For the most part, Cape Cod swings reaction over revolution when it comes to dining out. And, let’s be honest: Annual Memorial Day to Labor Day pilgrims, as well as those committed year-round weekenders, still largely expect what the region’s leisurely lore prescribes: pudding-like New England clam chowder; mutant, often flavorless lobster rolls; and, habitual seafood fried, fried, and extra fried.
What’s refreshing is how eating on Cape Cod has grudgingly evolved, providing alternative pastures for seasoned diners who understand there must be more out there. What the casual visitor may not realize, is that there’s inherently much more to Cape Cod’s cultural and edible DNA than meets the immediate eye. I first witnessed and wrote about this years ago, and in the span since, additional seeds have taken root. (You can find my other stalwart Cape Cod favorites here.)
Beyond the generic, tourist-pandering seafood and any-town pub fare, the region masks a rich pedigree of centuries-old Portuguese ancestry and a fabled, if suppressive, Native American origin story. Add in the equally dismissed but newly-relevant colonial American heritage of New England at large, a region still home to thriving small farms, fisheries and artisan producers, and it becomes striking what still remains to be exploited by the area’s most thoughtful restauranteurs and chefs.
Thankfully, every year is a new year. Below is a non-exhaustive handful of my most recommendable Cape Cod restaurants and food experiences right now. Some new, some old, some just a moment in time, these are a snapshot of why Cape Cod is more than its outdated guides often give it credit for.
(Note: The islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard were not included in this coverage.)
PB Boulangerie – Wellfleet, MA
From the sunrise lines snaking along its front patio, stacked deep with hungry commuters hellbent on scoring a box of the Cape’s gold-standard croissants before the daily stock depletes, to its reservations-required dinnertime bistro menu that rivals any restaurant in the region, Wellfleet’s PB Boulangerie should sit on every visitor’s food bucket-list. French-born chef and owner Philippe Rispoli, who himself has cooked under some of the best chefs in the world (Paul Bocuse, Charlie Palmer, Daniel Boulud, Joël Robuchon), supports the energetic spirit of his restaurant, serving francophile classics with locally-minded values. Closer to the Falmouth area? Access to equally fantastic French pastries, at least, can found at Maison Villatte, the more recent and limited venture from one of PB Boulangerie’s original founders.
The Canteen – Provincetown, MA
This sunny, ever-busy eatery along Provincetown’s Main Street is a refreshing new outpost in a town paralyzed by a succession of dull, familiar eating experiences that cater more to fanny packs and shirtless peacocks than diners craving something more. And, don’t let the counter-service formula trip your mainframe: Canteen may be one of Provincetown’s best casual spots to dine right now. Cape Cod familiar fare is given personality and, at times, a global nudge with hued takes on classic seafood rolls, easy sandwiches, tacos, and sides. Don’t miss next-door Happy Camper, run by same passionate owners Rob Anderson and Loic Rossignon, as a fun pitstop for homemade ice cream, popsicles, and donuts on-the-go.
Sunbird Kitchen – Orleans and Wellfleet, MA
Clever and neighborly, Sunbird Kitchen is where area year-rounders go for superior-but-easy daytime eating. The brick and mortar (its food truck sibling can be found along Highway 6 in Wellfleet) anchors an otherwise overlooked strip mall in Orleans and has become a community hangout uncharacteristic of others in the vicinity. Sunbird Kitchen scratches the neighborhood’s itch for a top-quality coffee spot, grab-and-go detour for seasonal baked goods, and as a destination for serious sandwiches. Sunbird is where locals go to feel special, and in-the-know tourists go to feel apart of the club.
Clean Slate Eatery – Dennis, MA
This tiny and unassuming dinner-only address along Route 28 in Dennis shows what’s possible when homegrown kitchen talent with big ideas returns to roost, with community ethos in mind. With just two fixed seatings of 14 guests per night (the most prized real estate being at the L-shaped dining bar), owner and Cape Cod native Jason Montigel and his youthful kitchen team are offering their immediate community a type of elevated dining experience that remains otherwise largely alien to their neighbors. Improvisational without any of the noted pretension of more self aware counterparts elsewhere, Clean Slate Eatery never commits to a set menu, instead navigating diners through courses based entirely on what’s best, local or preferred. The restaurant also succeeds by knowing exactly what it’s capable of. For those hesitant about committing to an otherwise blind multi-course journey, Clean Slate Eatery balances any true adventure with familiarity and approachability, keeping diners who want more just as satisfied as those who might display anxiety about their own bandwidth for the unknown.
Pain D’Avignon – Hyannis, MA
If your idea of a perfect Cape Cod dining setup ranks waterside tables, weathered shingles, or anywhere-else fried seafood, Pain D’Avignon may seem like an itinerary outlier. Located inside a hangar-like warehouse in the shadow of the Barnstable airport in a less-charming sliver of Hyannis, the concealed French-inspired cafe and bakery charms as you walk in. Some of the Cape’s most desired breads and pastries (think airy, caramel-colored croissants and dark, brittle-crusted baguettes), all call sale at Pain D’Avignon, along with a sentimental menu of classic bistro dishes, sandwiches, salads, and daily specials. What tourists may weather in out-of-the-way atmosphere, they will gain relief in exceptional eating.
The Buffalo Jump – Falmouth, MA
Due to a self-inflicted scheduling mixup last summer, it pains me to say I had to forgo my reservation at The Buffalo Jump. I look forward to rectifying my regret this summer.
I first ate at Ribelle, the once consistently appreciated, if locally ahead of its time, restaurant in the inner Boston ‘burb of Brookline a couple of years ago and was fast struck by its restless point-of-view. I wanted to know more. It was easily one of the more thought-provoking and delicious meals I enjoyed that entire year, anywhere, and I was left with an explicit impression and curiosity for who’s helping drive the kitchen.
Fast forward to last year, when I learned that one of Ribelle’s kitchen stars, noted chef Brandon Baltzley, was shunning the big-city (and media) glow of Boston, or beyond, to invest in a new project in the Cape Cod culdesac community of Woods Hole, I immediately signed up to the hype.
After causing a local stir during a momentary run at the revamped 41-70 restaurant, the unfiltered Baltzley and his wife Laura quickly jumped to greener pastures, literally, with a weekly pop-up dining concept called The Buffalo Jump at nearby Coonamessett Farm in Falmouth. Self-described as “modern native cuisine” and offering no published menu, The Buffalo Jump takes the prevailing biography and lip-service of the eager farm dinner and thoroughly walks the walk, featuring almost exclusively local or obscurely indigenous ingredients found, raised, caught, or grown, in immediate proximity. What The Buffalo Jump presents is a modern (and relevant) interpretation of the quiet genetics, historically and just beneath the surface, that should make Cape Cod’s food culture much more significant than it is today. Thanks to what’s happening at The Buffalo Jump, that might be happening sooner than we think.
Whether or not the oft-filtered community and tides of tourists can authentically appreciate what’s happening at The Buffalo Jump remains to be entirely realized. Though, there are promising signs. After what appeared to be a busy season last year, the Baltzleys recently announced the return of their distinctive dining product for a second season this summer. Reservations are mandatory and very limited, and are now open online. Also follow The Buffalo Jump’s digital exploits on Instagram.