It's summertime: the livin' is easy, the beer is cold, and seafood restaurants are throwing open their doors. There's no better way to consume the fruits of the ocean than with a paper plate on your lap, the wind in your hair, and creaky floorboards beneath your feet. What the following fresh seafood joints lack in ritz they more than make up for in character, legend, and, of course, lobsters, shrimp, crabs, and various other delicious lower life forms. Bring a bib and a mallet. Things are going to get messy.
Noank, Connecticut Abbott’s Lobster encourages fever-pitch excitement by counting down to the first lobster of the season on its website and it works: lobster fiends from all over the country are known to camp out for days, in anticipation of that first taste of crustacean. But know that this counter-service, BYOB restaurant's steamers, stuffed clams, and chowder are also not to be missed, as more than 100,000 visitors per year and a bunch of food writers can attest. The picnic-style lobster by the shore, or “in the rough,” is an essential life experience for anyone who loves crustaceans. There is a smattering of tables inside, but... summer.
Key Largo, Florida Along Card Sound Road -- aka the scenic route from Miami to Key Largo -- you'll find a lone outdoor roadhouse set right on a mangrove-lined canal. It's Alabama Jack's, a time warp to Florida before the days of air conditioning and bug spray, where swampy rednecks dance to a live country band and folks on their way to and from the Keys sip beers by the water. This is the seafood dive to end all seafood dives. The crowd is a perfect cross-section of Florida, with fisherman drinking next to tourists drinking next to people who've lived in the swamp for generations. Such is the power of legendary conch fritters, steamed shrimp, and fish fingers.
Erath, Louisiana Appropriately for a seafood shack/barn located in Vermilion Parish -- “the most Cajun place on Earth” according to the Census Bureau -- Big John leans heavily towards the boil. You could order something else from the menu, but know that it's a mere formality and you risk looking like a weirdo. Seriously, getting anything other than crawfish is like ordering a grilled cheese at a sushi joint (to be fair, the shrimp is very tempting). Orders are by the pound (3, 5, or 10); prepare your sauces while you wait. It’s only open through crawfish season, which is roughly November through May, and is the perfect filler for when those lobster shacks shut up shop.
Charleston, South Carolina Deliverance was set in Georgia, and did not feature a seafood restaurant. BUT, if it had, it would surely have been Bowens Island. Cab drivers been known to drop patrons off early out of sheer terror before reaching this graffiti-covered, well, shack, on the edge of a creepily quiet peninsula. Those who make it can expect Charleston’s best no-frills seafood and cold local beer. Oh, and oysters. Bowens pulls them from the marsh out back each day, and has an all-you-can-eat table where you can order them by the literal shovelful.
Virginia Beach, Virginia Seafood doesn't get more "locally caught" than this, where fishermen park right on the restaurant dock on Lynnhaven Inlet with fresh hauls from the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. Watch your food arrive -- consider the steamed hard-shell crabs known as Jimmies -- and the sunset from the waterside tables while you munch on shrimp, lobster tail, and the killer crab cakes, which are put together every morning from fresh blue crab meat. The only downside with being directly on the water? Hurricanes all the way down to regular storms and high winds can put the deck out of commission. But temporarily -- this expert clean-up team keeps on truckin'.
Kennebunk, Maine No one likes to wait in lines. Especially lines famous enough in Maine that nearly everyone mentions them at some point if you come through Kennebunkport. But the thought of getting that sweet hand-picked-meat lobster roll (and maybe some fried dough for dessert) from a tiny shack in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, and then posting up on a lobster crate and watching the seagulls swoop in on unsuspecting tourists to take a piece of their hard-earned roll for themselves, seems to make it all worthwhile. Just remember: keep your head on a swivel.
Tybee Island, Georgia Like they were hell-bent on becoming the inspiration for a Jimmy Buffett song, in ’83, the now-owners of The Crab Shack saw an ad for a fish camp, bought it, left their lives in Atlanta, got their boat captain licenses, started charter-fishing operations out of the marina, and then, eventually, launched The Crab Shack. While it sounds like a gamble, starting a seafood shack at a large fishing camp on a city-island, teeming with Atlantic seafood, is a very smart move indeed. Go with the Shack Specialty shellfish platter -- it includes all the shellfish that comes in just off the pier where you’re eating, plus all the corn, potatoes, and sausage of a Low Country boil.
