Probably you may not have given much thought to fish and chips. There’s nothing flashy or exotic about a few slabs of battered fish served with a heap of French fries. It’s a staple on menus up and down the New England coast—simple, extraordinarily tasty, and available just about everywhere.
However, this basic, ubiquitous meal has a deep history, hailing back as far as the 15th century, when Jewish refugees, fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal, made their way to England, bringing with them their tradition of frying fish dusted with flour on Fridays. Meanwhile, in Belgium in the late 1600s (or maybe France in the 1700s—the jury is still out), people began deep-frying potatoes, inventing the fries we know and love today.
The two fried foods collided in the 1860s, though there remains debate about whether the first “chippy,” as fish and chips shops are called in the United Kingdom, was opened by a Jewish immigrant in London, or an English entrepreneur in Lancashire County, to the north. Either way, the dish quickly took hold and has been an iconic British food ever since.
Fish and chips generally look a little different in the United States. Here we are less likely to douse our meal in malt vinegar, turning instead to tartar sauce and ketchup, and we often add onion rings into the mix. Cole slaw, a standard side for Americans, is virtually unknown in the U.K.
Hungry yet? OK, let’s get to the good stuff: Here are our picks for great places to indulge in a crispy, golden platter of fish and chips here on the North Shore.
Woodman’s began as a roadside shack back in 1914, and though it has grown, the restaurant has retained that same casual, rustic atmosphere for more than 100 years. Arguably the North Shore’s most famous clam shack, Woodman’s is famed as the birthplace of the fried clam—but their skill with the deep fryer extends to fish and chips as well.
The menu, which includes a section of gluten-free dishes, offers a few fish-and-fry choices. The fried fish plate comes with two large fried fillets atop a mountain of onion rings and fries so crisp you can hear it when you take a bite. If you like a smaller chunk of fish (more breading!), ask for fish bites instead of fillets. And keep your eyes out for the all-you-can eat fish bite special they often run on Wednesdays.
119 Main St., Essex, 978-768-6057, woodmans.com
Just up the street from Woodman’s is J.T. Farnham’s, another perennial contender for best fried seafood in Essex. The restaurant prides itself on wicked fresh seafood bought from local vendors, and that dedication is apparent in the food.
For fish and chips, order the haddock boat, which comes with fries, or check out the haddock plate, which comes with two choices from a list of fries, onion rings, and pasta salad. The fish can even be grilled with seasoning instead of fried if you’re looking for a lighter option. If you have room, accompany your meal with a cup of the restaurant’s renowned chowder. Dine outdoors at marshside picnic tables that offer gorgeous views of wending waters and waving grasses.
Fair warning: Payment is only cash or check only, so come prepared.
88 Eastern Ave., Essex, 978-768 6643, jtfarnhams.com
The low-slung building on the road to Plum Island may look modest, but, inside, Bob Lobster serves up fried seafood that has fans across the region. Though its lobster rolls get a lot of attention, chef Brad DeLibero pays almost obsessive detail to every item on the menu.
For the fish and chips, this means having local fish delivered from Gloucester every day and adamantly refusing to use frozen options. DeLibero has honed a recipe for a lightly battered fish, ensuring that the breading doesn’t overwhelm or distract from the fresh seafood it covers. Diners can choose the classic fish and chips, featuring smaller pieces of fish, or the haddock dinner, which includes two full fillets.
Either way, enjoy your food at picnic tables set against the Great Marsh for a meal that is quintessentially New England, with a touch of old England: Every table is furnished with a bottle of malt vinegar for diners who want to enjoy their fish and chips British-style.
49 Plum Island Turnpike, Newbury, 978-465-7100, boblobster.com
The Causeway Restaurant
The Causeway, a Gloucester institution, is a dining experience, with emphasis on the experience. The tiny restaurant smells like fried seafood heaven, greasy and briny. Hungry patrons are often lined up out front waiting for a seat at one of the dozen-ish tables inside. But the waitstaff is quick and friendly, and keeps the queue moving.
Now about the food. The fish and chips dinner is a tasty and bountiful platter, enough to serve two diners of above-average appetite (though if you’re really craving more, add fried shrimp and clams by ordering the fried combo plate). Either meal comes with super-fresh cole slaw, a mountain of salty golden fries, and a wedge of lemon.
If you’re not feeling the bustling vibe inside, grab your food to go, stroll over to Stacey Boulevard, and enjoy an alfresco feast with water views.
78 Essex Ave, Gloucester, 978-281-5256, thecausewayrestaurant.com