Three teenage girls stood on the deck of The Bite in Menemsha wearing sweatshirts over their swimsuits to keep the chilly dusk breeze at bay. The sun was setting and the last call for fried clams was about to go out, but the blue-painted picnic tables next to the small cedar-shingled shack were still full of people eating.
The girls collected a cup of chowder and an unassuming paper bag of fried goodies from Mike Flynn behind the counter and walked off toward the beach. The walk from The Bite to the beach isn’t long, but one teenager couldn’t resist dipping into her snack, wondering aloud, “Can we eat them on the way?”
This is Vineyard fast food. Family-owned businesses, not franchises, with burgers and fries on the menu but more about the daily catch in all its forms. Whether at the Oak Bluffs harbor, Menemsha Bight, Net Result in Vineyard Haven or the Aquinnah cliffs, the food always comes with a water view, and chowder is always on the menu.
Some fast food eateries are part of larger sit-down restaurant such as Nancy’s Snack Bar, Giordano’s Clam Bar, the Aquinnah Shop take-out window and the Quarterdeck. Faith’s Seafood Shack, Dreamcatcher and The Bite are more prototypical clam shacks. The Galley combines both features. Food is delivered through a take-out window but customers can sit on a screened porch around the back.
The eateries are staffed by a counter crew, mostly college-age workers who write the name of their schools on the tip jar. Food arrives within 10 minutes, 15 if there’s a long line, and is delivered with maximum portability in mind. Pint and quart cartons, clamshell containers, cardboard trays — to-go is the operative word.
“It can’t be summer on Martha’s Vineyard unless you’re eating fried seafood, walking around on the beach,” said Jason Giordano, clam bar manager at Giordano’s in Oak Bluffs. The clam bar, like its fellow fast food places, follows the ebb and flow of the tourist season. In the winter months, the cedar-shingled buildings near the docks and harbors are shuttered. Their opening signals the arrival of warmer months.
James Shepherd and Faith Vanderhoop at Faith’s Seafood Shack on the Aquinnah Cliffs say they get calls from Island visitors who haven’t even stepped off the ferry yet to place orders for their annual summer kick-off meal. “They want to start off the season with a lobster roll,” Mr. Shepherd said. As summer winds down, he said, people plan their departure so they can swing by once more for a final roll.
At the Quarterdeck in Edgartown, the Fourth of July brings lines that stretch around the corner of Kelly street to up and up and up the block, three-year staffer Tonya Sequeira said. “Everyone’s here,” she said. At Nancy’s Snack Bar in Oak Bluffs, the Monster Shark Tournament draws the biggest crowds, and at Giordano’s it’s fireworks night. The daily noon-to-two lunch rush happens at all of the places, but some locations have distinct surges.
In Menemsha, lines swell according to the sunset forecast, although Karen Flynn at The Bite noted that rainy days bring crowds as well. Beachgoers seeking ice cream line up at the Galley until 9 p.m., and the Quarterdeck in Edgartown draws crowds until two a.m. on weekends. In Aquinnah, the regular arrivals of tour buses mean steady business for all three of the eateries atop the cliffs — Faith’s, Dreamcatcher and the Aquinnah Shop. Jacob Vanderhoop, chef at the Aquinnah Shop, estimates that around 2,000 people a day visit the cliffs in the high season.
“Once we get rolling, it’s always busy,” he said.
At Dreamcatcher in Aquinnah on a recent Tuesday, owner-chefs Gordon Perry and Dona Mazza bustled through a mini-rush as two tour buses came through. They chatted with customers through the small window of the kitchen.
“The best part is meeting people,” Ms. Mazza said.
“We have fun,” Mr. Shepherd said, describing a 20-person karaoke session that took place last week at Faith’s. “If you enjoy what you’re doing, it carries through to your food.”
It’s not just one-stop tourists who lead the way. Locals, too, enjoy their summer fare, and regular summer visitors become old friends over time.
“You get to know more and more people every year,” said Merrily Fenner, who co-owns The Galley in Menemsha with husband Frank and her sister in law Barbara. “We feel fortunate, very fortunate.” The Fenners purchased The Galley 15 years ago as they were preparing to retire. “We really look forward to opening,” Ms. Fenner said.
As much as the menu and the ever-present ocean views, Vineyard fast food is defined by the people behind the scenes, where family connections are the anchors. Mr. Giordano is part of the fourth generation of Gio’s at the counter, while Mr. Vanderhoop is the third generation to run the Aquinnah shop. They’ve both seen the businesses grow over time, and both say that waking up and working with family every day is the best part of the job.
“Everyone converges here in the summer,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.
“It’s just been a lot of fun, we have a lot of laughs,” Karen Flynn said of her 25 years working with sister Jackie Flynn Morgan and brother Mike Flynn at The Bite.
Family doesn’t necessarily mean direct relatives, though. The counter staff often begins work when they’re teenagers and continue every summer through college, forging tight friendships.
“I love the atmosphere here . . . I can go to them with anything,” Ms. Sequeira said of the Quarterdeck crew.
“It’s like community,” she said. “It’s our community.”
View a photo gallery at Summer Take Out.