My wife is spending much of the summer in Vermont. The other day, after bemoaning the fact that she wouldn’t be in Newport when the rest of the world will be, she decided to go to a clam shack. Despite all the beauty of the Green Mountains, she knew she was missing a certain type of summer here, and she found it with her lobster roll, even as she overlooked an ocean she’d dare not dip her toes in. The idea was, eating that lobster roll on Easton’s beach was summer in this corner of the world; summer in a shack.
What clam shacks have above all else, whether relatively young or several decades old, is a sense of character and heritage. Though clam shacks are a feature of New England in general, Rhode Island is called the Ocean State for a reason and we’ve got at least one shack anchoring virtually every town running up the East Bay: Flo’s Clam Shack in Middletown, and the original drive-in in Portsmouth, Anthony’s in Middletown, Quito’s in Bristol, Amaral’s in Warren and Blount’s mini empire stretching from Warren to East Providence to Fall River, to name a few.
Inside the Shacks
Evelyn’s Drive-In is the picture postcard clam shack in its purest form: Unpretentious seafood, a family atmosphere and a setting lost in time. Tucked a little out of the way in Tiverton, it is one of those rare places that you might feel you had discovered if you were just passing through. On further inspection you’d quickly realize that instead, it’s a little universe that people are making a detour for. While you can eat indoors as well, Evelyn’s best spot is the row of covered picnic tables which overlook Nanaquaket Pond. Especially at sunset, there’s a pervasive serenity to the place that might seem at odds with the chowda stains on your shirt from overenthusiastic clam cake dunking. Husband and wife owners Dom and Jane Bitto have owned the place since 1987. Jane describes her clam shack scene best: “Being on the water, the dock, kids feeding seagulls, the square red building and shells in the parking lot.”
Like so many clam shacks, Evelyn’s is a family affair. As the name suggests, Evelyn DuPont was the original owner of the shack, and as she got ready to retire to Florida, it was by accident that Dom stopped in for a bite and heard the place was up for sale. Dom had it in his mind to find a restaurant, as that was his parents’ business. Dom and Jane didn’t quite walk in their parents’ footsteps so much as hit the ground running. Married in September, they took over Evelyn’s for the Fourth of July, one of the busiest days of the year. Along with family, they put their heads down and worked 90-hour weeks. Jane explains, “we didn’t know who was working when, and Evelyn didn’t keep a schedule, she did it all from memory. People were just coming in and leaving. We had to ask Evelyn how much they should get paid.”
At first they ran the place just as Evelyn had, with a lot of support from the local community. As time went on and they found their feet, Dom and Jane kept improving things and offered new menu items alongside old favorites like Evelyn’s Lobster Chow Mein. Improvements, yes, but there was no great reinvention, and no question of changing the name. Likewise, Flo’s Drive In in Island Park (Portsmouth) remained Flo’s despite the change in ownership, when Komes Rozes took over decades ago. The Flo’s name, though not the building, had survived four hurricanes, three requiring a complete rebuild, it would be wrong for it to fall to a change in owners. History has weight with clam shacks, a rare thing in an industry with a short memory.
On the subject of change, Stephen Bucolo, owner of Anthony’s in Middletown says he wants to spruce up the 15-year-old decor and wallpaper born of the shoestring budget he used to get the place up and running. But his dad stops him every time. Stephen’s dad Anthony still frequents his namesake restaurant, and waits in the same line as everyone else, stretching past the market in front with the fish on ice. He tells Stephen, “don’t change it, it’s perfect,” and dad clearly holds some weight. Like so many clam shacks, restaurant history and family history are the same thing.
While on the surface much remains fixed, Anthony’s is always looking to tweak things. The growth of Anthony’s menu over time shows a desire to cover as many seafood palates as possible, for example, popular demand led to his recent addition of hot-buttered lobster rolls. Menu changes at Anthony’s also reflect a broader increase in more health-conscious clam shack goers over the years. While fried food is still a big part of any clam shack, especially fried clams of course, grilled fish like swordfish, tuna, as well as baked dishes and the old staples like lobster rolls and boils are a far bigger proportion of sales than before. Salads with grilled fish are now featured on Anthony’s menu, along with side salads rather than fries on request. Evelyn’s and others are doing likewise; Evelyn’s added salads and broiled seafood, and offers grilled as well as the typical fried scallops. Rest assured, neither clam shack would abandon its roots. Everyone is part of a conversation about health, but Jane of Evelyn’s reassures us: “A clam shack is still a clam shack.” Stephen still loves his fish and chips, and Jane waxes lyrical about the perfect fried clam.
