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Woodman's of Essex: Birthplace of the Fried Clam, Classic New
England Seafood Restaurant in Essex, Massachusetts
Article and photos, unless otherwise noted, by Eric Hurwitz.
created on 5/4/2018.
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Woodman's of Essex in Essex, Mass. Photo credit: Massachusetts
Office of Travel and Tourism.
Essex, Mass. feels like a rite of passage into a
quintessential small town New England travel experience with its
and salt marsh views, old historic homes, many antique stores,
shipbuilding history and a taste of the salt sea air.
Nothing, however, seems to please locals and visitors more than a stop
at Woodman's of Essex.
This classic seafood shack located on "The Clam Highway" at the
causeway across from the scenic Essex River in downtown Essex
first opened in 1914 by Lawrence "Chubby" and Bessie Woodman as a
roadside grocery stand where the first fried clam was invented and sold
in 1916. Chubby and Bessie loved the newfound discovery so much that
they had "Fried the first fried clam" written on the back of their marriage
certificate! Howard Johnson, who owned 100 Howard Johnsons
restaurants at that time, actually visited Woodman's, took copious
notes, and helped bring fried clams to the masses nationwide at his once famous restaurant chain.
Since then, millions of customers have been as happy as a clam visiting
this North Shore of Massachusetts landmark that epitomizes the American
Dream and the way a no-frills, eat-in-the-rough seafood shack should look. Today,
Woodman's sells approximately 3.5 million clams and 2,600 gallons of
clam chowder a year, as well as up to 500 lbs. of lobster served on a
day. This is clearly a
tremendous advance from the time when Woodman's initially just sold
grocery items and potato chips just before a local fisherman named
noticed a bucket of clams nearby and suggested to Chubby to fry them.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Chubby Woodman outside his storefront in 1918. Photo source:
Woodman's web site.
"The clams are the best in the world," said co-CEO Doug Woodman, adding
that the flow of the water across the street leads to where Gloucester,
Ipswich and Essex meet lends a type of clam found there that he
feels is superior.
Fried clam plate from Woodman's. Photo
Office of Travel and Tourism.
generation Woodman family members Stephen and Doug carry on the grand
seafood restaurant tradition from their parents, the late Dexter and
Virginia Woodman (and grandparents Chubby and Bessie), Eian
Woodman from the fourth generation as the general manager, and fifth
generation family also contributing to this revered family-owned
Approximately 80 locals are employed year-round and up to 200
with at least 25 working at Woodman's for more than 30 years and many
members in the mix.
One big happy family at Woodman's. Photo
source: Woodman's Facebook fan page.
The Woodmans have survived bad economies, red tide
scares, the tragic deaths of Stephen and Doug's brothers Larry and
Geoffrey, brutal winter weather compromising the restaurant's
structure, and a sea
of competing restaurant chains that never quite
rose above "C" level (sorry for the bad pun) compared to Woodman's
Dean's List-quality seafood offerings.
"There's lots of hard work and caring that goes into making Woodman's
special," said Rhonda Woodman, wife of Stephen. "You just can't
replicate this at a chain."
The completion of the first version of state highway route 128 and the
second one in 1951 also threatened to take away customers from
off-the-beaten path Essex, but Chubby didn't believe it for one moment.
"When Route 128 was built, many thought that Essex would become a ghost
town," said Rhonda. "Chubby said, 'I don't think so. it will bring
more customers.' He was right!"
Woodman's history spans so richly proud and deep
author and lifelong New Englander Winslow Pettingill wrote, a book
Woodman's of Essex: Five Generations
of Stories, 100 Years of Recipes
(2011). It is a beautifully written book with wonderful stories of
"family history, clammers, fishermen and more."
All this, plus more than 100 Woodman family recipes
The Woodman's world proudly centers around Essex. Stephen and Rhonda live
charming historic home steps from the restaurant. Doug, who started
cleaning tables at Woodman's at 10-years-old, lives in town with his
Maureen (she works at Woodman's and has helped create an outstanding
Stephen and Rhonda haven't worked any other professional jobs in their
"Why would we?" asked Rhonda. "We have it all here -- family, friends,
So many generations of Woodmans have worked at the restaurant that they
are too numerous to mention here, but should be commended for their
collective, generational commitment to Woodman's of Essex.
Additionally, not only do the Woodman's give back to the community with
their famous restaurant, but also through goodwill initiatives like the
Mr. and Mrs. Dexter Woodman Scholarship with more than $715K awarded to
local students so far.
"We love Essex," said Rhonda. "This is our home and community.
Everyone knows each other here and helps support each other
one way or another. It's a beautiful town."
