Restaurants

Woodman’s of Essex is the most iconic restaurant in the Boston area, according to readers

Union Oyster House was a close second.

Clams from Woodman's of Essex
Clams from Woodman's of Essex. Woodman's of Essex

After months of polling and a week of voting, one treasured local institution emerged as the most iconic restaurant in the Boston area: Woodman’s of Essex.

When the bracket launched earlier this week, it featured a list of 64 restaurants that held a special place in the hearts of Bostonians. Longtime favorites like Kowloon, Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, Cabot’s Ice Cream & Restaurant, Santarpio’s Pizza, and Mike’s Pastry were all in the running, though it eventually narrowed down to two seafood-focused stalwarts: Woodman’s of Essex and Union Oyster House. More than 1,260 readers voted, eventually crowning Woodman’s of Essex as the ultimate winner for the most iconic restaurant in the Boston area.

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Lawrence “Chubby” and Bessie Woodman first opened the North Shore destination in 1914. Two years later, as the story goes, Chubby would invent the dish that put Woodman’s of Essex on the map: the fried clam. According to lore, a local fisherman was a fan of Chubby’s homemade potato chips, and suggested Chubby fry up some clams as well. After giving it some thought, Chubby and Bessie experimented with a few batters, invited customers to try out the fried clams, and received rave reviews. The Woodmans debuted their innovative dish at Essex’s 4th of July parade, and kicked off a New England love affair with the fried seafood.

It’s not surprising that Woodman’s has such a dedicated following. In March, we asked our readers to name the best places to enjoy fried clams around Massachusetts, and Woodman’s of Essex landed solidly in first place.

“There is nothing better than original fried clams and an ice-cold Sam Adams on a breezy summer night at Woodman’s!” shared Laura from Melrose at the time, while Pat in Cambridge praised “the outdoor area you can chill in and have a drink while enjoying world class seafood!”

“Even in the middle of winter I can eat a little bite of summer,” said Deb G. from Darien, Conn. “We always stop on our way from Southern Connecticut to Maine. The clams are the very best!”

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While Woodman’s of Essex won the bracket with 52 percent of the vote, Union Oyster House followed closely behind with 48 percent. The historic Boston landmark is known as the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the U.S., and has served diners since 1826. Its oysters, of course, are a draw, but readers called out its historic charm as well.

“What’s not to love?” asked Diane from Natick. “The history, the great food, wonderful wait staff, and the ambiance! It is a Boston icon. Sadly, with so many other Boston restaurants calling it quits because of the pandemic, I am relieved that my favorite is still going strong.”

“Standing outside and looking at the scale of the building, you get a sense of its age, history, architectural beauty, and unique charm,” said Jane S. from Boston. “The charm continues inside with the oyster bar, centuries-old booths, and upstairs where so much history took place. There’s no other restaurant in this world quite like the Union Oyster House!”

One reader, who said they worked there as a cook from 1975 to 1977, noted that it prepared them for “my next 40+ years as a chef in the Boston area,” while another said that they loved “sitting at the oyster bar and watching the shucker in action!”

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Readers also showed love to a few runners-up, including Mike’s Pastry and Santarpio’s Pizza, both of which made it to the Final Four.

“It’s almost unchanged over the years,” one reader said about Santarpio’s Pizza. “Same ambiance, many of the same staff, menu mostly unchanged, consistent quality, taste and local dining experience.”

Of Mike’s Pastry, Olger from Somerville noted simply: “It’s the best place [where] you can try a dessert.” Enough said.

Do you agree that Woodman’s of Essex is the most iconic restaurant in the Boston area? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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