Sprague’s Lobster is seen across the road and down the way from the line outside of Red’s Eats in Wiscasset on a recent August day. The two neighboring shacks are said to have a legendary rivalry. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Wiscasset” is a four-letter word to summer travelers along Route 1. Whether heading north toward Rockland or south to Portland, there always seems to be some vehicular snarl centered around “The Prettiest Village in Maine” and its pokey, two-lane thoroughfare. For some, the interminable slowdown is enough to write off Wiscasset forever. But for me, it’s an excuse to stop. If I’m already driving slower than I could ride a bike, why not get out, stretch my legs and find something to eat?

Decades ago, during my first time in the seaport of Wiscasset, I did what many people who began life “from away” do: I just followed the queue at the intersection where Railroad Avenue and Main Street converge.

The lobster roll at Red’s Eats. The father of the current owner put it on the menu. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Back then, even before the days of its many feature appearances on the Food Network, Netflix, even CBS Sunday Morning, Red’s Eats knew how to lure tourists out of their vehicles. Current owner Debbie Gagnon credits that act of culinary seduction to her father, who bought the already generations-old shack in 1977 and decided to sell a full Maine seafood experience you could hold in your hand: a lobster roll.

“Dad loved to eat, and he’d tasted a lobster roll somewhere that was awful: frozen meat like wet cardboard, too much mayo and celery,” she said. “He said right then that he was going to turn that lobster shack around and make a good one, a fresh one, that people would remember.”

And the lobster roll at Sprague’s Lobster, just a stone’s throw from Red’s Eats. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Across the intersection, Frank Sprague’s own fast-casual restaurant was taking form, linking two rustic shacks to create a dining compound with a waterfront deck overlooking the Sheepscot River, a small parking lot, occasional live music and full steamed lobster meals – all ready to go by the start of the new century. I reached out to Sprague’s Lobster repeatedly for more of the story, but nobody had responded by our publication deadline. That said, by the time Sprague’s was running at full operational capacity, having a fresh Maine lobster roll on the menu was de rigueur – thereby setting up one of the Midcoast’s most famous culinary rivalries.

Or is it? Talk with Wiscasset residents, and you’ll hear a more nuanced story. No Montague vs. Capulet, Coke vs. Pepsi scenarios here. A friend of mine who once ran a business in Wiscasset told me last year that, “Visitors who drive through Wiscasset think the Spragues and the Gagnons hate each other. That’s lie No. 1,” he said with a laugh. “No. 2 is that the traffic has anything to do with lobster rolls. It’s the road, the (25 mph) speed limit and the bridge.”


Unsure, I paid attention the next few times I passed through what National Geographic once called the “worm capital of the world,” and counted precious few cars turning left or right for lobster. “If we were enclosed restaurants, we wouldn’t have shouldered that blame for so long,” Gagnon told me. “Our guests are either in line, parked or eating. But people are visual, and they associate the traffic with us. That goes for both of us (Red’s and Sprague’s).”

Sarah Rouillard hands Mila Cuomo her family’s lunch order at Sprague’s Lobster. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Both businesses share more than blame. They also share a nearly identical approach to preparing their signature dish. At either restaurant, about $35 (prices vary with market costs for lobster) will score you a butter-grilled split-top bun levered open to its maximum width and stuffed beyond physical capacity with steamed Maine lobster — my estimate is at least a third-of-a-pound of meat per roll, including claw, tail and knuckle meat. On the side, deli cups containing either drawn butter or extra-yolked mayonnaise.

From my perspective, differences between the two are slight. Sprague’s roll is a little brinier, and its buns a little less substantial, while Red’s seems to use more butter (Kate’s Butter) and hand-tears meat into larger pieces. Both are so enormous that they need to be wrapped to maintain the pretense of structural integrity. On the strength of lobster rolls alone, the two are tied. Either would be a good choice for a hungry adult who wants full autonomy over how their roll is dressed.

When speed is a concern, Sprague’s is frequently a better option. Lines on this side of the road are short, thanks to the size of the space and faster turnover. There are also fewer Instagrammers here snapping filtered pics of themselves twirling in sundresses or cramming pricey, oversized sandwiches into their mouths, whole. The Sprague’s side offers less to gawk at, but is also perhaps less fun for that very reason.

Even in the rain, customers line up for the lobster roll at Red’s Eats. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Joining the line at Red’s Eats can also provide its own entertainment. A few weeks back, I trailed behind a mother and her two preschool-aged children. “We’re going to do a purse reveal every five minutes,” she announced, reaching into her handbag and palming an object that she held behind her back. “One guess each, and the one with the most points wins an extra hour of Minecraft time.”

Brilliant. Yet after witnessing the extraction of keys, hand sanitizer, money, ChapStick and a paper clip, I grew as tired of playing along as the kids did. Four additional items later – well, five actually, but the travel-sized bottle of much-needed SPF-50 did not count – we made it to the ordering window.


A group of tourists visiting from Pennsylvania finish up their lunch at Red’s Eats. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Everyone was exhausted by then, but when I placed my order, I got the same sort of little frisson that comes when the attendant slides the safety bar down over your roller coaster seat. Having survived the line, I deposited myself in a white plastic patio chair and ate, even testing out Gagnon’s excellent suggestion to ask for lemon aioli sauce on the side for a zippier (if nontraditional) lobster roll. I also did something I wasn’t inclined to do across the street, despite Sprague’s welcoming patio with its picnic tables and view: I lingered.

I’m sure it was all about sunk costs, but I never felt inclined to scarf my lobster roll and leave. While seated, two Sprague’s employees wandered over to chat with the staffers at Red’s. What kind of bitter rivalry is this, I wondered?

“We get asked this every day. Those are my friends over there. We’ve all been friends for years,” Gagnon told me. “My boyfriend and I go over to listen to David (Sprague), who’s Frankie’s son. He’s in a band, and we hang out with them. I always say to people that it’s more important to support local than to choose sides. There’s enough sun for everyone to get a tan.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: andrewross.maine@gmail.com
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Customers eat lunch at Sprague’s Lobster. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

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