Without competition, this is the most famous lobster roll on earth. People rarely find out I write about lobster rolls without asking about Red’s. It’s been on countless shows, Food Network, Travel Channel, there have been books written about it and if you’ve ever driven down Rt 1 in Maine between April and November, you’ve probably found out about it by sitting in traffic for hours while people wonder at the huge line. It is also the most polarizing lobster roll. People either think it is the very best lobster roll anywhere, to which all others are compared, worth waiting in line for hours and doing just about anything to get your hands on the gold standard of lobster rolls. On the other hand, are those who think it is a complete tourist trap, only frequented by suckers willing to wait that long for mediocre lobster meat, piled, over refrigerated, on a hot dog bun. So, where do I stand on the controversy? I have to say that I can’t really put myself in either camp, I think I’m somewhere in between. I’ve actually eaten this lobster roll several times. The first time, I waited in line for an hour and 15 minutes and felt like a prime sucker, since it is a bit of a personal policy that I never wait in a line that takes more than maybe 10 minutes. After that, I figured out a hit or miss method of getting the Red’s lobster roll without much wait, which maybe I’ll share.
Before I get into the actual lobster roll, let’s start with the line and ambiance. Red’s is a tiny little shack, in the most basic sense, at the edge of a bridge in Wiscasset, a cute little town with lots of antique shops. Red’s has several tables up behind the shack and across the street some picnic tables by the water. While it is technically a water front view, I would hesitate to tell anyone to go there looking for that since most times you will be staring at a long line of traffic and inhaling exhaust fumes. The tables rarely seem filled, particularly in relation to to monster line. Which leads me to my biggest beef with Red’s. I think they actually work hard to make sure that the line stays long at all times because it draws attention and brings them more business. I just can’t imagine that someone could possibly be that inefficient at running a food stand. I’ve seen lemonade stands run by 5 year olds that are more efficient. I’ve waited in many a line in my life and I guess that’s what led me to wait in line that first painfully long time. The line just didn’t look that long, it stretched around the stand, maybe 20 people. It took me about 20 minutes of standing there to realize I had moved maybe a foot. By that time you feel invested, I mean you already wasted 20 minutes, it can’t be that much longer right? By the time an hour hits you want to really kick yourself or someone nearby, but you’ve waited this long, no way you’re turning back now without eating this damn thing. Finally, after all remnants of patience have run out and I realize that no lobster roll could ever be this good, I reach the promised land, the window.
The woman there is very pleasant, a little too pleasant, as if we have all the time in the world and there aren’t 30 people behind me. How am I today, what would I like, do I know how much that is, am I sure I don’t want a drink, the sides really are delicious, let me tell you about them. Finally she gets the point that I’m not up for the idle chit chat, I’ve waited more than long enough, she takes my money and I get a number. It’s then that I realize that this one woman is not just taking the orders, she is also filling them, one at a time, with all the care of fine china, even pouring each cup of butter out of a tea pot, one at a time, even if there are 3 lobster rolls lined up, she walks back and forth. By all the care in the world, I don’t mean to imply that the end result looks any different than what an efficient restaurant worker would turn out, this woman was obviously never a waitress, certainly not a quick one. I mean, for goodness sakes, the place is known for one thing, lobster rolls. Would it be so wrong to just start making them before people order, have them ready, and move people through, maybe even an express line for lobster rolls. I mean every one is exactly the same, it’s not like you have to wait to see how the customer would like it.
Well, I did assume everyone was there for the lobster roll until we got to the window and the woman in front of me orders a grilled cheese!?! Are you frigging kidding me, I nearly strangled her, you mean to tell me you took up valuable space and also waited in line for an hour and fifteen minutes for a frigging grilled cheese?!?!?! I’ve been to many a food window in my travels, even waitressed quite a few places for years, and never, have I seen such an inefficient, slow, and frankly thoughtless and without an ounce of care for the fact that your customers are waiting in the heat and sun for your product for a wholly unnecessary amount of time.
After I left that time, I started thinking that maybe it’s just a small shack, they probably never ran or worked at a restaurant before and this is just how they have been doing it for many years and doing it any other way just never occurred to them. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, it’s just a little mom and pop shack that got very popular and is trying their best to deal with that. That’s what I thought until the next time I went a few weeks later around 7pm (yes, that is my hit or miss trick). There were three people in line in front of me and it took 15 minutes until I could place my order. It’s ok, I was trying to be understanding and forgiving. Until I got to the window and asked the woman where was the long line? She responded “Oh, they’ll be lining up any minute, they always do, it stretches around the corner”. Um, usually if the dinner crowd isn’t there by 7, they’re not coming. The gal cleaning tables in the back confirmed my suspicion “oh yeah, we’re always dead in the evenings”. That confirmed it for me, they bank on those lines to draw bigger lines. Maybe it’s genius, but it feels inconsiderate to repeat customers, who I couldn’t find a one of in my first wait line, we were all first timers. Agree or disagree with my theory, I mean, I’ll still eat it when I can because I happen to like the lobster roll, but I always feel like I’m being shafted.
