A Detour to Essex

If you approach or leave Cape Ann on Route 128, head west on Route 133 to Essex. It's a beautiful little town known for Essex clams, salt marshes, a long tradition of shipbuilding, an incredible number of antiques shops, and one celebrated restaurant.

Legend has it that Woodman's of Essex, 121 Main St. (tel. 800/649-1773 or 978/768-6057; www.woodmans.com), was the birthplace of the fried clam in 1916. Today, the thriving family-owned eatery is a great spot to join legions of locals and visitors for lobster "in the rough," chowder, steamers, corn on the cob, onion rings, and (you guessed it) superb fried clams. In warm weather, people from all over the world flock here, especially on the way back from the beach. In the winter, the crowd is mostly locals desperate for a taste of summer (pass me a moist towelette, please). The line is long, but it moves quickly and offers a good view of the regimented commotion in the food-prep area. Eat inside, upstairs on the deck, or out back at a picnic table. You'll want to be well fed before you set off to explore the numerous antiques shops along Main Street. The restaurant accepts credit cards, opens daily at 11am year-round, and adjusts closing time seasonally; check the website or call ahead.

As with most cult-favorite foods, the fashion is to be contrarian and say that Woodman's is too crowded and too many people know about it. I disagree, but if you're interested in comparison shopping -- in the interest of science, of course -- two other excellent destinations are open in the summer only. J. T. Farnham's, 88 Eastern Ave., Essex (tel. 978768-6643), lies about a mile east of Woodman's; the Clam Box, 246 High St., Ipswich (tel. 978/356-9707; www.ipswichma.com/clambox), is a little over 7 miles northwest of Woodman's. Both are cash only.

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.