It's not your imagination. That unmistakable aroma of freshly fried seafood at Clinton's Harborside Marina really is coming from a old Bruno & Stillman lobster boat.
Welcome to Shanks, which adds a seaside twist on the food truck craze. While planning a new food service option at Harborside, marina owner John Benchimol says he considered buying a trailer and designing it to look like a boat to fit in with the maritime theme.
"Or, we could get a boat and make a boat into a food trailer."
Benchimol found the decommissioned boat at the Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center in New Haven, and spent more than a year gutting and renovating the vessel, outfitting it with a full commercial kitchen. The boat lives on dry land in a gravel lot, and the kitchen space operates like a food truck, with its own frying and cooking stations, hoods, refrigeration and freezers.
Shanks, which takes its name from a former bar on the marina property, opened in mid-May, after months of anticipation. As crews readied the boat for its eventual use as a restaurant, Benchimol says, people would drive in and ask, "Are you open yet?"
"The best advertisement in the world was the fact that it took us a year to open."
Guests place orders at the boat and grab a numbered lobster buoy, then head to seating overlooking the water. Servers run the food to the dining area, a building with several indoor tables and an expansive outdoor wooden deck. That structure was rebuilt following hurricane damage, and FEMA regulations required that the new deck be at least 13 feet high, Benchimol says. The result is a sparkling, unobstructed water view, a peaceful scene with boaters and paddleboarders cruising by.
Shanks' menu presents beach-side favorites, including a full selection of such fried seafood staples as shrimp, clam strips and whole bellies, scallops and calamari.
"In our mind, everybody comes to the shoreline to get fried seafood," Benchimol says, but healthier choices include a summer garden salad ($7.95) with optional proteins.
Fish tacos with mango salsa ($9.95) quickly became best-sellers, available with either grilled or fried fish. Shanks also features sandwiches with grilled or fried fish and grilled chicken ($7.95 to $8.95,) along with burgers and hot dogs ($5.50 to $8.95.) Guests start their meals with New England clam chowder ($6,) peel and eat shrimp or fried buffalo shrimp ($12.95.)
Shanks is BYOB, and offers a few treats for dessert, including confections from a local vendor, The Drunken Baker, created with beer and liquors.
Lobster rolls are absent from the mix, as Clinton mainstay Lobster Landing is just steps from the Shanks boat, but Benchimol believes the two seafood-focused restaurants offer more choices to visitors.
Shanks will wind down its season in October and likely close by Nov. 1. Before then, the restaurant plans to host dinner guests for Clinton's end of summer celebration and fireworks display on Aug. 20, and Benchimol would like to have events like cruise nights to make Shanks "more of a destination."
"You've got to come and find it," he says of the marina. "But once you get down here, we've got 3,000 boats sitting around here, you've got the town beach over there, you're looking at Long Island Sound. … We've got people coming [by boat] from Long Island. People want a destination they can take a boat to."
Shanks, 131 Grove St., Clinton, is open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. 860-669-4224, shanksclinton.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. Find the series throughout the summer at ctnow.com/summersweetspots.