The smoke usually begins swirling above the trees on Boston Post Road in late April, signifying the start of the season at one of Connecticut's most distinctive summertime stops.
This must be The Place.
Guilford's seasonal outdoor clambake, where lobsters, clams and corn are licked by flames fired by hardwood on a massive grill, traces its roots back to its original beginnings as Whitey's in the 1940s. The restaurant owner employed local teens, including brothers Vaughn and Gary Knowles. Vaughn and his wife, Judy, took over in 1971, and Gary joined the business in 1974.
When Vaughn Knowles was looking to rename the restaurant, he came back to an old saying of Whitey's: "There's no place quite like this place, anywhere near this place, so this must be the place."
Four and a half decades later, the Knowles brothers (along with their families and longtime staff) have forged a legacy all their own, continuing the spirit of Whitey's casual roadside seafood grill, but shaping its cult following with personal touches.
Diners who have visited for generations know the drill: The Place is a rustic, no-frills operation, but that's part of its appeal. It's BYOB and cash or check only, and the expansive outdoor space features more than 50 alfresco tables, where guests sit on stumps, eat with their hands and toss clam shells to the ground at the end of the meal. Every day is a laid-back cookout.
Vaughn Knowles' daughter Vanessa Charette acknowledges the über-casual atmosphere isn't for everyone.
"Not everyone wants to sit outside on a tree stump, but if you do like that kind of thing, this is the only place you can do it," she says.
Veterans have spent years perfecting their experience, packing picnic baskets with tablecloths, wine glasses, candles, chair pads and, sometimes, their own plates and utensils. The Place also encourages guests to bring anything else that might complement their meal, like appetizers or prepared sides.
"Newbies who come in and look at them and go, 'Well, what are they doing?'" Charette says. But more first-time guests are now coming prepared, she says, if they research the restaurant online before arriving.
Charette says she steers newcomers to a trifecta of dishes that best represent The Place: clams, corn and lobster, all roasted on the fire. The littleneck clams are cooked directly over flames until they open their shells, served plain or with a baste of butter blend (a mix of melted butter and margarine) and a drizzle of cocktail sauce. Fresh corn is grilled in the husk and dipped in butter; and the lobsters are boiled first, then finished briefly on the fire for a smoky flavor.
The original Whitey's menu started out with lobsters, clams, corn, shrimp and steamers, says Vaughn Knowles, but over the years, The Place has gradually added additional fish options (bluefish, catfish and salmon, cooked in foil packets); mussels in wine and garlic, grilled chicken breast, rib-eye steak, a "veggiebob" skewer with assorted vegetables and balsamic vinaigrette and desserts, including assorted cakes and pies and ice cream.
"We say that we add a new item every decade," Knowles jokes.
Lobster prices range from about $18.95 to $29.95, roasted clams are $11.45 per dozen, steamers are $16.95 per pound and mussels are $11.45 per pound. Bluefish, catfish and salmon are $11.95 to $14.95; chicken is $9.95 and rib-eye steak is $18.95. Roasted corn is $3.45 and veggiebobs are $6.95. Desserts are $2.95 to $5.95.
Charette says that The Place's formula has worked for so long, they don't see a need to augment the menu much, in part because guests are encouraged to bring whatever they like. "If we start adding [more,] we're changing who we are. So we keep it the same."
Charette's parents always said she "grew up teething on clam shells and corn cobs" and now her 3-year-old daughter is following in those footsteps, too. "I was raised here, so I want to raise my kid here, too. It's a wonderful place to learn about family business."
"I would never want to see this place go under," she says. "I have cousins and siblings who feel the same way. It's part of who we are. If The Place wasn't here, it would be like a missing piece. I'm dedicated to trying to learn the business and being part of it to help out, and to make sure that it continues."
The Place now has additional significance for Cheshire couple Justin Ivey, 26, and Julia Riczu, 24, who became engaged at the restaurant on the evening of June 24. Ivey asked a staff member to take their picture, then dropped to one knee and proposed to his girlfriend of one year.
It was also the site of their first date. "Justin is the most passionate person in the world about this place," says Riczu.
The Place was Ivey's ideal spot to ask Riczu to be his wife. "The food's spectacular … it's such an easy atmosphere, it's laid-back … it's outside, it's something completely different."
The Place, 901 Boston Post Road, Guilford, is open from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday; 1 to 10 p.m.; Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Hours change to weekends only in October. 203-453-9276, theplaceguilford.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.