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DINING OUT

Causeway Restaurant

78 Essex Ave., Gloucester

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; till 9:30 p.m. Friday- Saturday

All credit cards except Discover

No smoking

Handicapped accessible

978-281-5256

It was the buzz that convinced us that we had to check out the Causeway Restaurant in Gloucester. The man who sells us our car insurance raved about it. The nurse at the doctor's office told us we really should try it. The guys shingling a friend's house were Causeway regulars.

So, what were we waiting for? A night when we were really hungry. We had heard, from all sources, that the portions at the Causeway were huge. Even strangers gushed about that fact.

''You'll never finish your meal -- guaranteed," said a lady who sat down next to me on a bench outside the restaurant. ''You'll take it home and probably eat it for three days."

I wasn't quite sure whether to believe her -- until our plates arrived. They were heaping, and somehow totally in keeping with the atmosphere inside the Causeway, which was boisterous and genial. It might have helped that a liquor store right next door conveniently sold the libations for the bring-your-own-bottle setups.

Every table in the 51-seat restaurant was filled the Thursday night we arrived at 7 p.m., and the waiting line outside was growing. Owner Peter Zappa said that on weekdays, people sometimes wait up to an hour before they get in. On weekends, the wait can be an hour-and-a-half. So, if you're coming with hungry children -- and there is a simple children's menu with standard favorites such as chicken fingers for $3.95 -- you might want to arrive at 4 or 5 p.m. to avoid the line.

Our wait was just 10 minutes. Inside, the air was steamy and fragrant with the salty sea smells of clams, mussels, calamari, and fish being cooked and tossed and served in abundance. We squeezed into a little table for four, with a green Formica top, next to an open window. Two large ceiling fans churned the air. Seafaring motifs, including a wooden lobster mounted on a ship's steering wheel, decorated the walls. Along the back wall, a mural depicting a wharf scene camouflaged a built-in air conditioner.

This seemed like just the kind of place to eat fried clams, and my husband ordered a plate of them for $15.95. He was impressed with the size of the platter -- and just as impressed with the clams.

''They're good and fresh," he said between mouthfuls. But there was one disappointment: the tartar sauce wasn't homemade. Maybe it never is, but this serving came in its own individual package. However, that didn't stop him from eating every clam on his plate.

Next came the grilled steak tips ($9.95) for our son. His eyes lit up at the pile of them. Now, we're on day two of the leftovers, and counting -- and the tips are still juicy, said our son.

My baked coconut rum haddock ($12.95) was about the amount I would serve three people at home. Topped with a coat of rum-and-coconut-flavored breadcrumbs, the haddock I couldn't finish at the Causeway made a tasty lunch the next day for my husband and me. We didn't bother with the french fries, though. They were a little greasy.

The climax of the evening was placed before our friend. He ordered the seafood marinara ($15.95) with shrimp, scallops, mussels, and calamari on a bed of linguine. It arrived in a big metal dish that looked like an oversized frying pan.

''This is doggie bag country here," he said, and dove into the mussels. He regretted for a moment that his wife hadn't been able to come. But he realized soon enough that she'd get a very good taste of the place when he brought -leftovers home: About a quarter of the way through the marinara, our friend couldn't eat another bite.

''No dessert," he pleaded.

But we had to try some. Slices of chocolate cake and cheesecake (both $3.95) made a fine ending to our meal. It didn't seem fair to linger, not with the line that had grown outside.

''People get their money's worth and it's a friendly atmosphere," said Zappa, explaining the line.

We would agree with that.

COCO McCABE

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