Red's Eats will soon be closed for the season, but one reporter cherishes his memories of the year's last lobster roll.by Chris Chase
Coastal Journal Staff
WISCASSET — Red’s Eats doesn’t really need an introduction. Anyone who has ever driven on Route 1 through the center of Wiscasset knows where it is, and more than likely spent a frustrating amount of time in front of it, considering the notoriously bad traffic the area produces.
It’s been featured in magazines, highlighted on television, and made more “best of” lists than you can count. It’s the inconspicuous lobster shack on the side of the road whose reputation has made it into an international destination. All those lists and shows say the same thing: If you visit the midcoast, you have to stop by Red’s.
So on an overcast day in October, I did just that. Even though I’ve been a Mainer my entire (albeit still short) life, I’d never tasted one of those famous lobster rolls. Anyone I mentioned it to who had been before seemed to swoon at the mere mention of them, telling tales of the taste and asserting it was well worth an hour’s wait. Considering Red’s closes down in the fall and won’t reopen for several months, I had to take the chance while I still could.
Being a natural skeptic, those tales of its grandeur seemed a little farfetched. An hour’s wait? For just a lobster roll? I get impatient waiting for my coffee in the morning or for my toast to pop up, let alone an hour for a lobster roll. But there I was, walking towards the little lobster shack just before the bridge. The sun made an appearance just before I arrived, cutting through several days of steely skies. Birds were chirping, some of the leaves had begun to change – all in all, it was the perfect time for a lobster roll.
I get my first glimpse of the line as I approach the stand. And it’s hard to miss, considering how long it is. The rumors hadn’t been exaggerated.
Red’s itself is unremarkable in appearance. There are no flashy neon lights or fancy signs, the menu board looks older than me, and the paint is a little bit worn in places. There are better looking, fancier, more modern places to eat at. As I stare, I admit, the first thought that crossed my mind was, “How can this be worth all that traffic and that huge line?”
So I step up to the end of that line. I’m far enough back that I’ll get a mild workout on my way to the front. Considering the nature of the line, you have plenty of time to chat with the people around you. The folks in front of me, Chuck and Amy Martinez, had traveled to Maine from Los Angeles for a wedding. They had taken a tour of Maine in their downtime, and were visiting Red’s at the tail end of their trip.
“We’ve had lobster four out of the seven days we’ve been here,” laughs Amy. They had seen the book on Red’s Eats in a nearby museum, and had a friend recommend it, so they decided they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit.
They were not the only people “from away” in line that day. The number of accents and languages you can hear attest to that, even if you don’t go around asking people where they’re from. Red’s really does draw in an international crowd, there’s no denying that.
It takes about 40 minutes for me to get to the window and order a lobster roll. I get mine with drawn butter and a small root beer. Debbie Gagnon is behind the counter, still smiling even amidst the chaos of a store that never seems to see a break. A few minutes later, after they get my order ready, I’m walking away from the counter with a plate containing my motivation for being there: A heaping pile of fresh lobster stacked with precision on a small toasted and buttered roll. Red’s has perfected the art of stacking seemingly impossible amounts of lobster onto a small roll. It’s no wonder considering the amount of practice they get.
I take a seat at one of the tables near the road, and take a few minutes to admire the sight of my lobster roll. It definitely is a thing of beauty, a big pile of lobster, lightly buttered and gleaming in the sun.
Then comes the moment of truth, my first bite. It tastes exactly like it looks it’ll taste. It’s fresh, delicious lobster, the roll is toasted just right, and the butter isn’t too overpowering, but isn’t too far back, either. I can think of nothing that you could add to it. It is, I admit, the best lobster roll I’ve ever had. Even a skeptic like me can’t hide from the facts staring me in the face.
It’s good the whole way through, and when they say they put a lot of lobster on it they mean it. The small roll struggles to hold it all in as I devour it. My hands get covered in butter but I don’t care. I polish the whole thing off far too quickly. Then again, I wish it could last forever.
Even this late in the season the place is packed. I got in line for mine at 2:30 p.m., and when I finally packed up and left at 3:30, the line had only shortened slightly. Considering it was as busy as it was outside normal lunch hours, you had better bring a book for the wait during the popular times. The economic downturn doesn’t seem to have slowed down Red’s at all.
Debbie Gagnon, the owner and proprieter, will be there every single day while it is open. She is the wizard that somehow makes everything run smoothly. Her father started the stand after having an unsatisfactory lobster roll in the ‘80s. According to Gagnon it was apparently so bad he vowed to make a better one, “a real lobster roll that people will remember.”
It certainly is something to remember, even after a few decades. This year they will be open for a bit longer than they usually are, so those eager to get one still have a chance.
“We typically close the day after Columbus Day every year,” wrote Gagnon in an E-mail. Gagnon is so busy that sitting down for a chat proved impossible. “But this year we will stay open later in October (hopefully through the month, weather permitting).”
Winterizing the little stand is a lenghty process. Furniture needs to be stored, cleaning needs to be done, menus need to be dissasembled, machines need to be cleaned and shut down. But even with the grueling pace and massive amount of work, Gagnon doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon.
“We never get tired of hearing people say that it was worth the wait, worth the drive and that they’ve never had better,” wrote Gagnon. “The lines of people waiting at Red’s Eats is very humbling, it never gets ‘old hat’ to us. It makes us very proud.”
Red’s doesn’t look very special. The paint is a bit worn, the furniture is plastic, a lot of the signs and menus are hand-written, there are pictures of locals on the walls, and nothing looks all that modern. The constant traffic makes it noisy, the wait is long. It doesn’t have any fancy gimmicks, there is no celebrity chef endorsement, and good luck with parking.
But it doesn’t have any gimmicks or fancy signs because it doesn’t need them. Red’s has it where it counts, in the only place it counts, the food. It doesn’t matter what the building looks like or how convenient it is if the food stinks, and Red’s has that figured out. It doesn’t need fancy cutlery or trendy furniture. It has a lobster roll as weighty as your fist and a friendly service staff endowed with Herculean patience.
Is it worth the wait? Not if you’re in a hurry. If you head to Red’s expecting to get your food quickly, forget it. But if you’ve never been, you’ve got to go. Pick a nice day, bring some friends, have a relaxing chat with some people you’ve just met from some other part of the world. Red’s is more than just the food, it’s the experience.
But let’s face it. It’s mostly the food.