The 10 Best Lobster Rolls of My Life (So Far)

Yankee Lobster roll looks like a prototypical lobster roll, but it didn't make the list.

Lobster rolls are a funny thing with me. The first time I had one, it was transcendendant. Fresh, tender, hot, buttery lobster — one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life.

And for some reason, probably because that best-ever lobster roll was consumed in Bar Harbor, Maine, a locale that's not easy to get back to, I continue to seek out that same level of perfection in other locations selling lobster rolls. I am often disappointed, and yet, unlike in the area of fish and chips (where I know the best best best ever fish and chips are served at the Ship Anson in Portsmouth, UK, and they have ruined me for life for all other fish and chips), I feel compelled to continue in my lobster roll superiority quest.

Let's talk about what constitutes a lobster roll. Traditionally, it was served cold, as a lobster "salad" roll, comprised of the less-desireable claw-and-other-bits meat and mixed with mayonnaise and perhaps some other spices or greenery. It was, essentially, a sandwich lobstermen could take with them for lunch while they were out doing their lobster thing.

Personally, and probably because that first roll I had was hot, I think it's time we moved beyond tradition. Because believe me, a good hot lobster roll beats a good cold lobster roll. Every. Single. Time. Sweet, tender lobster with a smattering of butter, all without any more manual labor than opening your mouth and chewing. Drool.

The trouble is, a lot of things can go wrong with a lobster roll. The bread is a common failing, and one that should be easier to get right. The top-split hot dog bun is best, buttered and grilled. Generally in my experience, restaurants fail when they try to depart from this. The lobster meat is another common failing. Although it's put on a bun and served as a sandwich, the lobster roll should still feature fresh, tender lobster. Many don't, unfortunately.

On a recent trip to Boston, I realized I'd passed more than 10 lobster rolls consumed, and perhaps it was time to start ranking them. I have hopes that some day another place will move in high in the rankings, but as I've tried many of the well-reviewed lobster rolls from D.C. to Boston, it's possible this is it unless I get back to Maine.

1. The Lobster Claw, Bar Harbor, Maine — A lobster roll should be relatively easy, but there are a lot of ways to screw it up. This place set the standard by doing everything right. Lobster fresh off the boat, cooked up in the back, and immediately plunked down on your roll with a side of butter. Pure lobstery perfection that started a quest. And sadly, perhaps no more, as it appears from Yelp that they're closed. Let us hope it's just for the season. I like to think someday I can go back to Bar Harbor and have another lobster roll this good.

Lobster roll and oysters at Abbott's Lobster in the Rough.

2. Abbott's Losbter in the Rough, Noank, Connecticut — Although the first hot lobster roll I had was in Maine, apparently the hot style is actually called a Connecticut-style roll. And Abbot's does a damn good job of it, although it serves it on a hamburger bun instead of the hot dog bun. It's clear the lobster is fresh, and cooked up fresh, and you get to enjoy it by the water. Wins all around, and enough to excuse the non-traditional bun, mainly because it's still the right texture and consistency, if not the normal shape.

3. Legal Test Kitchen, Boston, Massachusetts — I'm surprised a cold roll could rank this high on my list, but LTK does a lot of things right. The bread is the split, buttered and grilled hot dog bun, and the lobster meat, although cold, is clearly fresh and very tender, with just the right amount of mayo. There's a lot of meat, and eating it is a challenge that involves a lot of balancing; they should do without the piece of lettuce between the lobster meat and the bun and jam that meat in there a little more. Aside from that, though, I have no complaints.

The Daniel Packer Inn roll: so much potential, so many bread issues.

4. Captain Daniel Packer Inn, Mystic, Connecticut — The DPI got way too ambitious with its bread, putting some very good and more upscale (sherry butter and shallots, anyone?) hot lobster on a crusty bun that was nigh unchewable. With some nice, tender bread, it would have easily beaten the LTK roll, and might have even been ahead of Abbott's.