Pismo Beach, California The Cracked Crab strains the credibility of the name "shack" in the title of this article, what with its overall cleanliness and family-friendly nature. But it's also a place where you're likely to hear kids exclain "holy shit" or some other sailor-adjacent phrase when the signature dish hits the table. Literally. The Bucket for Two is like a seafood buffet jammed into a pail and dumped directly onto the table for you to pick at a pile of corn, Cajun sausage, and potatoes mixed with the shellfish of your choice: choose snow or Dungeness crab, mussels, or clams, or upgrade to Maine lobster tails and get to work. There's a wealth of other options, but honestly, they'd probably be upset if you decided to dump your crab bisque or cioppino on the table, so just stick with the bucket if you want to keep it real.
Kailua, Hawaii The country has officially arrived at peak poke, but nothing on the mainland — and, arguably, nothing in Hawaii — holds a flame to Da Poke Shack. It’s tiny and located within a condo complex and may look like a place to leave your spare key, but its Japanese-influenced seafood bowls and Hawaiian beer beat out even the most upscale contenders. There are 14 different kinds of poke to choose from, but the move is really to go with the spicy Pele’s Kiss, or the avocado aioli-topped Dynamite. And maybe get some of that fresh, fresh sashimi while you wait, which is cut to order and served on its own or as part of a platter.
Orange Beach, Alabama We think Orange Beach should give Doc’s, which sits underneath the light where Highway 161 T’s with Canal Road, a tax cut: there is no stronger inducer of end-of-vacation blues than being forced to sit and stare for half an hour at the place that served you the best damn fried shrimp and crab claws of your life. You will come back to Orange Beach and to Doc’s and you’ll sit at their long, ruddy tables and order a 1/2 dozen giant, briny Gulf oysters and then a basket of crab claws for your table and then those fried shrimp, and you’ll wash it down with a cold bottled beer. And later in the week you’ll curse your sunburn and the sand still stuck to your car seat while you sit at the light, and you’ll stare at Doc’s and the whole process starts over again.
Cannon Beach, Oregon Half of everything at Cannon Beach is named "Ecola"-something (it's derived from the Chinook word for "whale"), so be sure to ask specific directions to this seafood shack in the middle of the dog-friendly town or risk ending up at a gas station -- which, to be fair, probably at least has some pretty good smoked fish. This shack is a family affair, and has been for the past 22 years; they fish the Washington and Oregon coasts daily, so you can be sure that whatever is on your plate was swimming a very short time ago (and swimming in a fryer seconds prior to hitting the plate). Unusual for a seafood shack, Ecola is open year round, frying up whatever “seasons, weather and fisherman’s luck” is serving up. You should hope it's salmon and halibut. Pro tip: Take some salmon jerky and a Dungeness crab cocktail to go and post up on the beach near Haystack Rock (the one from The Goonies) for one of the most purely Oregonian experiences you can have.
Grasonville, Maryland Fisherman's Crab Deck is a relatively new addition to Maryland's crabcake legacy, but only on a technicality. It's an annex on the original Fisherman's Inn, which has been cracking claws on the bay since before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was open. Opened officially in 2003, the Deck offers up an open-air, boat-up, live music-soundtracked experience and some of the best crabcakes in the region. And crab nachos. And crab pizza, dips, melts, salads, nachos... basically crab everything. But for the best experience, get the steamed variety pot, a classic boil with two hard crabs, some snow crab legs, and some clams, shrimp, and mussels for variety. Get crab cakes on the side though. You're in Maryland.
Newport, Rhode Island If you’re a kid, a trip to Flo’s often results in finding yourself awkwardly entranced by the lady clam mascot in the tight red dress. As an adult, you’re often fascinated by the history of Flo’s, which mainly just tells the story of the many hurricanes (curse you Carol, Donna, Gloria, and Bob!) that have knocked it down over its eight decades of existence, only for it to re-emerge stronger, or at least with more expensive windows. There is only one way to do Flo’s, and it involves getting half-a-dozen clam cakes and their fried clams, with a delicate breading and homemade coleslaw. Just watch out for those hurricanes.
Bourne, Massachusetts You're in Cape Cod, so it goes out with saying you should probably be making out with one of the otherworldly lobster rolls at this cavern of a banquet hall/seafood market, where the sounds of cracking claws is a culinary symphony echoing off the wooden beams and high ceilings. But this joint also takes a chefly approach to non-lobster dishes, meaning if you so happen to be burnt out, or just feel like a bucket of crustacean and steamers doesn't do the trick, you can score a glorious charred yellowfin served with pad thai, exquisitely grilled fresh swordfish, or an unlikely array of house-smoked BBQ, if you want to get a little surf and turf. Or, you know, just get a second bucket. You're in Cape Cod, for god's sake.
