Cape Cod's restaurant scene has come a long way from the traditional clam shack, even though those shacks -- where you can get lobster with all the fixings or a steaming, towering plate of fried clams -- are still the stuff of which Cape Cod memories are made. Today there are sophisticated restaurants, expensive places serving a sort of generic fine dining called New American cuisine. Some of these places are quite good, but be prepared to pay for it (on the islands, entrees have hit the $50 mark).
Cape Cod has long been known for its local seafood, and you won't find a restaurant anywhere in the region without seafood on the menu. Fried fish, especially fried clams, are considered the ultimate Cape Cod meal. Another favorite is lobster, broiled with butter sauce. But for more sophisticated fare, look for grilled fish specials, such as striped bass, in midsummer. Raw bars serve local oysters -- the ones from Wellfleet are world-famous, and Cotuit oysters are also notable -- as well as "steamers," which are steamed clams. The other type of clam you will see on menus is the quahog (pronounced "ko-hog"), which is often served baked, meaning that the meat is cooked and mixed with bread crumbs and then returned to the shell. Steamed mussels are also popular and are usually served in a garlicky broth. Scallops are another fixture on local menus; look for scallops from Nantucket, which are especially prized.
If you want boiled lobster but don't like to wrestle with it, you can order "lazy man's lobster," a dish that presents lobster meat that has been removed and placed loosely back in the shell. You can also order a lobster roll, which is cold lobster on a hot-dog roll, sometimes served with mayonnaise or lettuce. New England clam chowder is another local specialty; it is a creamy, white broth that is served with clams and potatoes (note that it is different from Manhattan clam chowder, which has a red broth). You will sometimes find clam chowder prepared with bacon or Portuguese spicy sausage, such as linguica or chorizo. Portuguese breads also can be found at local markets and on some menus.
Provincetown, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket are all considered foodie paradises. In Provincetown the easiest way to decide where to eat is to stroll up and down Commercial Street, checking out the menus. Although there are a number of expensive, fine-dining choices, Provincetown also has great inexpensive "street food," such as burritos at the Aquarium Shops, burgers at Mojo's on Macmillan Wharf, and crepes from the Outer Crepe, along with others that come and go with the seasons. Expect to find some taste temptations along Commercial Street, including choices for cheap eats.
On Martha's Vineyard, try Atria and Detente, in Edgartown, or Balance and Sweet Life, in Oak Bluffs, for a memorable meal. Trying not to break the bank is the problem on this island.
Nantucket is also well-known for having limited options for the frugal diner. Straight Wharf, Company of the Cauldron, or Galley Beach suit the "special occasion" bill. If you are on a budget, you might want to hit Broad Street for takeout food from any of the places along what locals call "the strip." There is some pretty good eating here -- my favorite is Stubby's -- for not too much money.
There are a number of excellent restaurants in Falmouth, including two Italian places on Main Street -- La Cucina Sul Mare and Osteria La Civetta -- that are worth the drive from the Mid Cape (at least that's what my Mid Cape friends tell me).
You can find tapas (Spanish-style small plates) in almost every town; the most promising locales are Embargo (Hyannis) and Chillingsworth (Brewster), a well-known fine-dining restaurant that now has a more casual bistro section.
Ambience is an important part of any dining experience, and the Cape is endowed with numerous waterside restaurants. Great spots with water views are Falmouth Raw Bar (Falmouth Inner Harbor), Baxter's (in Hyannis), the Red Inn (Provincetown), the Home Port (Menemsha), and Ropewalk (Nantucket). Note: Be prepared to pay extra for that spectacular water view.
Dining hours on Cape Cod are earlier than in most cities. Most restaurants open for dinner at 5pm and serve until at least 10pm in season and 9pm off season. Breakfast places serve from about 7am to 11am, and lunch hours are typically 11:30am to 2:30pm. But there are restaurants in every town that serve food throughout the day with no break.
At most restaurants on the Cape and islands, tips are not included on the bill. But there are some exceptions, particularly among the higher-priced restaurants, and generally when you are dining with a party of six or more people. Check your bill to be sure the tip has not been included, or ask your server. In general, a 15% to 20% tip is expected on meals. If you find fault with any aspect of a restaurant, ask to speak with a manager, but keep in mind that when a meal goes awry, it often is not the fault of the server.
The Local Brew
Cape Cod Beer (1336 Phinney's Lane, Hyannis; tel. 508/790-4200) has two main varieties, Red and IPA, and more than a dozen seasonal brews. Both Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket also have local breweries. On the Vineyard, Offshore Ale Company (30 Kennebec Ave., Oak Bluffs; tel. 508/693-2626) taps into eight varieties of its own beer. Nantucket's Cisco Brewers (5 and 7 Bartlett Farm Rd., Nantucket; tel. 508/325-5929) is famous for its brew called Whale's Tale Pale Ale. The brew is also available at many local restaurants.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.