Best Bites with Robin Goldstein: The lobster roll that dreams are made of

  • A lobster roll with sweet potato fries from the Williamsburg Snack Bar, served up heaping and cold-style. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Williamsburg Snack Bar STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 7/29/2022 5:50:23 PM

Warning to hipsters: The Williamsburg Snack Bar is not a shipping container in Brooklyn with kimchi buns and kombucha. Instead, it’s a Haydenville gem, one of the Pioneer Valley’s best-kept secrets for reasonably priced traditional New England food served indoors or out.

The unassuming restaurant sneaks up on you as you’re cruising down a peaceful tree-and-barn-lined stretch of Route 9. Then the picnic table parking lot garden of the Williamsburg Snack Bar and the vintage vibe of its white house with baby-blue trim turn it into a veritable Route 66.

Inside the house, it’s woody and airy. Pastel tables are painted with sayings that help you forget the world’s troubles. The restaurant is only a few years old, but its homeyness transcends time.

When I come in here, I roll. Lobster roll. This is one of the Valley’s best versions, and it’s a steal, by today’s benchmarks, at $18.99.

It comes two ways: hot or cold.

Of these, the cold lobster roll (chunks of lobster meat with a light coating of mayonnaise on a hot dog bun, aka the “Maine style”) is the correct order. Juicy, hand-picked meat — not just tails and claws, but also some smaller bits from the legs and body, which I like — is stuffed into an expertly buttered and griddled bun, with a lemon wedge and no other adornments. It’s the simplest and most delicious of all New England summer seafood pleasures.

The hot lobster roll, on the other hand, piles lobster meat fried in butter into a buttered bun and serves it with a cup of hot melted butter. This is known as the “Connecticut style.”

Hot lobster rolls are typically hawked along the New York side of the Connecticut shoreline and also found at a few hot spots in Boston that cater to tourists. You might call the hot lobster roll a poor man’s lazy lobster, except they’re not cheap. Let’s call it a winter lobster roll, because its heat and richness removes all the refreshment value of eating a proper lobster roll in summer.

The lobster roll is not the whole story at the Williamsburg Snack Bar. Every morning they wake up way before you do and the place turns into a breakfast mecca. People swear by the French toast, pancakes and eggs.

For me, though, what’s most unusual is seafood this good across the board at relentlessly reasonable prices.

The Williamsburg Snack Bar is a gift, and like all gifts, its hours are limited. Sunday through Wednesday, they only do breakfast and lunch (until 3 p.m.). Thursday through Saturday, they stay open until 7 p.m.

There are a few other great lobster rolls in the area. Scotti’s Drive-In and Meadowcrest Golf Range in Leeds is an unsung gem. This is the humblest of counter-service roadside shacks. There are a few picnic tables outside for dining in the sunshine or shade, and you’re right next to a driving range that’s usually open on nice days.

Scotti’s serves a generous lobster roll, with even more meat than you get at the Williamsburg Snack Bar. They pile the lobster on high and dress it with delightful restraint, leaving the focus of your palate on the sweet meat, which will give you the energy you need to whack golf balls after lunch. 

The shack is open daytime only in summer, usually until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. Call before you go, because they tend to open and close unpredictably, and they sometimes run out of lobster rolls.

Some other great local lobster rolls come from places I’ve already written about. Here is the list:

Captain Jack’s in Easthampton is the champion of Vegas-worthy lobster-meat poundage, at prices to match. There’s a well-made traditional lobster roll at Schermerhorn’s in Holyoke. The Big Y sells a compact but very affordable pre-packaged lobster roll. Good ones also sometimes appear seasonally at the Bluebonnet Dinerand at Coolidge Park Café in the Hotel Northampton.

Finally, there’s a beloved lobster roll at Local Burgy in Haydenville, just down the road from the Williamsburg Snack Bar, but I’m saving the Local Burgy story for a column this fall about BBQ.

I saved the worst part of the story for last: The villains in the hot lobster roll movement even say they “invented” it. They claim that the Connecticut-style hot lobster roll came first and was the only kind for decades before the Maine-style roll ever existed.

Unfortunately, their story checks out, at least based on some flimsy Google fact-checking. (Since there’s never an absolute truth in food-origin history, I don’t try too hard.) Apparently the lobster roll was created in 1927 at Perry’s Restaurant of Milford, Connecticut, just west of New Haven, and it was a hot one.

Milford is right around where they also start making Manhattan-style clam chowder and rooting for the Yankees. It is well known that the prime meridian dividing Red Sox country from Yankee country bisects downtown New Haven. To the west are strangers.

Many of our local chefs, like the ones at the Williamsburg Snack Bar, offer lobster rolls both cold and hot. We choose to be inclusive out here in western Massachusetts. It is our spirit. So in generous recognition that some visitors to the area might be western Connecticut equestrians or butter-dripping Yankees, we have no choice but to serve fantastic hot lobster rolls in addition to our far superior cold ones.

Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst, and the Five-College Area.” He serves remotely on the agricultural economics faculty of the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at rgoldstein@ucdavis.edu.

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