How far are you willing to go for a lobster roll? If you don’t know the answer to that question, take a trip to Neptune Oyster and do some research.
Neptune, a North End oyster bar that’s probably Boston’s best-known restaurant, is mostly a collection of terrible things: long lines, cramped quarters, loud noise, slow service, tourists, and a wallet-draining menu. But, it also has one more thing that’s hard to resist: really, really great food.
The first obstacle you’ll have to overcome to eat at Neptune is the line that snakes down Salem Street. At some point, a host will take your phone number and tell you to walk around for a couple hours, then you’ll come back and wait a little more. When you do get inside, your comfort level will depend on how much you enjoy flying on Southwest, because that’s how close you’re going to be to the chatty tourist next to you for the duration of your meal.
Even if your neighbors don’t chat you up, though, it’s not as if you’ll be able to talk with your dinner companion - the car mechanic’s garage decibel level stops most conversation before it can begin. You’ll find yourself thinking of a million different places where you’d be more comfortable, and wondering why you’re not there instead: your apartment, the beach, literally any other restaurant.
But then the food comes, and you remember why everyone’s trying to get into this place. The raw bar, for starters, is fantastic, with a collection of some of the freshest shellfish from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The entrees are very good, but they’re huge, and you’ll have more fun and get more out of your experience if you stick with the smaller stuff - like the johnnycake, an appetizer-dessert hybrid which might actually be the best thing on the menu.
As for the iconic classics here, they got that way for a reason, and you should try at least one of those as well. The warm lobster roll is a contender for best in the city, the chowder doesn’t have the consistency of wet cement the way standard pub bowls do, and the fried clams are close to perfectly done. Add it all up and Neptune turns out to be something exceedingly rare: a place that actually deserves its reputation.
So how do you beat the system? Go to Neptune at 3pm on a freezing Tuesday in January. Under those conditions, it’s possible - possible - that you won’t have to wait in line. If you want Neptune at any other time, you’re going to have to ask yourself how far you’re willing to go for it. It’s a question only you can answer, and that you might be afraid to ask. We can’t help, except to say that the johnnycake is pretty damn good. It’s worth a little soul-searching.
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