the way lobster rolls should be eaten: out of a plastic basket while sitting at a waterfront picnic table. Though it looks like a flattened panini, the Barking Crab’s roll—a French baguette stuffed with shredded lettuce and topped with respectable chunks of mayo-laced meat and a dash of vinegar—is as authentic as its setting. A pile of pickles, coleslaw, and crispy fries adds to the beachside feel. (market price, about $16) 4 out of 5 stars.

Summer Shack
50 Dalton St., 617-867-9955.

I’m greeted at the door by the smell of Old Bay Seasoning and fried fish. Both good signs. The roll—a six-inch standard-issue hot dog bun, buttered and griddle-toasted—really rocks. But as I dig in, I encounter an unwelcome ingredient: What’s with all the scallions? They are supposed to add depth but they overwhelm each bite. ($16) 3 out of 5 stars.

Turner Fisheries
Westin Copley Place, 10 Huntington Ave., 617-424-7425.

I almost feel guilty ruining the sculpture that Turner Fisheries calls a lobster roll: Brioche is cut into thirds, stood vertically, and stuffed until tufts of lobster salad peek out the tops. Inside, I find tender meat in a creamy dressing of thyme and tarragon mayo. Gimmicky? Sure. But this kind of clever structural engineering earns points in my book. ($16, available at lunch only) 3 out of 5 stars.

Rachel’s Kitchen
12 Church St., 617-423-3447,
Rachel’s Kitchen co-owner Alon Munzer, a Connecticut native, started making hot lobster rolls because he couldn’t find any like those he enjoyed as a boy. Now he tosses chopped meat with drawn butter and chives in a skillet and pours it all over toasted brioche from Iggy’s Bread. It’s far from fancy. But ask anyone from the Nutmeg State, and they’ll say it tastes like home. ($13.95, available on Fridays only) 3 out of 5 stars.

Tavern on the Water
One 8th St., Pier 6, Charlestown, 617-242-8040,
On a sunny afternoon, with the breeze blowing across the harbor, I take in the best view of Boston’s skyline and a roll that reminds me all too much of the tuna salad my mom used to make. (Was that Miracle Whip?) Luckily the super-fresh lobster meat outshines the sweet and creamy dressing, and leaves me licking my fingers as I tuck into a huge pile of crunchy, golden fries. ($15.95) 3 out of 5 stars.

Legal Sea Foods
26 Park Place, 617-426-4444.

What Legal’s doesn’t get right with its roll, which is flimsy and resembles a sinking canoe, it makes up for in meat, sizable half-inch lumps packed with fresh, briny flavor and citrus notes. And if the bread disintegrates into a soppy mess at the finish, it does lend a soft, buttery accent. ($18.95) 2 out of 5 stars.

Kingfish Hall
188 Faneuil Hall Marketplace, South Market Building, 617-523-8862.

Todd English wins points for the coolest-looking accompaniments. Hand-cut potato chips come served in an upright metal coil alongside dishes of baked beans and coleslaw. At about 8 inches long, the roll itself also makes a statement. The whole thing might have had me at hello had it not been so low on meat and so very high on salt. Looks, apparently, aren’t everything. ($18.95) 2 out of 5 stars.

Union Oyster House
41 Union St., 617-227-2750.

There were no lobster rolls on the original 1820s menu at Atwood & Bacon, now the Union Oyster House. In fact, there was no lobster at all since their focus was oysters. It’s a theme they should have stuck to, considering their roll arrives as a haphazard pile of limp lobster layered on a slightly stale bun. The appeal of this place is clearly its history—Daniel Webster and JFK both dined here. But that doesn’t mean the feeling of old should extend to the food. ($19.50) 1 out of 5 stars.

Atlantic Fish Co.
761 Boylston St., 617-267-4000.

Okay, seriously: Enough with the mayo. Lobster drowning in butter is one thing. But when it’s masked by globs (and globs) of mayonnaise, nothing can erase the lingering aftertaste. The service? Quick and friendly. Scene? There are few better spots for people-watching. Sides? Hand-cut fries are a keeper. Lose the excessive dressing and I promise I’ll come back for a second try. Just maybe not until, say, September, when swimsuit season is over and my cholesterol has leveled off. ($20, available at lunch only) 1 out of 5 stars.