Times of change.
Laden with seafaring potential and New England bounty, at times the harvest delivered on Cape Cod doesn’t always match its geographic and human charms⎯even though it should.
From the area’s nutritious dirt, fertile for agriculture of all casts; its waters, perfect for stocks of fish, mollusks and crustaceans; and its chronicled fabric of colonial American, Portuguese, Italian and French Canadian pedigrees, Cape Cod should already be sucking on a silver spoon. In some cornered aspects it is, though with research. To the majority of lacquered tourists in fact, who flock to the seaside peninsula and islands each summer, I know they sure think it is. To genuine food lovers though, initial novelties of clam chowder, fried clams, lobster rolls and mom-and-pop homemade ice cream shops can all-too-often fade into gluey, chewy, overcooked and sweet beyond repair. One can paralyze quickly with this repeated cycle of gut-busting monotony. Food-wise Cape Cod as a region hasn’t always lived up to its inherent, God-given potential. Most gratefully, in the past 3-5 years however, things seem to be slowly evolving.
Smarter, sharper restaurants have begun sprouting, finally allowing the fantasy of a genuinely satisfying meal⎯after your tenth night of fried, fried and fried⎯not seem the stretch it had any longer. After spending ample summers on the Cape for the better part of the last decade, I’ve decided to expose a little run-down of such eye-openers. Albeit brief (and by no means comprehensive), the list below should help direct any visiting food enthusiast, wary of the generic trappings of stale Cape Cod eating, to brighter horizons. If for nothing else, to set off on sound footing.
Mac’s Shack: (Wellfleet, MA)
Upscale, bustling cousin of the Mac’s Seafood Co.’s family of salty establishments, Mac’s Shack delivers a full sushi bar, a manned raw bar and a rotating, seasonal roster of forward-leaning menu items⎯energetic, regional fare with refreshing worldly framings. The sushi product itself is indeed some of the best found anywhere on the Cape (though not exactly a tight race due to lacking local inventory to begin with), and the outdoor bar area alone is lively and optimal for people watching, full of polite but posing WASP-y mugs⎯pretension tailored enough to be tolerable, but after a second glass of wine, nearly enjoyable. Ordered notables on my most recent visit: briny oysters; lobster risotto, rich with local corn, oyster mushrooms and mascarpone; and, a hefty crab cake, layered atop a spicy bacon and corn salsa, and a brush of chive cream.
Wicked Oyster: (Wellfleet, MA)
Packed into a charming, historic colonial home, the Wicked Oyster is another altered take on the local upscale dining experience. With its weathered, original hardwood flooring, creaking with every jerk of your chair; and, its lemon-colored walls displaying expressive local art, the space is cozy, simultaneously uplifting and reserved. A casual breakfast and lunch service is presented early in the day before a daily afternoon closing to prepare the restaurant for its more formal, serious dinner service. Menu carries a wind of seasonal, playful California cooking, mixed with the gravity of sturdy New England traditions. Light buttermilk, tempura-like fried calamari; smoky, porky clam chowder; and, a cycling range of daily seafood specials quickly make the grade.
Sesuit Harbor Cafe: (Dennis, MA; no official website.)
I’ve already written about this buried Cape Cod jewel several times (detailed last year by yours truly HERE), and still consider it one of the best no-fuss seafood stops in the area. If for nothing else, their lobster rolls. They do deliver⎯sweet, mouth-melting meat, flipped with enlivened (read: seasoned) mayonnaise, lazily packed into a classic, toasted New England hot dog roll. All things considered, a satisfying carnage. The cafe’s graveled, waterfront patio overlooking Sesuit Harbor can’t be a hinderance either⎯quintessential Cape Cod.
Trevi: (Mashpee, MA)
Located in Mashpee Commons, an upper Cape outdoor shopping and lifestyle center (naming aside, think New England version of Phoenix’s Kierland Commons), Trevi continues to surprise. Food-wise generally western Mediterranean, the menu focuses strongest on coastal, southern Italian, with noted Greek and Spanish blips. A casual lunch of sandwiches, salads and daily specials give way to a more sophisticated and creative offering of smaller plates intended to be shared, for happy hour and dinner. An expansive wine list and knowledgeable bar staff make for added indulgences. The modern indoor space plays with high tables, wide pendant lamps and dark woodwork throughout.
Bleu: (Mashpee, MA)
Modernized French that fails to disappoint. Also located in Mashpee Commons, Bleu is a casual, quiet lunch spot turned confident and high-er caliber as the sun sets. The menu is bistro-lite French with regional New England airs. A cozy bar area, separated at one end of the restaurant, is a welcoming corner to process the day’s thoughts over wine and well-made cocktails. It’s true, sometimes I visit late just for a nightcap.
Siena: (Mashpee, MA)
Consistently rated one of the top upscale Italian haunts on the entire landmass, I’ve always been cynical about this Mashpee Commons’ mainstay. And, I’m always (for the most part) made to eat my thoughts humbly with each visit. Modern, restrained atmosphere consistently brimming, Siena manages to serve a wholeheartedly tasteful range of pasta dishes and elevated pizza. Let the wine flow my friends, it’s a good choice.
Osteria La Civetta: (Falmouth, MA)
One of my biggest revelations this year. Discovered entirely at the benefit of local hearsay, and not, per usually, any sharp research skills on my part (ahem), Osteria La Civetta was a discovery I will not forget on subsequent visits to the area. Completely un-Cape, this charming Italian eatery has edge. Fresh, pointed, seasonal Italian food, all appropriately portioned, sauced and seasoned. This is not a Little Italy red-sauce mudslide, this is a well-designed experience overflowing with a serious European sensibility. The entire menu written in Italian, the lightning here is the selection of homemade pastas, breads and daily specials. Heavy on the seafood, Osteria La Civetta also pays homage to the local community’s noted oceanic abundance. A chilled pasta salad of the day, with buttery, firm rigatoni, piled with Italian ham and artichokes atop a plate of mixed greens; and, a bowl of thick spaghetti, twined with cubes of fresh tuna, basil, parmesan and a sauce made nearly entirely by the broth of blistered cherry tomatoes, were both definite kicks to the head⎯full of flavor, and precisely what a sour outlook (and appetite) needed that day.
Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium: (Falmouth, MA)
Homemade, rich ice cream is to Cape Cod what empty coffee mugs are to my desk⎯on every corner, and unavoidable. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, the time-tested ritual of crowding mom-and-pop ice cream spots after dark, that last treat for children before heading home for their bedtime rituals, is an Americana time-warp unyielding in these parts. As twilight creeps, with towns closing up and cars alien on worn roadways, the ice cream shops remain long-lined with families, patrons foggy for the cold and creamy. Moving beyond the wispy sentiments however, much like finding worthy seafood on the Cape, locating the best ice cream here can be equally as strategic. Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium in downtown Falmouth (with a few sister locations New England-wide), is easily one of the better examples of the truly homespun. As “chocolate emporium” states in the title, many may not realize their ice cream overrides, but the antiqued retailer of all things fudge, chocolate and hard sugar truly shines with the frozen sweets. Their version of the popular New England-centric flavor black raspberry is hands-down one of the selected crowd favorites.
* Photog note: Apologies, all above photos taken with my camera phone.