Marshall, California You will see other larger oyster companies en route to The Marshall Store up in Tomales Bay, and you will be inclined to say, “Wait, those places are crowded and popular looking! Maybe I should go there.” But that would be a mistake. Instead, have your party find a spot at one of the tables sitting on barrels overlooking the bay, go in and grab a six-pack or some wine from the refrigerator, and order up every kind of oyster (fresh from their farm right there) dish they make. No joke, you need to get all six: the raw, BBQ, chorizo, Kilpatrick with bacon & Worcestershire, Rockefeller, and the smoked. They have other things and they are delicious (particularly the fish tacos), but pay them no mind on that first visit. You have some oyster-based work to do.
Port Isabel, Texas Located at the southeastern tip of Texas, a stone's throw from South Padre and the Mexican border, Los Tortugos looks like any other hole-in-the-wall taqueria, nondescript turquoise exterior and rickety window-mounted air conditioner included. But step foot inside the combination market/dining room and prepare to be bowled over. Fish tacos here are the kind San Diego surfers dream of, packed with avocados and bliss. Ceviches -- shrimp, calamari, fresh fish, or all three -- come in massive goblets, perfect for hoisting to get the last of the briny lime flavor. And on Friday and Saturday, out comes the caldo de mariscos, an impossibly packed seafood soup that basically answers the question of what would happen if a seafood boil and some cioppino had a baby and decided to raise it on a beach in El Mezquital.
Akers, Louisiana You’ve probably had fried catfish before: it’s a simple dish, easy to make with a few spices and breading thrown onto a thick slice of the river fish before it hits the fryer. But if you haven’t had it at Middendorf’s -- a restaurant in a fishing village that barely exists -- then you have yet to discover just how exquisite catfish can truly taste. The restaurant cuts their catfish wisp-thin. It’s salty and flaky and piled so high on the plate. You’ll want to tuck your napkin into your shirt and have your bottle of hot sauce close at hand. You’ll never be able to eat other catfish again.
San Francisco, California It started in 1861, so you can excuse the fact that the neighborhood is more industrial now and off the water and away from any tourist trap path. But that just makes it all the better when you spot the giant clam sitting on the roof, and you go in and see the blue- and white-checked tablecloths and get that sourdough kettle bread with hot clam broth to dip it in. The menu is big, but really you have two choices: get the garlic-roasted Dungeness crab, or opt for the local cioppino, thick with mussels, squid, crab, and what seems like infinity fish. Oh, and no trip is complete without their own Milwaukee steam beer (and maybe a little more of that bread).
Gig Harbor, Washington Though the primary reason to visit Tides Tavern is the seafood — especially the immaculate halibut fish & chips, which could forever ruin cod for many eaters —the fact that its owner through the ‘60s and ‘70s was a Jerry Garcia look-alike named “Three Fingered Jack” is up there (Jerry, mind you, had a whopping 4 fingers). It opened as a general store in 1910, but party times began with the end of Prohibition. The current iteration -- seafood on the deck, live music, and great burgers for that weird friend who hates seafood -- dates from current owner Peter Stanley’s reconstruction project in 1973, but the mix of crisp Puget Sound breezes and mountain views remains the same. Even better, it’s 21+, so there are no drooling barnacles watching Spongebob on their iPads.
Juneau, Alaska Jokes, as well as dreams, can come true. Just ask Tracy LaBarge, a Juneau transplant who used to joke about selling crab legs from a hot dog cart (look, it wasn’t a coherent plan yet). Nearly two decades years later, the real-life result goes way beyond, with the “best legs in town” and award-winning king crab bisque. There are a countless crab shacks across Alaska. That Tracy parlayed her joke into arguably the best of the bunch is perhaps the best punchline imaginable, especially when it comes dripping in butter.
Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. And when Hurricane Hugo hands you a wrecked trawler, open a restaurant, with its very name, on that very spot. The Wreck overlooks Shem Creek and is most definitely shack-like in its “take it or leave it” stylings: there’s no air-conditioning in the screened-in dining room, and it’s worth calling ahead as it keeps irregular hours, only recently started accepting credit cards, and doesn’t take reservations, check-splitting -- or any of your nonsense. The payoff is some of the best fried shrimp in the country. It's a good payoff.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.