Fried clams are very important to me, but I have restrictions. In the winter I must pretend they don’t exist. My avoidance is not quite at the white-pants-after-Labor-Day level, but close. They can be cross-country-skied off but even snow shows up less reliably than a fried clam’s fat on a thigh. Only after Memorial Day do I declare open season on fried clams.
This year, on behalf of this Eat and Run column – really, it was for work – I jumped the gun a bit with a trip to Gurnet Trading Co., my favorite lobster and quick fried clam stop on the way from Brunswick to Harpswell. It’s the old reliable, a place where I can sit outside, eat excellent clams and drink beer with my dog at my feet and my son gobbling chicken fingers nearby.
The fried clam dinner is always market price and it’s $16.95 on the day I visit, so I have to break the $10 budget we typically set for Eat & Run. That’s not to say I couldn’t easily eat at the Gurnet for $10 (the fried haddock sandwich, at $8.50 for a basket, is a steal; one of my sisters never orders anything else). But the clams, which are shucked on premises and as owner Julie Soper says, never sit around in gallon buckets as they might in some restaurants, are worth it. Plus I (almost) always have enough left over to bring some home for an appetizer of clams that night. The basket is more like a bowl, brimming with golden clams piled on top of decent french fries. The clams are whole belly and arrive crispy and perfectly done – they don’t get soggy near the bottom and the coating doesn’t peel off in sad chunks the way it does at some lobster/clam shacks. I squeeze some lemon over the clams and open up the plastic tub of unremarkable but perfectly fine tartar sauce. Paper plates, plastic silverware; it must be almost summer.
I had the choice of potato salad or coleslaw but does anyone ask for potato salad with french fries? I’m not wild about the Gurnet’s coleslaw; it’s neither the full-out creamy mayo explosion that I find simultaneously horrifying and enchanting, nor is it the vinegar-centric version that at least makes it reasonable to consider you’re having an ounce of vegetables with your pound of piggery. Nonetheless, I eat it all. I’ve skipped the beer, being on the clock and have a Nantucket Nectars Half & Half instead. It feels like serious spring out there, even though it’s only 58 degrees on the day I visit. (After that winter, 48 degrees feels good.)
If I weren’t in the mood for clams, I’d have had the lobster roll, which is also excellent. Daily specials usually run in the $10 to $12 range and are as fresh and local as I’ve had. Actually everything is so fresh that the Gurnet is where I go for lobsters and scallops to cook at home.( Soper says she and her husband Brian, who does the diving, call themselves “scallop snobs” and it shows in the quality.) And my kid is happy with anything off the kids’ menu, which includes the usual hamburger, hotdog, fish and chips and grilled cheese options).
The Gurnet has a few bar tables inside and two outdoor seating areas, the most obvious of which is right outside the door and overlooking the parking lot. I’ve only eaten there once when I needed to flee a sudden rainstorm because my preferred spot is the bigger seating area which is more water-adjacent than waterfront.
There’s a cove at the bottom of a steep incline – nearby a staircase disappears into the brush down to the water but a sign sternly warns that it is just for fishermen making deliveries – so you only just catch glimpses of the deep green water through the trees. Maybe that’s why the Gurnet never feels like a tourist trap; you sense the presence of the water more than see it. The other reason is that most tourists are going to blow right by on their way down to Orr’s and Bailey Islands (the bridge to Great Island is just down the road from the Gurnet) looking for open vistas and more direct sunshine. The Gurnet lies in that in between zone: not town, not yet major seashore.
But there’s a bonus. Between the tangle of green leaves, the height from the water, the oilskin tablecloths and the fact that the parking lot is only semi-hidden behind a wooden fence, there’s something about this perch that feels vaguely Mexican. It’s Maine but not obvious Maine, if that makes sense. Sometimes betwixt and between is the sweet spot.
WHERE: 602 Gurnet Road (Route 24), Brunswick. 729-7300
HOURS: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday, kitchen opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 5:30 p.m.; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Open late in summer, usually until around 7 p.m.
WAIT: Rarely much of one, and if there are two people in front of you in line, you can spend the wait time checking out the lobster tank. Or the requisite kitsch on the walls.
PARKING: It’s not a huge parking lot, but there’s generally a spot or two open, except on a particularly gorgeous weekend day at lunchtime. Or in the honey-go-get-lobsters hour (4 to 5 p.m. by our clock).
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes, but not in the lower outdoor seating area.