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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. Article created on 5/4/2018.

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Woodman's, a classic seafood restaurant in Essex, Mass., is the birthplace of the fried clam.
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 coastal, river 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. T
oday, 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 summer 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 "Tarr" noticed a bucket of clams nearby and suggested to Chubby to fry them. The rest, as they say, is history.

Chubby Woodman, founder of Woodman's in Essex in Essex, Massachusetts
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 clams from Woodman's of Essex, Massachusetts.
Fried clam plate from Woodman's. Photo credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

Third 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 seafood destination. Approximately 80 locals are employed year-round and up to 200 seasonally, with at least 25 working at Woodman's for more than 30 years and many family members in the mix.

The Woodman family at Woodman's of Essex, Mass.
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 that local 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. Definitely a must-read!

The Woodman's world proudly centers around Essex. Stephen and Rhonda live in a charming historic home steps from the restaurant. Doug, who started cleaning tables at Woodman's at 10-years-old, lives in town with his wife, Maureen (she works at Woodman's and has helped create an outstanding catering department).

Stephen and Rhonda haven't worked any other professional jobs in their careers.

"Why would we?" asked Rhonda. "We have it all here -- family, friends, food, community."

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 New England 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 seafood shack in Essex, Massachusetts
New England clam chowder from Woodman's of Essex. Photo credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

While New England offers many fine seafood restaurants 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 for 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. "Love it."

Lobsters from Woodman's of Essex, Massachusetts
Lobster from Woodmans. Photo credit: Massachusetts 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 dining out 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."

The 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 tradition going.

"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 belly clams 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 big-portioned 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 with its conversations, handshakes, hugs, and love and support for a local business. 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 gifts section, 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, too...

Essex River across from Woodman's of Essex Restaurant in Essex, Mass.
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 Essex

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 Wednesday..."

Lobster rolls from Woodman's in Essex, Mass.
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 businessman 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 class 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 attention!"

Ralph Hawley, 79, first started working at Woodman's of Essex, at age 13.
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, but that 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 years!

"Woodman's was the first place I fell in love with fried 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 wait."

Legendary fried clam plate from Woodman's of Essex in Essex, Massachusetts
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!"

Woodman's of Essex is located at 121 Main Street, Essex, MA. Tel. (978-768-6057. Web site: Facebook fan page: Twitter address:

Famous sign at Woodman's of Essex seafood shack in Essex, Massachusetts.
Woodman's famous sign.

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Woodman's of Essex Massachusetts is a local seafood shack landmark and the birthplace of the fried clam.

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