On islands geared toward tourism, food can be stunningly mediocre. Talk about a captive audience. But not Nantucket. It caters to a crowd chefs describe as both knowledgeable and demanding when it comes to dining. Eating well comes at a price, of course — there are high rents and high food costs to offset. And the market will bear it, if less than it once did.
“Last year, everyone lowered their prices,’’ says Pigalle chef Marc Orfaly, formerly of the Summer House. “The Bernie Madoff stuff all seems somewhere far away on the news until all those people affected in Florida aren’t able to use their homes on Nantucket. I found an old Summer House menu from 10 years back, and it’s amazing how high the prices were. You couldn’t do that today.’’
At the higher end, prices can be comparable with those at Boston restaurants or higher. There’s less in the midrange, and cheap eats are hard to find. A lobster roll will routinely run you $20, and it will rarely be worth it. Steering clear of imported ingredients such as avocado, maple syrup, and cheese can help keep the bill lower. Restaurant websites tend not to list prices, just as Nantucket realtors leave them off the listings in their windows.
But you didn’t come to Nantucket for the cheap eats, did you? Here you’ll find stunningly fresh seafood, restaurants stylish and cozy, and food that at its best can rival that on the mainland. Where to eat on Nantucket this season? Read on.
This is the restaurant most often recommended by island chefs I spoke with. A romantic little spot, it features chef Michael LaScola’s creative, very delicious, quite rich food. (P.B.R.-braised Buffalo-style pork belly with blue cheese fondant, anyone?) There’s also a cozy bar and a menu of small plates. I love the crisp, tart fried green tomatoes with smoky crawfish butter, and the scallop and beef cheek pastrami “sandwich,’’ a mouthful of savory flavors balanced by a nutty, sharp hit from rye brioche. 80 Centre St., 508-228-7111. www.americanseasons.com. Appetizers $13-$17. Entrees $26-$36. Desserts $9-$11. Small plates $6.
This beloved breakfast spot looks like a diner but doesn’t taste like one. How do you find it? Look for the line on weekend mornings. You can sit at a table, or grab a stool at the counter and watch the cooks at work. The menu includes a variety of egg dishes (scrambled with Thai curry, huevos rancheros), corned beef hash, Pennsylvania Dutch cakes with Jarlsberg cheese, and more. In addition to the usual hash browns, you can get black-eyed peas and cheese grits on the side. Serves dinner, too. BYO and cash only. 10 India St., 508-325-0308. www.black-eyedsusans.com. Breakfast $8-$10. Dinner: appetizers $8-$14. Entrees $18-$29. Desserts $9-$11.
Corazon del Mar
The newest restaurant from Seth and Angela Raynor, who also operate Federal Street favorites the Boarding House and the Pearl. Here, they offer upscale Latin American food: tapas, creative tacos, and more. The main attraction may be the ceviche bar, with several different versions of this fish dish. Mixed seafood ceviche features tuna, rock shrimp, bass, and tiny octopi one day. The fish is steeped in “green chili crack sauce,’’ a jade green liquid that is sweet, tart, and hot. Miniature arepas come topped with succulent, brick-red chili pork. There’s also Toro-esque grilled corn with crema, cotija, chili, and lime. An upstairs tequila bar is a good place to inaugurate the evening. 21 South Water St., 508-228-0815. www.corazonnantucket.com. Appetizers $6-$18. Ceviche and raw bar $15-$18. Entrees $22-$38. Desserts $10-$15.
Finding a meal on the island for $5.95 is a pleasure. That’s the price of Lola Burger’s classic hamburger — a quarter-pounder with lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickles. From there, things get less classic and more interesting. For $14.95, you can try the self-titled Lola Burger, with aged cheddar, red onion compote, and foie gras sauce, on a toasted English muffin. It’s very good, but the tuna burger is even better. It features a patty of sushi-grade fish, seared on the outside but rare in the middle, with soy glaze and wasabi mayo, also on an English muffin. Sushi meets burgers and all is well. Lola Burger is a spinoff of the popular restaurant Lola 41, which also brings together Eastern and Western flavors. You can get the Lola and tuna burgers there, too, and the bar is hopping. 10 Broad St., 508-325-0282. www.lolaburger.com. $5.95-$19.95.
