New England got a late start in the food game—for a while, it was basically fish, vegetables, simple soup, and whatever was dragged home from a hunt—but it has caught up, in spades. Today, you can dine exquisitely in this region, thanks to some unusually crafty producers and chefs, who use local ingredients to create such things as Maine honey-roasted pumpkin soup, seared Stonington scallops, roasted black sea bass with foraged mushrooms, and wood-grilled, prosciutto-wrapped Vermont rabbit.
Seafood is still king here. All along the coastline, live lobsters can be bought literally off the boat on docks or at lobster pounds. You can buy fried fish and clams at lobster and clam shacks almost anywhere on the coast, too. More upscale eateries in seaside towns serve the local catch of the day grilled or sautéed with an array of sauces.
Inland, sample local farm products such as the sweet maple syrup, sold throughout the region; it’s the best in the world. Look also for Vermont’s famous cheeses and cider; Maine’s tiny, tasty wild blueberries; and heirloom apples in western Massachusetts.
Every summer, small farmers across the region set up stands at the ends of driveways selling fresh produce straight from the garden. You can find berries, stone fruits, veggies, and sometimes home-baked items here. These stands are rarely tended; just leave what you owe, and maybe a bit of a tip, in the coffee can. Also watch for the appearance of “pick-your-own” farms in summertime. For a fee that’s typically less than what you pay in a store for the fruit, you fill up containers of strawberries or blueberries and take [‘]em home. Kids love this.
Restaurateurs haven’t overlooked New England’s bounty, either. Big-city chefs flock here every year to hang up new shingles and test themselves with the local ingredients; some restaurants maintain their own herb and vegetable gardens. Some of these places stretch the budget a bit, but plenty of others fall squarely into the “road food” category.
Here’s an abbreviated field guide to New England’s distinctively local tastes.
- Apples: Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut are all well-known for their fall apple harvests. Look for orchards in central and western Maine, the Champlain Valley, the Berkshire Hills, and the lower Connecticut River Valley. Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury (near Stowe, VT) is probably the most famous cider purveyor in the U.S.; you can watch the press (and the cider donut robot) in operation daily in the fall.
- Baked beans: Boston will be forever linked with baked beans (hence the nickname “Beantown”), but the dish remains extremely popular in parts of Maine, too. Saturday-night church dinners (also known as “bean hole” suppers) usually consist of baked beans and brown bread, plus pasta salads and the like. There’s a famous, century-and-a-half-old B&M Baked Beans plant in Portland, where beans are still slow-baked in 900-pound pots
- Blueberries: One sometimes gets the feeling that Downeast Maine’s economy would collapse without the humble blueberry. To taste it, look for roadside stands and diners from the Midcoast north, selling pies made with wild berries from mid- until late summer. These tiny blueberries (which grow on low shrubs on wind-swept rocks or hilltops) are much tangier than the bigger, commercial variety. You can even pick your own pail of berries, for free, high on the slopes of certain hills such as Blue Hill Mountain and Pleasant Mountain. Look for the bush’s egg-shaped, glossy, tealike leaves.
- Cheese: Cheese is a Vermont specialty: Cheddar is the most common variety (you can buy a huge “wheel” of cheddar at any country store worth its salt), but goat cheeses are starting to make a serious run, too. The Northeast Kingdom and Connecticut River Valley are especially rich in cheese. Take a cheese-factory tour in Grafton or Shelburne Farms to see what goes into your cheddar, or scour a natural-foods store (often called a “co-op” in Vermont) for cow and goat cheeses produced by nearby farms.
- Clam chowder: The obligatory soup of choice, New England clam chowder consists simply of chopped clams, potatoes, milk or cream, and some butter, flour, and/or salt pork to thicken the mixture. Rhode Islanders eat a clear-broth version, which makes it easier to spot the tender bits of just-dug quahog clams.
- Fish chowder: This coastal dish is the simplest one. In its purest form, fish chowder consists of the day’s catch of chopped-up white fish (cod, haddock), enough milk to satisfy a small animal, peeled potatoes, and a nice big chunk of butter. No thickener, cornstarch, or flour—please. This dish is best enjoyed with an ocean view, a square of blueberry cake, and a
- cup of bad coffee. And in the fishing villages of coastal Maine, that’s exactly how it’s still served to legions of tired and hungry local fisherman as they trundle in after long, cold days out on the water hauling nets or traps.
- Johnnycakes: A Colonial recipe largely lost to time, the Johnnycake still survives in the odd Rhode Island wayside diner: heavy pancakes made from cornmeal and molasses rather than the usual wheat flour and sugar. It's one of Rhode Island's many idiosyncratic food specialties, despite the state's small size.
