Hi, it’s Pete Wells, restaurant critic of The Times and hopeless summer person. I love summer and everything that comes with it — heat waves, shark sightings, weird smells, you name it.
Last week, panic set in as I realized September is well underway and I haven’t swam, fished, grilled or listened to “Padam Padam” anywhere near as often as I meant to.
But there’s still time. Our beaches are beautiful this month, with acres of wide-open sand to lie on. The water is as warm as it gets, drawing pods of dolphins to spout and breach just offshore. And some of my favorite spots on or near local beaches won’t close for a few more weeks. Others stay open all year long.
Spectro, Jacob Riis Park, Queens
There are two burger stands on the boardwalk at what’s called the People’s Beach, and each has its charms. Space Burgers, in Bay 9, the brick building at the west end of the park, flattens its grass-fed patties on a griddle, smashburger-style, giving them a dark and crunchy sear. It’s a fine day-at-the-beach burger, and you can get it with a lemonade slushie. Still, when I pull into the enormous parking lot at Riis, my car usually noses toward a spot at the other end of the beach. Spectro’s white prefab container is the only concession around, rising from the sand with the bold geometric confidence of an Ed Ruscha gas station.
The beef patties are a little taller and juicier than the ones at Space Burgers. The pickles are outstanding. The fries, slender and golden, are sprinkled with pepper and salt. There is watermelon juice, fresh honey-ginger lemonade — “with electrolytes!” the chalkboard menu promises — and many flavors of Ocean Bomb, a sugary Taiwanese soda in cans decorated with portraits of Sailor Moon and her fellow Sailor Guardians. (Friday to Sunday, weather permitting, at least until Oct. 1.)
Whit’s End, Rockaway Beach, Queens
Every bohemian beach town from Provincetown to Tulum needs a bohemian restaurant. In Rockaway Beach, that restaurant is Whit’s End. It has the cavernous, shadowy look of a roadhouse out on a country road, though it doesn’t have any beer lights. (Or any beer, for that matter.) Two oil paintings hang on the walls. Both are portraits of striped bass. This gives you a fair idea what you are in for.
Whitney Aycock, the chef and owner, leans heavily on seafood caught nearby. He cooks in broad strokes, with no regard at all for what’s stylish over in Manhattan. Slabs of local bluefin might be wrapped in crisp sushi rice and crisscrossed with spicy mayo. A super-smooth smoked bluefish dip, made with rivers of olive oil but no mayonnaise, comes with a Jenga stack of freshly baked crackers. The pot of clams is something to be reckoned with: chewy cherrystones and fried sticks of bread that you can soak in the pint or so of briny tomato sauce.
There is pizza, too, from two wood-burning ovens. Just don’t ask for a slice — one of about two dozen rules and best practices on a page of the menu called “The Ways of Whit.” It’s enthusiastically profane; “We like dogs” is one of the few items that can be printed in its entirety in The Times. (Year round.)
Butler’s Flat Clam Shack, Port Washington, N.Y.
I won’t try to tell you that the beaches near the North Shore town of Port Washington, N.Y., are more beautiful than Cape Cod’s. They are not. I will tell you, though, that Port Washington has a clam shack that may be the equal of such revered Cape seafood palaces as Cobies, Moby Dick’s and the Kream ’N Kone.
Butler’s Flat looks the part. It’s an unpainted shed on a Manhasset Bay pier where you order at the window, then look for a table next to the docks as sea gulls whine for scraps.The fried clams are fat and custardy under a crust that is less a helmet than a veil. If whole-belly clams, with their faintly bitter taste of organs, aren’t for you, the fried scallops, oysters and flounder are also archetypal. So is the lobster roll, an item that’s become more common in New York City than pastrami.
A more unusual treat is the stuffed quahog. Butler’s Flat bakes its stuffies in the Portuguese manner of New Bedford, Mass., flavoring the chopped clams and bread crumbs with garlic-scented bits of linguiça. The shack’s season ends in October, but about 20 miles south in Rockville Centre, Bigelow’s stays open all year, slinging seafood platters and chowder at its wraparound linoleum counter. A few yards away, eight lanes of traffic zoom along the Sunrise Highway, but Bigelow’s clams can make you hear the pounding surf. (Wednesday to Sunday, until Oct. 29.)