Woodman's of Essex is famous for fried seafood; steamed lobsters; and all things clam, from cakes to chowder. Situated on a piece of inland marsh on the North Shore of Massachusetts, the area offers up all the elements of an ideal coastal setting: rocky shorelines, tangerine sunsets, and sweet salt air. On any given weekend at Woodman's, a line of customers waiting to place their orders—most of them still sandy from the beach—stretches 50 long out the door, and the hunger in the air is as palpable as the fog of fried seafood that hangs over the place.
Inside, a view into the open kitchen reveals a crew of at least 20 seemingly high school–aged kids frantically working 10 deep-fryers and ladling out cupfuls of clam chowder for hungry customers. It's hard to believe that it all started with a desire to sell fresh clams.
Steve and Doug Woodman now co-own the business that their grandfather, Lawrence Woodman, started in 1914 as a simple roadside stand.
“My grandfather's nickname was Chubby,” Steve says. “He was a short man with a big barrel chest. He was a trolley engineer at the time and was digging clams to make some extra money.” When the stand opened up, it carried a few grocery items to draw customers in, but ultimately “Chubby was really trying to sell his clams.”
Chubby eventually began selling homemade potato chips. Then, on July 3, 1916, at the suggestion of a customer, he breaded and fried clams and sold them during Essex's Fourth of July parade. Steve says, “They put a sign up: ‘Fried Essex Clams.’ And people came in and bought them. My grandfather took in $35 that day, which was the most money he'd ever taken in on any day he was open. So, he wasn't a stupid man, he kept them on the menu.”
Soon the menu expanded to include clam cakes; clam rolls; and their famous, award-winning family recipe for clam chowder (see below), a true New England classic.