I don’t know if the rain kept the tourists away or if the place has managed to remain a local Cape Cod secret after all these years, but I’m thankful for whatever stars aligned to let us to belly right up to the bar at Baxter’s Boathouse Club over Memorial Day weekend.
I’d always been disappointed by our past excursions to seafood restaurants on the Cape. Unlike our trips to Maine, where it’s all crustaceans (pretty much) all the time, our Memorial Day traditions on the right arm of Massachusetts have always entailed more grilled burgers and cold cuts than fresh lobster and fried clams. And while I’m happy to hoover down a few hot dogs while tossing bocce balls around the yard, when I’m this close to the ocean, I hear the siren song of fresh seafood calling to me.
Just off Hyannis’ main drag and built entirely on top of pilings stretching into the harbor, Baxter’s is a local favorite that grew out of the Baxter family’s fish market and fish & chips stand (still located next to the restaurant in the fish market’s former shed). From our bar perch, we watched the Hy-Line ferries returning exhausted sightseers from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard against the panorama of the Hyannis Rear Range Light (that’s the squat but classic little lighthouse you see at the edge of the harbor, for you non-lighthouse nerds.) Pints of local beers from the taps—Cape Cod Beer’s red ale and an American pale ale from the cleverly-named Naukabout Beer Company—served by friendly dudes in whale-embroidered khakis made the immersion even easier.
You’d think the space was done up to look like a reproduction of an authentic New England seafood shack, but this is the real thing. Pieces of the ship owned by 19th century sea captain and family patriarch Benjamin D. Baxter Sr. adorn the columns and walls, along with letters, photos, and press clippings collected from the business over the past century. (Though the Boathouse Club didn’t open until 1967, the Baxter family has used the buildings for fish-related ventures since 1919.)
And if the Baxter family’s been in the fish business this long, you know they’re not serving pre-frozen slabs and tentacles off a warehouse truck. My heaping platter of delicately breaded clam bellies—at least two dozen by my count—arrived with tartar sauce and a side of house-made, poppy seed-studded coleslaw. (Clam strips are also available for those of you squicked out by the soft, fried bellies.) Locals and regulars lounged in the director’s chairs surrounding the small round tables filling the wainscoted room, each table filled with plates of demolished lobster bodies, piles of shrimp and clam shells, and oversized golden fish fillets. A bowl of chowder carried by a server smelled too fragrant to be true, and the perfect warm-up for the dreary, rainy dusk that was falling.
For those who eschew fish but patiently sit with their better halves while they eat their way through half the seafood menu (thanks, Dan), the half-pound burger with beef from the Dennis Public Market isn’t just a menu afterthought for the ocean-averse. Though its de facto bun option is a croissant, Baxter’s will offer to switch it up for a hard roll if you’re concerned that the combination of buttery pastry + juicy beef is one step too close to a heart attack. You probably shouldn’t be ordering it with bacon if that’s your fear, but hey—split the difference.
Along with our mini golf tournament and near-daily trips to Four Seas for a pint and a cone, I sense a new tradition in the making for our Memorial Day weekends on Cape Cod. We might have to start staying a few more days just to fit it all in.
Baxter’s Boathouse Club and Fish & Chips, 177 Pleasant Street, Hyannis, MA. 508-775-4490; call for hours, as they vary throughout the summer season.