So, how’s the actual prized lobster roll? Well, it really is a pretty thing to behold, two half tails artfully curled on top of the whole roll, with two whole claw perfectly placed so the spongie peeps out each end ever so delicately and knuckle pieces underneath. The meat is served cold and naked on a standard wondertype, butter grilled bun. You can have melted butter, mayo or both on the side. I can see why it’s so popular just from looks alone, there really are only about 3 other places in Maine that serve the uncut tail meat (Boothbay Lobster Wharf, Clam Shack and Derosiers), and it really does give you the feeling that this is exactly what you wanted, lobster, the whole thing, lazy man style on grilled bread. But, uncut tail can also be an optical illusion, particularly when it’s piled on a measly standard hot dog bun.
I’ve heard many people say this is the largest lobster roll in Maine. Well, in a word, no, not by a long shot. It’s unwieldy because the meat doesn’t fit the bread, but it weighed in just under 7 ounces, which is about just higher than average weight for most lobster rolls. About 5 ounces is on the low end (keep in mind weight includes bread and toppings and Red’s has no toppings), 6-7 ounces seems about average, but I’ve had standard lobster rolls weigh in at over 11 ounces. Specifically Boothbay Lobster Wharf, only a few miles off Rt 1 from Red’s and also with uncut tail meat, but way better, and rarely a line. You could drive down to Boothbay Lobster Wharf, have way bigger, tastier, fresh caught and cooked by the establishment, huge lobster roll and be back before your friend waiting in the Red’s line is even to the window. I would strongly advise that move, if of course, you can sucker a friend into waiting while you bring them back the Boothbay version, so you can sample both.
So, the lobster meat itself, it really is superior lobster meat, tender, tasty, briny, absolutely among the top lobster meat served on a lobster roll in Maine. It has that fantastic texture and taste of fresh picked lobster meat at its best. Here’s the thing, the meat is sourced from Atlantic Lobster Company in Boothbay, where they cook, pick, and ship the meat to Red’s. I had this confirmed by several lobster folk in Boothbay and I also saw a truck with a license plate that said Reds in the parking lot. No joke, why I didn’t take a photo is beyond me. Though, it’s not like it is a secret, I’ve seen it mentioned in other articles and I’m sure the delivery truck arrives regularly. By the way, the very same delivery truck also delivers the very same lobster meat to Sprague’s across the street. Sprague’s chops up the tail meat, mixes it in mayo and it weighs about half an ounce less than Red’s, but yes, the very same lobster meat.
I have a very big problem giving any sort of “Best Lobster Roll on earth” title to a place that serves someone else’s product and does absolutely nothing to alter it and make it their own. Maine is full of lobster shacks run by lobstermen who catch, cook and serve their own lobster roll, the way they think it should be done. And many more that locally source live lobster, then cook, pick and serve. I just have to respect the authenticity of that much more than serving someone else’s quality product. Red’s main contribution to this lobster roll is to artfully arrange the meat on a hot dog bun and hand it to me in the slowest manner humanly possible.
When a place serves Gifford’s ice cream, I don’t say that x restaurant has the best ice cream. I say that x restaurant serves Giffords ice cream and I think that is the best. Same with Boars Head meats, a deli serving Boar’s Head meat sandwiches, no doubt serves a good sandwich, but is it fair to compare that sandwich to another deli that cooks their own meats from scratch that taste just as good or better? Particularly for such a regional cuisine as a Maine lobster roll. I agree that some places, yes in Maine, cook their own lobster meat, maybe even catch it and it just isn’t nearly as good as the Red’s lobster roll. In that case, I agree, Red’s is better. But, when you are stacking it up against the great lobster rolls in Maine (Five Islands, Boothbay Lobster Wharf, Clam Shack), which most people do, I just don’t think it’s fair to compare an assembled lobster roll to a lobster roll created from scratch.
This is why Clam Shack remains the best for me, because of the three greats (the other two are Five Islands and Boothbay Lobster Wharf, kind of a tie), it is the only one that also uses from scratch bread, not mass produced. The only other places anywhere that I have had that both cook their own lobster and use from scratch bread are Muscongus Bay Lobster and Sanders Fish Market in Portsmouth. Muscongus could use more meat and Sanders could use tail, but that’s all that’s keeping them out of the top three. I would say that those five are my elite category of lobster rolls, the best of the best. Red’s would fall into the next category down for me. They serve probably the prettiest lobster roll in Maine, extremely good, among the best. I even like dipping the lobster roll in butter instead of having it poured on cold meat to coagulate or sog up the bread.
If you’re ever driving by and see a somewhat short line, I strongly recommend that you at least try it out. No one will ever trust your opinions on lobster rolls if you haven’t eaten it at least once, but it’s also worth going back for. I don’t think any food on earth is worth waiting over an hour for, ever. This is a great lobster roll, among the best, but not in the top tier for me.
Weighed in at 6.8 oz.
Visited several times, last in July 2012