Ford's Lobster at Noank's Haring Marine can trace its roots back less than a decade to a simple hot dog cart.
When Kristian Nyman bought the business in the Noank section of Groton in 2005, it was a marina and fuel dock, and he also sold lobsters at retail. He continued that for a few years, but it was "not sustainable," says his wife, Kerrie Nyman, as prices fluctuated for both. So Kristian bought the cart and began selling lobster rolls on the property.
"It was sort of amazing," she says. Word spread about the lobster rolls, and visitors came not just by boat, but by car and on foot. Shortly thereafter, Kristian bought a grill, and they added dinners. As more guests noticed the food, the restaurant expansion continued gradually.
Today, Ford's isn't "your typical sort of clam shack where you go up to a counter and order," Nyman says. The operation is significantly more sophisticated than its beginnings, as chefs prepare upscale entrees in an open outdoor kitchen and waiters ferry plates to tables on a deck overlooking the water. Even though the menu features everything from sandwiches to fine steaks, Nyman still describes Ford's as casual, but with "good, simple food," and guests enjoy a BYOB policy.
Lobster is a natural focus on the menu, in classic styles: boiled whole and served with drawn butter and lemon; lobster rolls in both hot and cold varieties, risotto and Thermidor. Gourmet items include a grilled cheese sandwich with lobster and avocado, lobster Reuben, lobster Alfredo and lobster and chorizo fettuccine with seared scallops and sherry cream sauce. Entrée and sandwich prices range from $19 to $34.
But it's hard to beat the indulgence factor of the Lobster Bomb ($37): a bread bowl, toasted briefly on the grill and filled with 8 ounces of buttered lobster meat. Some guests even take it a step further, requesting a ladle of rich, creamy lobster bisque on top. "It's not low-calorie," Nyman says, laughing.
Even with Ford's creative preparations, "we definitely don't want to be pigeonholed as just lobster," she says. Lunch features blackened fish tacos with mango avocado salsa, a crab cake sandwich with chipotle aioli and a classic burger. Composed salads feature grilled chicken, sesame-crusted ahi tuna and blackened salmon. Items range from $8 to $25.
Lunch and dinner menus both include a multitude of starters ($10 to $19) with fresh seafood, like sauteed calamari in a jalapeño lemon sauce, clams casino, littleneck clams and Cajun peel-and-eat shrimp. An entrée of apple cider scallops ($30) with four large pan-seared and honey-glazed mollusks over baked spaghetti squash, is among the best-sellers.
Non-seafood main plates include pesto chicken with penne ($19) and grilled New York sirloin ($24,) and Ford's also offers frequent specials during both meals, with recent options like coconut curry mussels, lobster mac and cheese, a seafood stuffing sandwich, seared curry scallops and crispy citrus salmon.
In recent years, Ford's has begun to offer Sunday breakfast from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., presenting an extensive list of Benedicts and omelets( $8 to $21) with seafood (lobster with avocado, jumbo lump crab, gravlax) and hearty breakfast meats, along with sweet-tooth favorites like buttermilk pancakes and Texas-style French toast with butter and cinnamon sugar.
When the summer weather is ideal, Ford's is hectic; with a no-reservation policy, seating is first-come-first-serve and weekend evening waits can run from 90 minutes to 2 hours. "And people will wait," Nyman says. Summer weeknights can often be just as busy.
As the weather turns in the fall, guests gather in its indoor dining room, a converted storage shed, in chillier months. The restaurant closes for the month of February, but otherwise serves lunch and dinner continuously. A loyal crowd of locals keeps Ford's going after tourists and summer visitors drift away at the end of the season.
The indoor and outdoor seating areas are entirely seasonal, and weather-dependent. The deck isn't set up for service until the weather is consistently reliable, and when the operations move outdoors, the indoor seating stays dormant until fall. "When we move out, we're out," Nyman said. "We try to gauge the season."
Nyman is proud of Ford's evolution in recent years.
"It's a beautiful space, a beautiful spot. … It was just born from, 'All right, let's see if anyone wants to buy a lobster roll," she says. "I like knowing where it started and where it has gotten to. I like that it started super-small, and that it was success upon success — small successes that led to where it is now, which is something cool to be part of."
Ford's Lobster, 15 Riverview Ave., Groton, is open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. 860-536-2842, facebook.com/fordslobster.
Summer's Sweet Spots
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. Find the series throughout the summer at ctnow.com/summersweetspots.