Delicious Yankee seafood fare,
faithful customers, many awards
Woodman's is best known for its flavorful whole bellied fried clams,
mountainous "Down River" combo plate (clams, scallops, shrimp, fish
with fries and onion), tender lobster, huge lobster
rolls, to die for chock-full-of-clams clam chowder, wonderful homemade
onion rings and tartar sauce, fresh corn and lemonade, and signature
clambakes (lobster, steamer clams, chowder stock, and fresh corn served
on site or delivered). You can even buy a lobster out front and have it
cooked to order.
New England clam chowder from Woodman's of Essex.
Photo credit: Massachusetts
Office of Travel and Tourism.
While New England offers many fine seafood
and shacks, it is often difficult to find places that do virtually
everything right on a consistent basis.
Maybe it's the long history of success, ongoing pride of ownership,
local seafood sourcing, the required culinary know-how to create
delicious seafood, or, most likely, all of the above, but Woodman's
surely didn't arrive as a premier New England seafood restaurant
destination and attraction by sheer luck. Every item this writer has
tasted rises to the top of the seafood chain as a go-to seafood shack
virtually everything offered on the menu.
It is quite comforting to know that when
one goes out to eat, the chance of having a great meal is virtually 100
percent at Woodman's -- particularly, the sweet clams fried perfectly
to a golden brown crisp and without the extra grease that is found at
even some of the most heralded New England clam shacks.
"We look for the best quality product," said Stephen. "We are picky who
we buy it from. We are not the cheapest, but always go with the highest
quality. We make our own tartar sauce, cut our own onions. The only two
things frozen here are the shrimp and French fries, that's it."
An added bonus:
The menu is entirely gluten free with the exception of the clam cakes,
onion rings and sandwiches as corn flour serves as the breading.
"We were always gluten free," said Stephen. "We lucked out as we were
gluten free before gluten free became better known. We also never
did trans fats. We cook in lard."
Said Heather Jacob, of Hopedale, Mass: "I haven't been in a few years,
but it's so nice to be able to get delicious fried seafood, French
fries, and clam chowder that are gluten free! I definitely gorge myself
when I go there. It's a bit of a hike, but I do plan on going back as
soon as I can!"
The fried plates, boxes and sandwiches center mostly around seafood,
but other options include chicken fingers, steak burgers, grilled
chicken and hot dogs.
"Been going there forever," said Bob Donaldson, of Arlington, Mass.
Lobster from Woodmans. Photo
Office of Travel and Tourism.
If customers have any room for dessert, Woodman's
serves Gifford's of Maine ice cream at its ice cream shop at the
restaurant. For those not familiar with Gifford's, they make wonderful
homemade ice cream with flavors true to taste -- not the artificial
stuff found at the supermarkets and even some local ice cream stands.
Whether an ice cream cone, sundae or frappes, it's all good!
Woodman's goes well beyond just food, however, to make for a memorable
experience. Strongly subscribing to the "If it ain't broke, don't fix
it" mantra, Woodman's remains a delightful, informal, rustic, family
friendly seafood shack
that has remained humble and unpretentious even with all the accolades.
This is the place, after all, that Forbes
FYI called "The Best
Seafood Restaurant in America," and the Zagat Restaurant Guide regarded
as "An American Cult Classic - right up there with baseball and apple
pie." Bon Appetit listed
Woodman's in its "Best Places to Eat in
Massachusetts" story. USA Today
called it "The Best Waterfront Seafood
Shack." The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
lists Woodman's of Essex as a "Massachusetts Premier Attraction."
list goes on and on, but ultimately it is the customer's love for
Woodman's that keeps the grand North Shore of Boston seafood shack
"Woodman's is a North Shore classic." said Mike
McGarry, pastor of the
Emmanuel Baptist Church in Norfolk, Mass. "I love that place!"
Many who no longer live in the area virtually crave Woodman's like
Nancy Pappas, an Arlington, Mass.,
native who retired to Florida with her husband Chuck.
"I'd give anything to have some New England whole
right now," said Pappas, in reference to Woodman's. "Florida
seafood just doesn't do it for me."
The awards bestowed upon this fills the reader's eyes the way a
Woodman's meal fills the appetite, but the high praise and celebrity
visits (a part of the movie Grown-Ups
starring Adam Sandler was filmed
here) has not fried the restaurant's authentic local appeal. Many
regulars stop by for
a bite four to five times a week, and the scene -- even in the dead of
winter -- comes across like the seafood version of a bustling diner
conversations, handshakes, hugs, and love and support for a local
The setting seems like the prototype for a classic New England seafood
shack with its order-at-the-window counter (often with long lines that
move fast), names called when the orders are ready, a souvenir and
wooden benches and tables to dine at, low ceilings, a bar area
downstairs and raw
bar up, a lobster tank, and benches under a large tent outside in the
summer overlooking the scenic marsh. It's a perfect place to be,
especially after a day at the beach (and there are many on the North
Shore). The views across the street lend some beautiful scenery,
The Essex River right across the street from Woodman's.
