Maine hits the Mid-Atlantic

Sarah Tse
Girls who grow up in Boston don’t take lobster lightly. Give me a soggy lobster roll and I’ll give you a glare that might make you swear off seafood—but give me a cup of clam chowder crafted by a New Yorker and I’ll more likely laugh in your face. Unless your name is Luke’s Lobster, to whom I say, “You can drive your NY license plates into my MA driveway anytime, just make sure they’re attached to your food truck.”


The Philadelphia outpost of Luke’s Lobster has taken no adjustment period in acclimating to its South 17th Street location. Five months into operation, the downstairs space Bonte Wafflerie abdicated late last spring is back in full swing, prepping shellfish–packed rolls and platters five days a week. The small chain has been building Manhattan celebrity since Maine–born Luke Holden opened an East Village location in 2009. I arrived in Rittenhouse early, anticipating a crowd. There wasn’t one. There should have been.

The restaurant’s got chowder every day and a rotating soup special, both of which are made with Luke’s catch (nothing else makes it into his kitchens). After grabbing two Maine Blueberry sodas ($2 each) from the fridge, we sampled Monday’s lobster bisque and went back for a cup of New England clam ($8). On recommendation from a friend who interned with Luke’s last summer, we picked the “Taste of Maine,” ($20) which comes with three half–rolls—shrimp, crab and lobster—the sodas, your choice of Cape Cod chips and a pickle. We added crab claws and a side of coleslaw for kicks.

Philly doesn’t kill it with seafood. Stephen Starr opened Route 6 a few years back, and while the buzz was heavy then, the restaurant seems to have lost its oomph and joined the ranks of Starr’s other kitschy enterprises since. Oyster House on Sansom is rumored to have a decent happy hour, and once upon a time, Bookbinders served legendary snapper soup. Then bankruptcy boarded up that boss.

Everything about Luke’s fills that void. A roll’s excellence is determined by temperature; the shellfish should be cold—like it’s been pulled from its habitat and doused in mayonnaise onboard a Boston Whaler—unaffected by the warmth of a toasted, buttered bun. Crab, shrimp, no matter—pull off this balance and you make mouths water. Luke’s employees do so agilely.

The other stipulation is freshness. Deliveries arrive in Rittenhouse Tuesdays and Thursdays. You’re not getting seaside–shack–service, but a Quito native and I couldn’t tell, chances are you won’t either.

Dear Luke: you'll kill me for saying it, but in the end it all came down to the soup. A lot of people are freaked out by clam chowder—it’s white and creamy and, while I’d wear it like perfume, it sometimes smells like lowtide. But eating Luke’s chowder is like gliding down a well–groomed bunny slope on an otherwise tricky mountain—not enough clams to make you squirm, just enough potatoes to keep you calm and a healthy dose of dairy in an unassuming base.

Luke's Lobster 130 S. 17th St. @LukesLobsterPHL (215) 564-1415 Don't Miss: Clam Chowder Skip: Crab Roll $$