Shaw’s Wharf (New Harbor, ME)

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(Shaw’s Wharf Exterior)

Shaw’s Wharf is located in New Harbor, ME on the Midcoast. It has been in operation for many years and I have dined there many times over the years. The restaurant is perched above a lobster dock and customers can watch lobster being hauled off boats in large lobster traps. For obvious reasons, it is seasonal and operates from spring through around Columbus Day. Shaw’s has cultivated an interesting identity because it has the requisite characteristics of a tourist trap (lots of lobster, clams, and chowder, view of a Maine harbor, picnic tables and dining ‘in nature’) yet the clientele is always mixed between locals and vacationers. At night, the calm façade wears off a bit and the place can get a bit rowdy with activity from the bar downstairs. Therefore, we picked a sunny day and went there for lunch.

As an institution of mid-coast Maine dining, Shaw’s tends to get quite crowded at the middle of the day and so we went for a late lunch at around 3:00, when the outdoor seating area was empty. Shaw’s doesn’t offer table service, and one orders at the counter, cafeteria-style. The menu is enormous although this is likely an attempt to appeal to every age group, with sandwiches and lobster rolls, as well as seafood casserole and stuffed haddock for a more traditional, elderly crowd. There are no experimental or revisionist dishes and this is crucial because experimentation would clash with the minimalist identity that they rely upon. I ordered a cup of lobster stew and a large a la carte order of haddock, while my Mom and Dad each ordered haddock sandwiches. Everything on the menu at Shaw’s is something that can be found at any number of other Maine restaurants, and the only way in which they can claim any originality is not through the food but through the location in the specific harbor in which it is located. A meal at Shaw’s is different from dining at a different ‘lobster shack’ not because of the cuisine but because one is dining in this particular waterfront setting rather than a different one.

Our food took about 10 minutes to prepare and so while we waited for our order number to be called we sat at our picnic table and admired the view:

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Certainly, the view is very dramatic and likely the sort that entices people to vacation in Maine. In this regard, the view is also a bit alienating for a Mainer like me since I can’t relate to the context that non-Mainers have when gazing out into the harbor from the perch of one of the picnic tables on the outdoor deck. Watching the boats in the harbor—the same ones that catch the food served in the restaurant—reflects a transparency that exceeds even that of Fore Street. The view is so integral to the “Shaw’s experience” that one does have to reconsider where the boundaries of the restaurant are, beyond just the physical limits of the property; if one removed even one aspect of the view—the boats, for example—then the restaurant wouldn’t be able to satisfy the fetish people have for places like Shaw’s. While Shaw’s may appear to be a very simple operation, the restaurant still relies on an intricate composition that includes the water, boats, buoys, etc.

After our number was called, we picked up our food on cafeteria-style trays from the counter. Here is an overhead view of all our food on the tray:

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I had intended to begin with the lobster stew but it was hotter than anything I’ve ever been served in a restaurant. I can only guess that the stew was microwaved for too long, because the temperature was simply outrageous. So, I began with the haddock, a large, roughly 10 oz filet. This was a thicker filet than I’m used to and was cooked a bit longer than I’d normally like, but the blackened Cajun preparation ensured that there was still plenty of flavor.

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After about a 25 minute wait, the soup had finally cooled to the point that it was safe to eat. It would have actually been an adequate makeshift dessert if it had been more cream-based, but the broth was instead quite light. However, this was still a very heavy cup of soup due to the bountiful quantity of claw and knuckle meat.

DSCF0009I have ordered the fish sandwich on a number of past visits and so I didn’t sample them at this meal. I’m glad that I ordered the a la carte instead since the portion size was larger and I don’t find the sandwich roll very appealing.

I left the lunch with the same mixed feelings I’ve had on past visits. The temperature of the stew really affected the pace and sequence of the meal, although after it had cooled down it was quite good. On past visits the stew hasn’t been so burning hot and so I would still order this at future meals. What Shaw’s loses in consistency or precise execution they make up for in generous portion size and overall, the food is adequate. More than anything, however, Shaw’s is a restaurant that is defined by its view; this is a motif that has long been a defining characteristic of Maine restaurants and I’m not necessarily opposed to this. Instead, what I don’t care for is that there is literally nothing on the menu that one can’t find at any number of other places. While the visible working harbor suggests an “authentic” farm to table philosophy, I find that the restaurant instead embodies the cliché of the “Maine lobster shack.” Certainly, the seafood was pleasant enough, but I’m left wondering once again why it is that tourists fantasize about this type of restaurant.

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