Consider the lobster roll, a toasted and buttered roll filled with perfectly cooked lobster meat. Besides fried clams, it’s hard to think of a dish that’s more closely associated with summers and road trips to New England beaches.
Lobster rolls come in two varieties: hot with melted butter or cold with mayonnaise (and, sometimes, celery). While the cold one is known as the “traditional” preparation, history has actually shown that the first lobster roll was served hot with drawn butter and was made in Connecticut, not Maine.
Which one is better? Chefs behind some of Boston’s favorite lobster rolls weigh in on which style they prefer and which restaurants are worth driving to for a good one.
“It makes sense why they’re so popular,” says Daniel Karg, executive chef at Neptune Oyster in Boston’s North End. Tourists and locals brave wait times that reach two or three hours just to have the warm or cold lobster roll here as well as other pristine seafood specialities. “We go through 125 to 150 lobster rolls a day,” Karg says. “I’d say that in the summer 60% of the lobster rolls we sell are the hot kind and in the winter it goes up to about 85% to 95% hot.” Funnily enough, Karg has actually never had the beloved lobster roll that the restaurant serves. “I don’t really like lobster that much,” he says with a laugh. “I love making our lobster rolls, but I‘ve never actually eaten one.”
Chef Doug Rodrigues of the recently opened North Square Oyster is a fan of Neptune’s hot lobster roll and serves his take on the classic hot and cold versions on his seafood-focused menu. When he was putting together the menu, he knew he had to keep both versions simple and delicious.
“Lobster rolls are one of those dishes where you change one thing, and people freak out and write about you on Yelp or whatever,” Rodrigues says. He uses lobsters from his hometown of Scituate and makes a cold version with Duke’s mayonnaise, celery, salt, and pepper and a hot version with brown butter. For him, the hot version plays on the most simple pairing: bread and butter. “There’s a reason why bread and butter is good shit,” he says.
“You can tell the places that do it well and the places that don’t,” says chef Brian Dandro of ArtBar in Cambridge. At his restaurant, the cold lobster rolls are made with freshly shucked lobster meat lightly dressed in a lemon aioli. In the winter, the restaurant serves a hot version with a champagne butter sauce. “If I had to pick my favorite version, I would say the cold one because it’s so simple,” he says.
In the summer, Dandro takes road trips to Wells, Maine and Essex, Massachusetts for his favorite lobster rolls. “On a hot summer day, there’s nothing better than a cold lobster roll with perfectly cooked lobster meat.”
In Portland, Maine, the lobster roll at Eventide Oyster is known for being one of the best in the area, but Andrew Taylor, co-chef and co-owner of the restaurant, didn’t think that they would ever be known for this dish. “We knew we needed to have it on the menu,” he says, “but it’s ironic to hear people say that they like our lobster roll because we specifically wanted to stay out of that.”
Their roll bucks tradition by using Japanese steamed bread as the bun instead of the traditional griddled hot dog bun. The meat inside is also chopped finely and swimming in brown butter. “I like both the cold and the hot kind,” he says. “When I go out, I like the hot one, but at home, I like to make the cold ones.”
Eventide is getting a sibling in Fenway’s Boston neighborhood this year, and though the concept will be a bit different, there will definitely be a lobster roll on the menu.
Cold or hot, the lobster roll is an immovable part of New England dining, Taylor says. “It’s like a piece of Americana, like gumbo or jambalaya.” Ask any of the chefs above if they think the lobster roll is a must-have summer staple, and you’ll get a resounding yes.
“If you grew up on the water in New England, it’s just a part of summer,” Rodrigues says. “You have lobster, and you have butter or you have it cold, that’s just how it is.”