Local Alumni bring back Thompson Bros' Clam Bar in Harwichport

Thompson Bros. Clam Bar DVD released and on sale

  A mid-1970s postcard featured on the DVD's cover. Courtesy John Foster.

Thirty-seven minute DVD recaptures historic Cape Cod restaurant

Editor's note: Use the PayPal link below to purchase your own copy of the DVD.

By John Foster

The Thompson Clam Bar dock in the early years.

Edric Snow and Frank H. Thompson. Courtesy Baird Eaton.

"Hey, where ya goin'? I'm goin' to Thompson's Clam Bar, ‘cause that's where the tastıest clams are ..."

That was an ubiquitous jingle on local radio for decades. Until 1990, Thompson Bros.' Clam Bar was the most famous restaurant on Cape Cod, and the largest seasonal restaurant east of the Mississippi.

It served up to 2,000 dinners a night, put customers right next to seagulls, power boats and Wianno sailboats passing through the Wychmere Harbor channel, giving visitors who overindulged the chance to fall right into Nantucket Sound.

The Clam Bar put thousands of students, from all over the world through college and graduate school, including a Superior Court judge in Alaska and a professor at the University of Chicago.

Clam Bar fans include the US Consul in İstanbul, the founding director of  the National Institutes of Health and the Kennedy Family, and this week the Harwich Historical Society will release a DVD documentary about the restaurant's summer 1983 season.

A summer institution

On a typical July night, cars would back up from the end of Snow Inn Road all the way to Route 28.

The sound of a scratchy PA system cut through the roar at the bar, "Cove party, Cove party of two, head down the stairs, through the double-doors and ask for LESLIE; Steegstra party, Steegstra party of six, go down the stairs and ask for CATHY." 

"Frank set up the Irish Pub in West Harwich to give his workers a cheap place to drink. He was also part owner of Storyville, a club near Rte. 124 that featured the Kingston Trio and Ella Fitzgerald. There was even a Clam Bar II in Truro during the ‘60s."
         - Tommy Thompson.

Children swung out over Wychmere from a small playground, as their parents dug cheddar out of brown crocks with crackers, with littlenecks at 25 cents apiece.

Tanned coeds with shimmering hair, in white short-shorts and scarlet shirtails tied across the waist hoisted ten or twelve drinks overhead. Joe Zalzack, of the Harwich Police Department was Head Shucker, splitting clam after clam, sometimes behind his back.

It was family chaos, continuing with keg parties after for the employees, many of whom probably weren't even of legal age.

Diners could choose from baked lobster, boiled lobster, broiled lobster and Lobster Wychmere, The King of the Sea!, or Lazy Lobster for hesitant newcomers. Desserts included regional specialties like Indian Pudding. The Clam Bar was the place to bring guests on Cape Cod, and there was no other restaurant like it.

"We need to bring back so important a piece of Harwich's history," said Desirée Mobed, Director of the Harwich Historical Society.

"Like the Kennedy Library, we're in the process of digitizing our collection, and this DVD will preserve the Clam Bar experience forever," she continued.

The Hi-8 film, shot and edited by John Quincy has been transferred to a consumer-friendly format, and is now on sale at the Harwich Historical Society headquarters at the Brooks Academy Museum at 80 Parallel Street, at Route 39 & 124 in Harwich Center, 508 432-8089, or on its website, at a price of $20.00. The package includes photos from the early 1900s to the present.

From garage to biggest seasonal restaurant on the East Coast

Restaurant expands, 1955. Courtesy Baird Eaton.

Thompson Bros. First Business Lobster Wholesale.

Thompson's began as a dockside lot for the Cadillacs and Packards of the gentry at the Snow Inn. When a gas station was added, boats used it as well, sometimes backed up six or seven vessels at a time. The three Thompson brothers, Frank, Edric and Biddle had been told by their parents, "go out and make some money." Watching the traffic, all three saw the potential for a wholesale fish and lobster business. Despite no experience or industry knowledge, the brothers stumbled into success.

Frank invented an elevator hoist to carry fish up from boats into a shack, "Haddock Hall" where they could be iced. A second version of this hoist remains in service today at the Chatham fish pier, built by Frank at the locals' request.

The fish wholesaling business was very profitable, with product leaving the dock by trailer trucks straight for the tables of Manhattan restaurants. Lobster wholesaling was another story. Even though the boys "lost their shirts" according to Biddle's son Baird Eaton, "the rich folks would walk down the hill to watch the lobster tanks."

Often the swells were hungry, and the boys began selling chowder and littlenecks to visitors from a counter. Word spread, the menu grew and by about 1950, the Clam Bar came into operation: "See ‘Em Swim!" Thompson's stuck with local contractors like the Our and Marceline families, and within just a few years, the restaurant took over the entire back wharf up to the town landing. By the early 70s it was a Cape Cod institution.

"In the early years, most of the clientele were guests at the Snow Inn - they came less for the food than for the chance to watch sailboats in the channel, and boats unloading their haul for the day." - King Foster, first Clam Bar shucker.

Senator Ted Kennedy came by boat.

US Speaker of the House Thomas "Tip" O'Neill was a regular. Joe DiMaggio visited as well as TV stars on-Cape for summer stock. Thompson's Clam Bar delighted the public up until 1990, until a new owner closed the restaurant and turned it into a catering facility.

New owner, new plans?

At this writing, the property has been sold yet again, to a consortium of Boston-area investors.

Whether they're interested in reviving the most famous restaurant on Cape Cod is an open question. Those interested in learning more about Thompson's can visit the semi-official tribute site, which includes the jingle and a short YouTube clip of the film. Comments are welcome. The DVD lets former fans relive the experience of dining "by the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea," the original melody of the jingle, lyrics by Eleanor Thompson Stevens, Frank's wife.

Purchase the video via the PayPal link on the  right.

The YouTube clip has been viewed almost 1,200 times. Clam Bar alumni from 1950 through the late 1980s plan a reunion for summer 2011, to be held at Allen Harbor Yacht Club in Harwichport.

The Clam Bar in Wychmere Harbor on Route 28 in Harwichport 2010. Courtesy Stephanie Foster.

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