- Lobster: You can buy freshly steamed lobsters at pounds in most Maine fishing towns, usually from a shack right near the main fishing pier. The setting is often as casual it gets—maybe a couple of picnic tables on a patch of lawn. Eating lobster “in the rough,” as they say, is still not the most authentic way to go. That would be a traditional lobster bake, in which the crustaceans and other fixings are nestled in seaweed atop fiery-hot rocks in a pit at the beach. Lobster rolls consist of lobster meat plucked from the shell, mixed with just enough mayonnaise or melted butter, then served on a buttered hot-dog roll. You’ll find them everywhere along the coast.
- Maple syrup: Nothing says New England like maple syrup. You can buy the stuff in any of the New England states, but the best is made in New Hampshire and Vermont. Visit in late spring (the last week of March is recommended) to get a close look at the process at local sugar houses. Sugarmakers boil up sap and ladle sweet syrup onto pancakes, ice cream, or snow to let you sample before you buy. And you will buy.
- Boston is forever linked with baked beans (hence the nickname "Beantown"), which are popular throughout the region. A Saturday-night supper traditionally consists of baked beans and brown bread.
- Clam chowder: The obligatory Boston dish of choice, clam chowder consists simply of chopped clams, milk, and some butter, flour and/or salt pork to thicken the mixture up into soup form. Interestingly, Rhode Islanders eat a reddish version incorporating tomatoes or tomato soup in lieu of the milk.
- Johnnycakes: A Colonial recipe largely lost to time, the Johnnycake still survives in Rhode Island's wayside diners. They're heavy pancakes made from cornmeal and molasses rather than the usual wheat flour and sugar.
- Lobster rolls: Lobster rolls consist of lobster meat plucked from the shell, mixed with just enough mayonnaise to hold it all together, then served on a hot-dog roll.
- Maple syrup: Nothing says New England like sweet local maple syrup. You can get the stuff in all six of the New England states, but the best is supplied in New Hampshire and Vermont. Come in late spring for open-house days at the local sap houses, where sugar makers boil up the sweet stuff and ladle it onto pancakes, ice cream, or snow.
- Shellfish: Mussels, oysters, clams, and scallops can all be bought at fish markets up and down the coast—raw (if you’re renting a cottage), steamed, or fried. Look for them on restaurant menus, too. Be sure to know how to choose fresh bivalves at the market if you’re cooking for yourself; a single bad one can make a person mighty sick.
- Smoked fish: Fish-smoking isn’t a huge industry in New England, but it does exist, especially in Downeast Maine. That’s not really surprising, given the huge supply of smokeable fish living just offshore.
Made in New England
Early in the 20th century, the Maine soda known as Moxie actually outsold Coca-Cola. Part of its allure was the fanciful story behind its 1885 creation: A traveler named Lieutenant Moxie was said to have observed South American Indians consuming the sap of a native plant, which gave them extraordinary strength. This “secret ingredient” was key to the drink patented by Maine native Dr. Augustin Thompson, which was initially marketed as Moxie Nerve Food. The backstory is a bunch of malarkey. But the bitter beverage is still quite popular in Maine, and you won’t know if you like it until you try it. A tip: Sip it slowly, ice cold.
The New England Confectionery Company (hence the name) in Revere, Massachusetts, has been making powdery NECCO wafers since 1847. Rescued from bankruptcy in 2018, the company also produces Mary Janes, Candy Buttons, Clark Bars, and that annual Valentine’s Day must: Sweethearts conversation hearts.
Granted, Moxie and NECCO Wafers may be somewhat acquired tastes. But who doesn’t love ice cream? New Englanders in particular can’t seem to get enough of the stuff—and some of the best is made up in Waterbury, Vermont, at the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory. Those trademark black-and-white cows on the label make even more sense as you drive through Vermont on your way to take a tour of the operations (and get a free sample at the end!).
The Craft Beer Revolution
No survey of food and drink in New England would be complete without serious mention of beer. New England has nearly 350 microbreweries, including some of the most acclaimed operations in the nation.
The beers of Vermont, especially, are legion—and they’re often in the places you’d least expect to find them: northern Vermont towns such as remote Greensboro (Hill Farmstead Brewery), the college town of Middlebury, and Waterbury, which has the most breweries per capita of any town in the United States. Massachusetts has over 140 microbreweries, including standouts in Worcester (CraftRoots Brewery) and Great Barrington (Barrington Brewery). You can even find a microbrewery in the woods of Damariscotta, Maine (Oxbow Brewery).
Once you get to the cities, the situation gets even better. The concentration of mini-breweries in both Burlington, Vermont and Portland, Maine actually staggers the mind. Boston standouts include Samuel Adams and Harpoon (not micro anymore) and nimble newcomer Trillium Brewing Company, which has been stealing their thunder. Resurrected brand Narragansett has transformed a derelict mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, into one of New England’s largest brewing operations.
There are literally hundreds more. Go to any package store—or even a local gas station—and check the refrigerator section for local finds.
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.