by Dan the Traveling Man
During the summer, Essex is a popular destination to visit in the North Shore. Visitors especially love to eat at the town’s many seafood restaurants. One famous eatery is Woodman’s. For over a hundred years, Woodman’s has served some of the best seafood in not only Essex but the entire country! Critics from Forbes FYI and Zagat have claimed that Woodman’s has the “best seafood in America” and that it is “an American Cult Classic – right up there with baseball and apple pie.” The restaurant is so famous that it gets customers from around the world. In the summer, it can get up to 1,600 to 2,200 customers per week. I have been eating at Woodman’s ever since I was a kid and I have always enjoyed its seafood. I recently had the chance to sit down with its current owner, Steve Woodman, and learn more about the restaurant’s history.
Woodman’s began in 1914 by Steve’s grandparents, Lawrence “Chubby” and Bessie Woodman, who were the first inventors of the fried clam. In the beginning, their eatery was a small store that sold homemade potato chips and fresh dug clams. Chubby did the clam digging. However their business was not thriving, at first. Towards the summer of 1916, things started to change for the better. On July 3rd, there was a customer who noticed how business at the store was slow. He made a joke to both Chubby and Bessie that they should fry their clams to get more customers. Some of the other patrons at the store thought that frying clams was a silly idea because they have shells and could not be fried. On the other hand, Chubby and Bessie liked the concept. Eventually, Bessie shucked and fried up some clams and starting giving them to locals. They all thought the fried clams were very appetizing. The next day, the couple served more fried clams to more locals at the town’s Fourth of July parade. Since then, the store grew to become a successful restaurant.
According to Steve, Woodman’s was originally open only during the summer but later on, it became open all year round. Throughout the years, the institution began to cook other seafoods like scallops, shrimp, and lobster and it expanded to serve more customers. The eatery now has an upstairs section called the Top Deck where people can have oysters and cocktails. There is also a function hall known as the Essex Room, which is mostly used for weddings, business meetings, and birthday parties. Woodman’s has a retail shop, an ice cream section, and offers catering and clambakes for parties.
When I met up with Steve, he treated me to a fried clam strip plate with fries and onion rings. Usually when I eat at Woodman’s, I have the clam strips. Steve offered me a free cup of clam chowder and a cup of Ipswich Ale too. As always, the clam strips were quite tasty. They were chewy and pretty sweet while the fries and onion rings were both nice and crunchy. The Ipswich Ale brewed in the next town over was flavorful and refreshing. I went to Woodman’s on a very warm day so the beer definitely helped me stay cool. It was a large meal but I managed to finish it all.
Afterward, Steve showed me the restaurant’s several decorations. Many of them were old pictures of Woodman’s and it was interesting to see how the place has changed. It was hard for me to believe that Woodman’s was a small store front during the 1910s. I also thought it was funny that the fried clam plate used to cost only a dollar in 1957 because it now costs twenty dollars due to high demand.
Woodman’s is a spacious restaurant with plenty of tables and bench chairs. It has a big serving station with several condiments to choose from and a section where you can order a variety of drinks. According to Steve, he likes to serve local beers such as Ipswich Ale, Greenhead IPA, Harpoon IPA, and Sam Adams. In fact, Woodman’s was the first place outside of Boston to serve Sam Adams. It is nice to know that a famous attraction like Woodman’s supports local businesses.
Overall, Woodman’s is a spectacular place. It is one of the best restaurants to experience traditional New England cuisine. I am thankful to Steve Woodman for showing me around and the free food! Also, I am grateful for the free cookbook of recipes by the Woodman family for generations that Steve gave me. I love to cook so I look forward to trying their recipes. For more information on Woodman’s, click here.