5. Luke's Lobster, New York, New York — A bit of a cross between a hot and a cold roll, this was served fairly close to room temperature with a bit of mayo and a bit of butter. It tasted better than it sounds, with fairly tender lobster meat on a classic split top hot dog bun.

6. Red Hook Lobster (tent), Washington D.C.-ish — I had one of Red Hook's hot lobster rolls from a tent they had at a festival, not from their line-around-the-block truck that moves around downtown D.C. I hope to rectify this one day and try the roll out of the truck, but for now, my impression of the roll was that, while it was nice that it was warm, the lobster meat had clearly been cooked beforehand and then warmed up. That is NOT the way to cook a hot lobster roll, and the meat ends up overly done and too chewy as a result.

Neptune Oyster's roll had tons of plate appeal, but didn't live up to it.

7. Neptune Oyster, Boston, Massachusetts — This one was rated well in the Boston foodie-verse, but did not live up to its rating, in my opinion. Problem number one was that, like Red Hook's, the meat was overdone and too tough and chewy. Problem number two was that they went with a brioche roll for the bread, and it couldn't stand up to the lobster and butter; it was mushy before I took the first bite. Oh, and problem number three is the $25 price tag. Now, I am as annoyed as anyone to read reviews about lobster rolls that complain about how expensive they are. It's a LOBSTER roll, people, not a turkey sandwich. However, for $25 that lobster should be melting in your mouth, and it wasn't even close. I do love the swanky-classic tiled interior of the place, but stick to the oysters here and go somewhere else for a lobster roll fix.

8. Tackle Box, Washington, D.C. — A fairly tender lobster salad roll, served on the classic bun if I remember correctly. Nothing to write home about, but not bad, either. I do enjoy the pseudo-beach-shack atmosphere, too.

9. J's Oyster, Portland, Maine — I had this one and the similarly unadorned Yankee Lobster roll within days of each other, but this one makes the list more on the strength of the J's Oyster ambiance than the roll itself. Yankee Lobster's definitely had more lobster, but I enjoyed my meal at J's more. And they did give you mayo on the side, so you could mayo to your own preferences.

10. Hank's Oyster Bar, Washington, D.C. — Another salad-style roll, a little too heavy on the mayonnaise, although that's preferable to completely unadorned (a pile of cold lobster is surprisingly untasty). Another place to stick to the oysters.


One-bagging it: Better with wheels

So after my last trip to Europe, one thing I didn't write much about was my attempt at one-bag travel. Well, it was at least what I would call one-bag travel; some purists would say that since I had a carry-on and a personal item, that wasn't technically one-bagging it. Whatever. I was traveling light, and I didn't check any luggage going out on my long-haul flight.

I got really excited about the idea of carry-on only travel as I was planning for my trip. I visited web sites like this one, and this one, and, knowing that I had a trip with lots of legs and travel on all manner of planes, trains, subways, and buses, I was sold.

The premise of one-bag travel is pretty simple — pack really light, and cut out "just in case" items. This is somewhat difficult for me, as I like to be prepared for anything. But when I began planning what I wanted to take on my trip, I found that I could still take the sorts of essentials I like to have (sewing kit, eyeglass repair kit, mini roll of duct tape, enough band-aids for minor surgery) and still have plenty of space in my suitcase. And I did cut out some of the more ridiculous always-prepared items I might have otherwise taken.

The primary way to fit everything into a carry-on is to cut down on your clothing and shoes. I planned to take only two pairs of shoes, plus an odd little pair of lightweight shower flip flop things, and I bought a travel clothesline, sink stopper, and laundry soap sheets to do some wash in the sink (I also planned to, and did, make use of the washer and dryer at our house in Ireland).

eBags Weekender (photo from Amazon)

I also asked for (and received) a new bag for Christmas, and based on the advice of the one-bag experts, I went with one without wheels, the eBags Weekender, a relatively inexpensive foray into the wheel-less bag world. This was a major mind shift for me, as I've always used wheeled suitcases, but I believed the arguments. They were, to sum up: without wheels, your hands are free; without wheels, you don't have to worry about cobblestones in Europe; without wheels, you won't have to worry about stairs; and wheel-less bags are lighter and have more interior space than wheeled bags.