Clam shacks may not be fine dining, but they aren’t fast food either; historically they predate that business model and thankfully, many of its compromises. As the sign at Evelyn’s Drive In reads, “If you’re in a hurry, you’re in the wrong place.” While their menu is efficient by nature and necessity, they don’t have that sense of commodified efficiency by design. Take the buildings for example, the original Flo’s Drive-In in Middletown in 1936 began as a modified chicken coop, and their more recent location is in an old seaside cottage. Blount Clam Shack reprised this improvisational spirit in 2005. Their modern day shack in Warren started with a single trailer, combined with a big tent to cover the outside seating.
But Where Do all those Clams Come from?
Clam shacks have to deal with the moods of fresh seafood. While the volume of seafood a clam shack can churn through during the busiest part of the summer is impressive, they can’t just get more boxes sent in from a factory. All the clam shack owners I spoke to were very much on top of ensuring quality in all the seafood they were bringing in, and most had a family history to other aspects of the seafood industry. Anthony’s uncle for example, provides his fresh seafood out of New Bedford, and his family have worked every aspect of the seafood business: fishing, lobstering, processing, fish markets, wholesale and retail, and of course restaurants.
Quito’s in Bristol exemplifies the cozy relationship we see between market and the clam shack. Quito’s began as a fish market and bit-by-bit more food service was added, to the point where the market was completely eclipsed with the restaurant we see today. While Quito’s on the inside is definitely a seafood restaurant, roll up to the take out window outside after a ride down the East Bay Bike Path, and you’ll have a different sense of the place. As you close in, you’ll see groups on benches overlooking the Bay at Independence Park, tucking into Quito’s fare. Rest assured, their take out menu is as clam shack as can be.
And what of the people on those benches? The people you’ll see, fishing with their spoon for that last chunk of clam in their Rhode Island clam chowder, or rolling flecks of batter off their fingers, are from all walks of New England life. They’re both tourists and locals, eating the populist food of New England. We’re there for the grub first of course, but like my wife, we’re also there for the summer tradition of it. The owners are owners first, but they’re also stewards of that tradition. As the world changes, and the world of food keeps changing around them, in some ways, clam shacks are our roadside landmarks of summertime.
What's in a name?
Evelyn’s is named for Evelyn DuPont, the original owner who started the shack in 1969. In 1986 Evelyn decided to retire, and handed the reins to current owners Dom and Jane Bitto, a young Boston couple who have owned the shack ever since. Retirement didn’t suit the industrious Evelyn, who ran another New England seafood restaurant in Florida for a time.
Flo’s Clam Shack
Flo’s is so named for the late Flora Helger. Flo and husband Diamond owned the drive-in shack since 1936. Perhaps shacks is more accurate because of some other names, Carol, Donna, Gloria and Bob: four of the five hurricanes that either severely damaged or destroyed Flo’s entirely. When Komes bought the shack in 1978, Flo and Diamond both stayed on for about three weeks teaching him all the homemade recipes they still use today. He remembers how one day during training he was late for work: “Flo grabbed me by my ear and led me outside where she pointed at the sign with her name on it and said, That is my name don’t be late again and disappoint my customers!”
Owner Stephen Bucolo says he “gives all the credit in the world” to his father for his own success now, and that’s true in the name of his place. Anthony tackled every aspect of the seafood business through the decades until a heart attack forced him into retirement. His two sons took up the mantle, and their goodwill with the community served them well, as the restaurant thrived despite lease increases forcing a move to Middletown.
Joanne and Peter Quito started Quito’s as a fish market in 1952. The market gradually began selling a very limited selection of food, and added a couple seats here and there. Over time a restaurant emerged from the market, and son Al Quito completed this transformation with outside seating facing toward the Bay, and a more refined menu.
Amaral’s Fish and Chips
Amaral’s is approaching its 30-year anniversary in Warren this year. While it's now at 4 Redmond Street, and used to be a couple blocks down, very little else has changed for the Amaral’s restaurant. Octogenarian Zelia Amaral is still making sweet bread.