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The Melville Coast

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Herman Melville, himself a whaler who travelled around the planet, wrote in Moby Dick that the finest chowder in the world was served on Nantucket. It may still be. In such a small town with so many restaurants so close together all specializing in seafood, and so many critics from magazines and newspapers reviewing them constantly, the island's eateries compete intensely. Eating out on Nantucket is a participant sport, and it starts with Chowder. They all serve chowder, and we've never had any less than good. Melville rated Hussey House the best, but in the 21st Century honors go to the SeaGrille Restaurant. Their main dining room is pictured above left, and their famous chowder here at right. Of the vacationers who return to Nantucket every summer, about 100,000 eagerly anticipate their annual SeaGrille Chowder. Many have additional quantities shipped to their homes during the off season. This chowder has its own registered name, Nantucket Chowder, is incorporated as the Nantucket Chowder Co., with its own chef, E. J. Harvey. He makes it from locally harvested quahogs. They ship it Tuesdays for $30 for two quarts which serve eight. (www.nantucketchowder.com.) The old 1620 over at Plymouth used to feature a fine bowl of chowder, but sadly they're now closed. Provincetown's Lobster Pot, Williamsburg's Christina Campbell's or Hatteras Island's Austin Creek Grille are the only restaurants we think challenge this chowder, and by a slight margin we rank this the best anywhere.

But the SeaGrille offers more than Chowder. Their roasted tomato spinach wild rice soup, and pumpkin ravioli, are unique. Their lobster bisque is very competitive. The broiled scrod, sole, halibut and scallops, and grilled swordfish, tuna and salmon are excellent, but what steals the dinner spotlight is the Boullabaisse, which contains lobster, shrimp, scallops, claims, mussels and swordfish topped with a rouille. For diners who like to be creative, they offer a sauteed free form ravioli, raw bar specialties like an iced seafood tower, a roast beet salad, and for dessert a lemon curd and goat cheese tart. And there are the usual lobsters and steaks for traditionalists.

The SeaGrille sits apart from the Nantucket restaurant geography. It is on Sparks Avenue, several blocks South of Main Street and the central business district. But it's a pleasant walk or bike ride. You'll come here for the Chowder, but you'll talk about the rest of the meal all the way back to your lodging.

We've been coming to Nantucket on our own and bringing groups for a long time. We take our people to as many different eateries as possible in our one week stays. But for our first and last nights we always eat at Arno's. Located on Main Street, just one block from the Roberts House, this restaurant has been here since 1960, and we already thought it great under the long ownership of the Diamond family. In 2006 Chris Morris took over and his careful updating has only improved it.

The walls are exposed red brick hung with Molly Dee paintings. Picture windows bring in a lot of light and let diners look out on Main Street. The high ceilings somehow absorb sound, so even when crowded you can easily converse at your table. The first floor dining room is shown below right.

Many Nantucket restaurants are open for breakfast, but none do the meal justice like Arno's. Where else do you find daily specials for the morning meal? There are four versions of Eggs Benedict, five kinds of omelettes, the world's largest pancake, and French Toast and homefries which members of our groups who savor those items always say are the best they've ever tasted.

Lunch begins at 11, and includes their own version of Clam Chowder plus two special reasons to stop : Bacon Wrapped Scallops and Lobster Rolls. There are the usual salads, sandwiches, quesadillas, fish and chips and kids items. We're usually out adventuring during the day, but anyone in town would find this a great stop.

Then there's dinner. Restaurants on Nantucket are all big on "presentation," the artful arranging of food so not only the taste but also the appearance appeals. But under Morris Arno's wins the presentation sweepstakes. A simple dish becomes a work of art. You want to take photos of your food. And the menu goes on and on and on. As might be expected, this is a pretty popular place, and from mid evening on you may have quite a wait. We suggest an early dinner to beat the crowds. That also gives you time to walk around town afterward.


Among the appetizers, the marinated beef satays and the roast garlic spinach fondue should be ordered by somebody at your table. There's also a small order of dry rubbed bbq ribs offered, featuring a Caribbean rub and extra slow roasting. You have to be careful and not be full even before the main course.

There are six full meal salads, with the Lobster Caesar particularly impressive, but our vote goes to the Sauteed Crab Cake Salad with a champagne vinaigrette. It has the same crab cake on the menu as a separate entree, but nestles it into cherry tomatoes, red onions, carrots and greens.

Dinners include everything from English Fish n Chips, Lobster Quesadilla, Mushroom Ravioli and steaks. On our most recent visit our group voted the Lobster Crusted Cod and Sizzling Spinach Salmon the items they would return for. The two dissenting votes went for the Fresh Salmon In Ginger Plum Sauce, served with peppers, onions and mushrooms.

We've never had many people actually order desserts after surviving the ample portions, but Arno's is famous for The 41, an alcoholic banana split served in a waffle cup. It's potent !!

Right across from Roberts House, on India Street, is Black Eyed Susan's. As host Susan Handy ushers you in, it looks more like a big city diner: long counter with stools and 10 tiny tables along the wall. Don't be deceived. This is a sophisticated little restaurant. The menu has the seafood entrees typical of Nantucket, with a Latin-Asian-Caribbean slant. The kitchen is out in the open, diner style. So if you sit at the counter, you can watch chef Jeff Worster preparing your food. In the photo to the right, notice the flambe treatment given someone's entree. Jeff is as much a performer as a chef, and often uses open flame on his creations. At breakfast they feature Huevos Rancheros, Corned Beef Hash, Sourdough French Toast, and orange juice squeezed in front of you. They don't take credit cards, so stop by the ATM. They open at 6 for the 20 groups with reservations, then seat latecomers as space opens. Locals consider their Phat Thai their signature dish, but we like the tandoori chicken and roast red pepper soup. You may find yourself rubbing elbows with celebrities; John & Theresa Heinz, Bill & Hillary Clinton, Seinfeld and various Kennedys frequent the place when in town.

The Atlantic Cafe is two blocks down the hill from the Roberts House, on Water Street. This is the place to eat when you've been out bicycling, surfing or seal watching all day and just want to lean back in a booth and relax. It's very informal with a limited menu but still has good food at reasonable prices. This is kind of a social cener among locals, so expect to see lots of coming and going and old acquaintances greeting each other.

The Quahog Chowder or Quesadillas are good places to start. The BBQ assortment is very good. A kids menu features various kinds of sandwiches and chicken tenders. They offer a daily special which is usually whatever fish the boats are catching. Try to resist dessert : down around the corner you can buy an oversized ice cream cone to enjoy while you walk back to your inn.

The Tavern is at the foot of Main Street at the entrance to Straight Wharf. You can eat out on the patio or at an inside window table and watch the boats coming and going. The name implies that this is a bar but that's not true. It's a good restaurant with the best location in town. The photo here doesn't show it, but off to the right is a huge full service gazebo that is very popular with locals. If you're going sailing or taking one of the half day seal watching, Upper Harbor, or Tuckerman Island cruises, this might be a fine lunch stop, since those boats load just a few steps away. Some visitors also stop here as they get off the ferries, before heading up the hill to their lodging.

We think the top item on their menu is the Nantucket Scallops Provencal. They broil them in garlic, tomato, onion, peppers, white wine and butter. But they also do a good job with the Chatham Scrod, Swordfish and Atlantic Salmon. If you're in a sampling mood, they have a tasty Broiled Ocean Medley that includes fish, shrimp, scallops and clams casino. Members of our group who are big on French Fries rave about the ones here.

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