"Love Woodman's, the home of fried clams!" said Carole Sammons Julius,
of East Bridgewater, Mass. (about 90 minutes away). "We go every time
we're in the area."
A day in the life at Woodman's of
On an Wednesday in mid-April at lunch, a local named Paul,
89, has a big smile on his face
after trading pleasantries with Rhonda and Stephen. He said of
Woodman's in succinct,
traditional New England language, "The food is good, it's really clean
and the people are friendly. What more do you need? It's all good. On
Monday, I have the lobster roll, scallops on Tuesday, clams on
Lobster rolls from Woodman's. Photo credit: Woodman's of Essex.
A quick view across the room reveals little kids laughing with their
parents, elderly ladies catching up on the latest gossip, a type A
initially in a rush but quickly settling down to a hearty meal,
construction workers upping their calorie intake after hard work
outside, and a friendly middle-aged man with a sports shirt on who
talks loudly with Rhonda in a friendly, totally unpretentious, working
tone. Turns out he is a millionaire who worked hard and
passionately at his craft, but clearly never let it affect his genuine
persona. The whole scene looks like an indoor
version of a friendly neighborhood from back in the day. More
often than not and quite astonishingly, not one person
in the room was texting or talking on a cell phone. Human relations
provides that antidote to modern technology, and the traditional ways
of Woodman's seemed to bring out that old-fashioned way -- the art and
joy of conversation -- on this particular day.
At the counter, a friendly Woodman's employee takes on multi-tasking
responsibilities while genuinely connecting with staff and customers
from all generations.
Ralph Hawley, 79, started working at Woodman's when he was 13 and
remembers Bessie and Chubby. He did enjoy a career outside Woodman's
for a while, but returned in 1978, and never left.
"Rhonda wouldn't let me!" said Hawley.
Today, Hawley works with the energy of a 39-year-old taking on several
jobs at the restaurant, including a role as a greeter to long lines of
people in the summer. He has endless memories of Woodman's through five
generations and doesn't
hesitate to share them.
"I remember Chubby coming in here at 7 every morning in his bathing
suit and hip boots while washing down the floor," said Hawley. "He was
a good man. He
never swore. Bessie was one of the best people you could ever meet --
so nurturing and lovely. I remember when Bessie died. I cried."
Hawley -- whose sense of humor remains strongly intact -- looks back on
many memorable moments centering around the Woodman
family, including a practical joke based on his uncanny resemblance to
country and western music legend Porter Waggoner.
"Larry thought I looked like Porter Waggoner, so I would give out a few
autographs," said Hawley. "One time I ended up in the hospital with an
ulcer, so Larry called the local newspaper saying Porter Waggoner was
in the hospital. They printed it and the story gained a lot of
Ralph Hawley worked for the original owners of Woodman's and
still is employed there today.
"They (the Woodmans) are nice people to work for," said Hawley. "Boy, I
hate saying that in front of them!"
Going beyond the typical seafood shack
Woodman's of Essex could certainly get by solely as an
eat-in-the-rough, traditional New England seafood shack business model,
wouldn't be the Woodman way as the family always tries to excel beyond
the norm. They offer catering and serve as a destination for weddings,
rehearsal dinners, bridal
showers, corporate events and more. Woodman's has plenty of space at
the attractive Essex
Room, Woodman's Top Deck
(wonderful views of the salt marshes and summer sunsets) the Salt Marsh
Tent or at Woodman's Lobster Trap Pub. Whether
indoor or outdoor, Woodman's can accommodate 75 to 250 guests.
It's beyond comprehension to think that a business best known as a
seafood shack seafood hosts an average of 50 weddings a year.
"Going beyond" can often imply some kind of bumper sticker slogan
marketing campaign, but, in Woodman's case, the 100-plus years of a
time-tested seafood restaurant business transcends those words into
reality. What we see with our own eyes and experience through one's own
taste buds validates Woodman's great run as a fabulous place for fresh,
local seafood. After all, hundreds of thousands of people have
arrived, stayed and departed Woodmans as happy as a clam through the
"Woodman's was the first place I fell in love
clams," said Deb Donaldson, of Milford, Mass. "It's a must-stop after
the beach and it never disappoints. lines can be long but worth the
Another look at the fried clam plate at Woodman's of Essex.
"Woodman's has always been synonymous with freshness and value
for the money," said Shawn Sullivan who takes the hour-plus drive to
Woodman's. "It's an annual summer pilgrimage!"
located at 121 Main Street, Essex, MA. Tel. (978-768-6057. Web site: http://www.woodmans.com Facebook fan page: http://www.facebook.com/woodmansofessex. Twitter address: http://www.twitter.com/woodmans-essex.
Woodman's famous sign.
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