Co-proprietor Gary Knowles proudly presents the first lobsters of the '06 season. Forget about crabmeat stuffing, thermidor or fra diavolo. Dining al fresco is best kept simple. You get melted butter and a wooden fork, and can order boiled or roasted. Prices go up a bit each year.
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Best Non-Fried Clams we've tasted are the wood-fire roasted "specials" at The Place in Guilford, CT, serving hordes of hungry clam fans since Spiro T. Agnew was Vice President and a new Cadillac cost less than six grand.
You can also get great lobster, chicken, shrimp, mussels, fish, steak and corn. BYOB or buy a soft drink. If your kids are finicky eaters, it's OK to bring in burgers or McNuggets from nearby McDonalds.
Tabletops and people perch on tree stumps. The ground is paved with stomped-on clam shells. A big tent-top will shield you in a drizzle; but fire and cooks can't be waterproofed, so stay away if it's raining hard. Wal-Mart is across the street, and a big farmer's market is five minutes away -- it's easy to spend an afternoon in the neighborhood.
The Place is on the Boston Post Road (US Route 1), about a mile west of the water tower. It's open from late April through October. If you're coming from the west, take I-95 to exit 57. From the east, use
exit 59. Call for hours: 203 453-9276. You can make a reservation for a group. Come hungry.
I discovered The Place in the early 1960s, when it was known as "Whitey's," and run by Whitey, a
Popeye look-alike. Whitey was really Harold Alonzo Miller, and he put up a sign that said, "There's no place, anything like this place, anywhere near this place, so this must be the place."
After Whitey sold the place, the place was re-named, "The Place."
The center of activity is a huge wood-burning fire surrounded by a cinderblock and brick wall about 4'
high. Wire mesh baskets and grids are suspended over the fire, and hold your clams, lobster, shrimp, fish, steak, chicken or corn for cooking. When your clams are done, the grid is brought to your table -- a round or oval piece of red plywood mounted on a thick piece of tree trunk -- and you eat.
In the old days, when Whitey was at the helm, he'd deliver your clams, wearing enormous fireproof gloves, with a stern warning, "Don't you ever touch that wire. It's HOT."
Cooking and eating are outdoors, so don't bother going in a rainstorm. I once called in early December to see if they were open. I was surprised and thrilled when they said "yes." When I got there, they were selling Christmas trees, not clams. Fooey!
The food is magnificent. First-timers may start with a dozen littleneck clams, but professionals like your humble clam master order three dozen to start with and can easily scarf down five or six dozen. My personal best was 12 dozen, in 2004.
Figure on an ear of corn for each 12 clams. (NOTE: despite their great taste, you probably won't want to eat more than six ears at one time.) Get some lobsters and shrimp and maybe some chicken and fish and steak. Let everyone at the table share each dish, dress to get messy, and have a good time.
Four enthusiastic eaters could easily spend $100 or more. You can pay with cash or a check. Credit cards are not accepted. Soda, shirts and souvenir shirts and hats are available, but adult beverages are not. It's OK to BYO beer or wine.
© Popeye picture might be copyrighted by King Features Syndicate, Inc
Clams cook on wire grids supported on steel rails over hardwood fire. The shells open from the heat, then the top halves get torn off,
the secret sauce gets squirted on, and then the clams go back on the fire to blend the sauce with the clam juice. If you're a wimp, you can skip the sauce, and save a few cents. BE CAREFUL: sometimes the heat makes the shells brittle.
The menu has grown over the years, but don't expect to find hot
dogs or burgers. If your kids don't like clams as much as these two do, you can bring in burgers or McNuggets from nearby McDonalds.
Before the place became THE PLACE, original owner Whitey said he
cooked the food on "iron wood."
Present owners Vaughn and Gary Knowles worked summers for Whitey, and now admit to using oak and poplar instead of iron.
Allison (left) slurped down 26 specials. Younger sister Michelle didn't finish her first dozen, but did beat Ali in corn: four ears to two.
Clams stay on the fire until the heat causes the shells to open. Lobsters and shrimp are roasted in foil. Corn gets cooked in their husks, on top rack.
Once you taste corn roasted in the husk, it will be tough going back to corn from the can. It's gonna get messy! The Place is not the place for fancy clothes. The corn has LOTS of butter. Leave the prom gown and tuxedo at home. Lobster bibs and foul weather gear are more appropriate attire. Corn gets eaten like a giant lollypop, with the peeled-back husk serving as a handle.
If you're a professional eater who wants a BIG MEAL, without food getting cold before you can devour it, ask your server to schedule deliveries to your table. Figure about 10 minutes to eat two dozen clams and an ear or two of corn.
Newcomers, fancy folks and amateurs eat the clams with forks. Pros prefer to slurp from the shell.
Tree stump chunks can be hard on the hiney. To be kind to your
behind when you put your rump on the stump, bring a seat cushion.
Color coordination is nice.
Waitress Vanessa Knowles is much more polite, and a lot prettier, than old Whitey was. She's the daughter of one of the present owners, and niece of Whitey's first waitress, Barbara Knowles.
Aunt Barbara was brought to tears when Whitey fired her for not making a pot of water hot enough. He later went to her house and asked her to come back, saying he had scolded her publicly so customers would be sympathetic and give her bigger tips. One regular customer used to tip $1 for a 25-cent ear of corn. Corn costs
more now. It's worth it.