In the cool turquoise light, you might be in Miami. The Pearl is decorated largely in white, with splashes of color provided by tropical fish darting about in large tanks. Pretty people in designer clothes sip passion-fruit cosmos, bright creatures in their own aquarium. The menu, based around Asian flavors and Nantucket seafood, isn’t just flash. It’s deeply good, with layers of intriguing flavors. Soft-shell crab tempura comes with addictive Singapore black pepper sauce, soy-cured tomato, avocado, and arugula. There are potstickers and Vietnamese lettuce wraps with crispy pork and fresh herbs, wok-fried lobster and caramelized miso black cod hot pot. If you’re here long enough, you’ll start craving harder-to-come-by international flavors, and the Pearl helps scratch that itch. 12 Federal St., 508-228-9701. www.thepearlnantucket.com. Appetizers $14-$22. Entrees $26-$44. Desserts $10-$15.
An essential Nantucket restaurant — by the water, fish-focused, in a gray-shingled building lit by candles. Chefs Gabriel Frasca and Amanda Lydon make food that is light and clean enough to appeal after a long day in the sun, but that still feels special: oysters with Meyer lemon granita, white almond gazpacho with lobster and red grapes, local diver scallops with the green garlic, fiddleheads, and favas of late spring. Their take on a clambake puts others to shame. It features a pool of sweet corn chowder topped with a composition of tender, sweet buttered lobster, potatoes, littlenecks, and slices of chorizo. The bar next door gets raucous later; it’s a good spot for a beer, some of Straight Wharf’s smoked bluefish pate with pickled vegetables, and the not-to-be-missed taquitos, one of the better bar snacks of all time. The day I try them they feature perfectly cooked, just-caught bass and cumin-and-garlic-laden black beans in a crispy tortilla shell. 6 Harbor Square, 508-228-4499. www.straightwharfrestaurant.com. Appetizers $9-$15. Entrees $26-$35. Desserts $9-$15.
The Summer House
There may be better food on the island, but the Summer House offers unique atmosphere. Overlooking the water in ridiculously charming, rose-trellised Sconset, it hosts what feels like a cross-section of old Nantucket. Even the menu is pink and green. The chummy crowd delights in live piano music and new chef Todd English’s food. Worth trying are beautiful oysters from Martha’s Vineyard and nicely cooked local fluke meuniere with rock shrimp. Less exciting are bland linguine vongole with gritty clams and the kind of upscale comfort food you can eat at home for less (lobster mac & cheese at $20, or a tiny plate of roasted figs with gorgonzola and Serrano ham for $16, for example).17 Ocean Ave., 508-257-9976. www.thesummerhouse.com. Appetizers $9-$20. Entrees $23-$36. Desserts $8-$25.
Topper’s at the Wauwinet
It’s a splurge, and here’s a pleasant surprise: It’s worth it. For the setting, of course: far away from the rest of the world, with an herb garden and an expanse of lawn that leads to the water. (Next week, their complimentary water taxi service starts up for the season.) But also for the food, wine, and service, all quite stunning. Chef David Daniels creates surprising takes on classic dishes. A chilled pea soup with crisp tempura peas, mint, and a bit of frozen Greek yogurt is one of the finer spring dishes I’ve had in recent years. A “terrine of odd things’’ combines foie gras, veal cheeks, trotters, and pickled mushrooms. Baked lobster tail comes with corn bread croutons, truffle sauce, and pea shoots; Wagyu short ribs with bone marrow bread crumbs. The wine list is as extensive as it is fascinating, and the many servers swirling around make you feel cared for but not smothered. Want to pause your dinner to watch the sunset? They’ll keep the cold things cold and the hot things hot while you do so. 120 Wauwinet Road, 508-228-8768. www.wauwinet.com. Three-course prix fixe $49. Chef’s tasting menu $80 (plus $80 for wine pairings).
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