The Lost Origin Story of the Lobster Roll

A staple of beachside bars and Michelin-starred menus alike, lobster rolls are a modern American staple. It might seem as if they’ve always been ubiquitous, but almost no one knew they existed just a century ago. How did this simple dish become so beloved and demanded?

F Train to Fancy

Legend has it that in the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, lobsters washed up in mounds two feet-high on the rocky beaches of New England. They were so plentiful they were even used as fertilizer while doubling as cheap food for the poor.

Regional? Yes, but far from a delicacy—that is until train travel became a reality and railroad managers marketed lobster to their passengers as exactly that: a regional delicacy they definitely didn’t want to pass up. Too messy to serve whole on a moving train (yuck), lobster most commonly came as a salad.

Creative Genius of a Generation

As these things tend to go, it’s impossible to credit a single person with the invention of a dish, especially one found almost everywhere. With the lobster roll, it was probably a hungry lobsterman or his wife hoping to put something on the dinner table for their family.

Most agree with the revered Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink that the first restaurant to list the roll on its menu was Perry’s in Milford, Connecticut back in 1927. It was hot and drizzled with butter, which is now known as the Connecticut Lobster Roll. That doesn’t mean the backstory is undisputed—co-owner of Bayley’s Lobster Pound in Scarborough, Maine and great-granddaughter of the founder of the summertime institution, Susan Bayley Clough, insists her great-grandfather first put it on the menu in 1915, so the debate is far from settled.

America’s Sweetheart

And so the lobster roll continued its proliferation throughout the 19th Century, particularly on the East Coast where eateries like the historic Lobster Roll Restaurant out in Amagansett, New York made helped make it synonymous with summer fun. Then, in 1997, Pearl Oyster Bar opened in New York City with a roll so good, it would’ve broke the internet if we weren’t all still using dial-up.
Pearl Oyster Bar.

No longer relegated to summer travel and roadside stands, this lobster was on a very different type of train than its Victorian predecessor. Bon Appétit named the lobster roll their Dish of the Year in 2006; in 2009 it graced the cover of Gourmet Magazine. That was the same year Luke’s Lobster opened its first shack on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and today there are dozens of shacks in 10 states with more on the way and of countless other local purveyors scattered across the USA. You can find lobster rolls in landlocked places like Atlanta and Denver, and even on the menus of Pret A Manger and McDonald’s.

We may not all agree on where the first was served or what the “real” version is (#TeamButter), but we can definitely all agree that the lobster roll is %&@$ing delicious.