Madison's Clam Castle has been a Route 1 attraction for about six decades, welcoming smiling, sunblock-streaked guests before and after trips to nearby Hammonasset Beach. Three seasons ago, the roadside clam shack received a bit of a makeover, thanks to three brothers.
Chris, Patrick and David Donahue, who have owned and operated several restaurants in Fairfield County, first came to Madison seven years ago to open Donahue's Madison Beach Grille. When the clam shack was up for sale, they bought the property and reopened the restaurant in 2014 after extensive renovations, adding "Donahue" to its name.
"It's always been a landmark," David Donahue says of the seasonal destination, which is open April through October. "We just love the spot. It's beautiful. … We were just excited to come in, spruce it up and give it a lot of love."
The refreshed interior now features light-colored paint and kitschy beach-themed décor, with lighthouses, buoys, lobsters and seagulls adorning the walls. A sign at the cash register playfully warns visitors: "Happy clams welcome … Crabby pants not allowed." Outdoor seating for 65 people, including picnic tables sheltered under a gazebo structure, offers more nautical touches.
Donahue's Clam Castle retains its core seafood menu, but with some updated recipes and preparations. Classic hot buttered lobster rolls are staples, along with assorted shellfish breaded and cooked in pure canola oil. Fried whole-belly clams, scallops, shrimp, oysters and cod are offered as individual servings with housemade tartar sauce and lemon, as platters with fries and coleslaw or on toasted rolls as sandwiches. Servings and platters are $10 to $22 and sandwiches are $8 to $13 (lobster rolls, fried whole-belly clams and fried oysters are all market-priced).
Internationally acclaimed chef (and Madison resident) Jacques Pepin has shared his love for the Clam Castle — particularly its lobster roll — in several food publications.
"He came in the first year we opened," Donahue says. "He's a wonderful guy; his wife is delightful."
Guests enjoy three fresh soups daily, including New England and Rhode Island chowders and lobster bisque. Fish tacos ($8 for two) have also become favorites, available with a generous portion of fried, broiled or blackened cod on tortillas with pico de gallo, cilantro, cabbage slaw and lime crema. Shrimp tacos ($11) with pickled onion and chimichurri sauce are another new addition. (Gluten-free corn tortillas are available for tacos, and sandwiches can be made with gluten-free rolls.)
A daily specials board allows the kitchen to experiment, with recent options like lobster mac and cheese (a four-cheese blend with panko topping); lobster grilled cheese with white cheddar and fontina, tempura-battered soft-shelled crabs, and a "rodeo" burger with cheddar, barbecue sauce and fried onion strings. Manager Sloane Tompkins, who is David Donahue's longtime companion, says she enjoys looking at food apps and websites, jotting down ideas for future menus.
The menu also caters to those who don't like seafood, with a full selection of meat and vegetarian items ($3.50 to $8). Burgers are popular, Donahue says, as are Hummel hot dogs, a pulled pork sandwich, a cheese steak, veggie burger with roasted red pepper remoulade and housemade Southern-fried chicken nuggets, served in a bag with fries and choice of dipping sauce. Guests are encouraged to BYOB.
Visitors anticipate their first Clam Castle meal of the year as soon as the temperatures rise, and it gets busy quickly, Tompkins says. When they opened the doors on April 21, dozens of diners told her they'd been driving by, looking for signs that the 2016 season had begun.
"It's hard work, but it's what we do," Donahue says. "We love it, thank goodness. You've got to love what you do."
Donahue's Clam Castle, 1324 Boston Post Road, Madison, is open daily, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. 203-245-4911, clamcastlect.com.
This summer we’re telling the stories behind Connecticut’s beloved seasonal restaurants — the destinations that open for an all-too-brief time period in fair weather. These are the small lobster shacks with the buttery rolls you crave in January when you’re shoveling snow, the ice cream stands that throw open their windows with the first warm breeze, the beach-town eateries where the salt of fried whole belly clams and onion rings is enhanced by ocean air. Read more in our series of seasonal destinations here.