Just as Southerners bicker about barbecue, New Englanders are choosy about their chowder. Setting aside the issue of regional variations (creamy in Massachusetts, clear broth in Rhode Island), the very philosophy of what makes chowder chowder, and what constitutes a “best chowder” is subject to debate.
This stew-like dish has been around for centuries, so its precise historical roots are hard to peg. While the name is thought to derive from the French chaudière, referring not only to the “cauldron” but the ingredients within, the earliest published recipe comes from the September 23, 1751, edition of the Boston Evening Post. A layered “chouder” of onion, potatoes, salt pork, and fish (milk came later) was seasoned with salt, pepper, and herbs such as thyme, and served with hard crackers or “Biscuit.” Later, flour or cracker crumbs were added as a thickener. Over time, that evolutionary tree split further, yielding lobster chowder, Manhattan clam chowder, corn chowder, chicken chowder—enough variations to make an old salt sputter in indignation.
Chowder was never meant to be fancy. But it does evoke community: a shared bowl on a blustery day, a warm and savory meal, a taste of the seaside. We’ve scouted some of the best chowder offerings in New England, honoring tradition while favoring local flavors (and giving vegetarians reason to celebrate as well).
The Best Chowder in New England | 6 Picks (Plus Recipes!)
Historically, corn has been a major crop for the farms that lie along the fertile floodplain of the Connecticut River Valley. So while this version of chowder breaks from the usual potatoes and salt pork, its New England and Native American roots are solid. Chef Christopher Prosperi of Metro Bis, an innovative bistro tucked inside an elegant country inn in Simsbury, strips the sweet kernels and simmers the cobs in water to make a wholesome corn broth. In August, when the corn is at its peak, he says the broth is so sweet “you want to bathe in it.” He even freezes bushels of corn so that he can serve the stew year-round. Some added sweet potatoes, a little garlic, and cream turn this chowder from sultry to sassy. The Simsbury 1820 House, 731 Hopmeadow Street, Simsbury, CT. 860-651-1908; metrobis.com
When Helen and Larry Mugnai opened Helen’s Restaurant in Machias, Maine, in 1950, their fish chowder—made with North Atlantic haddock—was served only on Fridays. So you can thank current owners Julie and David Barker, who made some slight alterations (let’s call them improvements) to the “wildly popular” chowder, for making it a daily item. Its simplicity and resourcefulness are all Down East ingenuity: The haddock is cooked in the potato water, and that broth becomes the basis of the chowder. When a devastating fire last summer forced the Barkers to rebuild their restaurant, they upgraded the design by relocating a fireplace and adding small conference rooms and a bar, but they knew where to draw the line: They wouldn’t dream of changing the menu, which means that the haddock chowder is here to stay. Diners will once again enjoy a hearty bowl overlooking the Machias River when the restaurant reopens, which the Barkers say is sometime early this spring. 111 Main Street, Machias, ME. 207-255-8423; helensrestaurantmachias.com
If salt pork, potatoes, and onions define traditional New England clam chowder, then this one is a classic, save for the use of bacon instead of salt pork. There’s always a pot simmering at this shingled shack on Chat-ham Pier, ready to ladle into pints and quarts. While purists might protest the roux (a mixture of butter and flour) used as a thickener, this not-too-thick, not-too-thin creamy-briny chowder—full of fresh chopped clams, potatoes, bacon, and a hint of thyme—will win them over. Chowder master Doug Ricciardi’s secret? Keep it “old school” by using white pepper. Nothing fancy but mighty fine, especially eaten at the nearby picnic tables on a sunny day with a view of the water and seals swimming by. 45 Barcliff Avenue Extension, Chatham, MA. 508-945-3474; chathampierfishmarket.com
Already a successful lobsterman at 18, Jack Newick began buying up land around Dover Point, piece by piece, in the 1940s. More than six decades later, his one-time lobster shack is now a seafood beacon, accommodating up to 600 people at a time and promising a romantic sunset from just about any seat in the house. People make the trek from far south and west to crack open a steamed lobster or gobble up the excellent fried seafood. But the rich seafood chowder—one of six “chowdahs” on the menu—is such a hit that it has to be made off-site. You can get your chowder the “original” way, teeming with bay scallops, shrimp, clams, and haddock—but insiders know to ask for added lobster, which turns this chowder into something like a seafood tour de force, and a contender for the best chowder in New England. 431 Dover Point Road, Dover, NH. 603-742-3205; newicks.com
No wonder Rhode Islanders prefer clear broth over cream—at every turn, they’re surrounded by saltwater. To savor the Ocean State’s take on chowder, visit Matunuck Oyster Bar, overlooking the eddies of Potter Pond in South Kingstown. This rich broth is loaded with potatoes, bacon, and either cherry-stones or quahogs (same species of hard-shell clam, quahogs being bigger than cherrystones), depending on what’s fresh that day. Owner Perry Raso is so fastidious about his shellfish that he operates his own seven-acre oyster farm right by the restaurant. 629 Succotash Road, South Kingstown, RI. 401-783-4202; rhodyoysters.com
VERMONT CHOWDER | THE RESERVOIR RESTAURANT & TAP ROOM (see Note below)
How can a restaurant in the only landlocked New England state claim Manhattan clam chowder as its own when the tomatoes are from Rhode Island and the clams come from the coast? Leave it to migration (and the fact that many Manhattanites have found refuge in the Green Mountain State). When Vermont native Shawn Beede attended Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, he interned in Bar Harbor, Maine, where his boss served a tomato-based chowder. Now he puts his own stamp on the form by adding spicy sausage and bacon, sourced locally from Vermont Smoke & Cure. It’s the perfect antidote to a chilly spring day and a reminder that whatever the form, New Englanders are sticklers when it comes to quality chowder.NOTE: We’re sorry to report that The Reservoir is no longer serving their Manhattan Clam Chowder with Spicy Sausage, but you can still enjoy this delicious chowder at home by making the recipe yourself.
Where are your picks for places to get the best chowder in New England?
This post was first featured in Yankee Magazine in 2015 and has been updated.