I was all ready for one-bag travel. And then two things happened. One was that I developed a foot problem, and my podiatrist recommended taking my air cast in case I needed it (I did). The other is I came down with some sort of cold/sinus infection/plague just before I left. As a result, I was suddenly lugging around an unexpected air cast and small pharmacopia of cold remedies in my bag, which made it weigh a lot more than I was expecting it would.

(As a disgusting aside: sadly, none of the cold remedies cleared up my illness, even a z-pack...what finally ditched it was throwing up pure stomach acid when I had food poisoning. Nothing burns out your throat-schnoz-ear system faster.)

So, cue me with my heavier-than-expected bag, walking through the various transit systems of Ireland and the United Kingdom. The first annoying thing was that the chest straps that helped make it more stable also made it a pain to take off. So when I was waiting for the subway or on an actual subway car, I'd have to weigh the effort of undoing all the straps against the weight hanging on my back. But the second, far more concerning thing, was all that weight on my back. Turns out, my back is not that strong. As I walked through the endless tunnels of the London Tube system, my shoulders ACHED, and I began to long for wheels — even when I encountered stairs. Said stairs and cobblestones were few and far between when compared to the amount of regular, flat pavement.

The longer I went on my trip, the more unhappy I was about my bag. Everything else worked pretty well. I did laundry in my hotel rooms, and learned the important lesson that things dry much faster if you roll them in a towel after washing them. I discarded a book after I finished it, with a Bookcrossing.com marker in it. I used solid toothpaste and shaving cream sheets and Lush solid shampoo (okay, maybe that last one doesn't count...I use those every day).

I enjoyed not having a ton of stuff to keep track of, and not having to worry about carting around a steamer trunk-sized suitcase. I just really, really, wanted wheels, to the point where I thought about trying to find a store selling one of those collapsible luggage carts to start using on my bag.

Skyway No Weight Ultra (photo from Amazon)

So this year I decided to buy a lightweight wheeled bag. I lusted after the Zuca Pro, but went with the MUCH less expensive Skyway No Weight Ultra. It's only about 2-3 pounds heavier than my eBags backpack, but it has sweet, smooth, ultra-stable wide-stance wheels.

Then I put it to the test. Without an enormous amount of thought put into packing (I took three books, a weight no-no, and too many toiletries and clothes), I took it on the closest thing to a European trip you can do in the U.S. — a six day train trip to Boston. Cobblestones? Not so much, but there were definitely brick streets and stubbly D.C. Metro platform edges. And the Boston T's long subway corridors, punctuated with odd half-flights of stairs, were pretty much the exact equivalent of the London Tube (okay, maybe there wasn't quite as much gap to mind). Thanks to Metro's rampant escalator failures, I also got some experience at carrying it up and down full flights of stairs.

My verdict? Wheels win. Wheels win so much, it's not even funny. It was totally stable on the bricks and platform stubble, and pulled just fine. It has a nice rubber carry handle that I could grab whenever I needed to reach down and carry it on stairs, and because of the light weight, it was no big deal any time I needed to do so. And I popped that sucker up in the overhead train bin with no problems at all.

I'm going to keep my wheel-less bag, as I think there will still be some travel situations where it will be the better bag, and if I do ever need to travel with two bags, having one wheel-less, lighter-packed bag will be really handy. My old asshole-sized carry-on (you know, the one that's just a leetle bit over the appropriate size, which meant I never actually used it as a carry-on) will be the casualty of the new suitcase purchase.

I'm looking forward to one-bagging it again in Europe next year, with wheels. Now I just need a Kindle to deal with that too-many-books problem.