It’s a delicious paradox, in every sense, that the defining feature of this revered landmark is something that should be anathema on ye olde Cape Cod: a blazing, overscaled, gaudy neon sign. But where would downtown be without it? The Lobster Pot is coming up on its 70th anniversary without signs of slowing down. Judging from the lines outside, it can reasonably be called the quintessential town restaurant; the one where, sooner or later, everyone winds up eating. Equally remarkable is its continuity: all this time in the hands of only two families — Adeline (Santos) Medeiros LaFrance (d 2001) and her husbands Ralph Medeiros (±1911-1965) and Richard LaFrance, followed by Mary Joy McNulty (b 1938) and her sons Timothy F. (b 1962) and Shawn P. (b 1966).
This building has the further distinction of being the incubator of not one but two legendary Provincetown institutions. In 1937, Manuel G. Cook opened the Colonial Tap (soon to be the Old Colony Tap) at 321 Commercial Street, where it stayed for six seasons until moving next door to No. 323.
Medeiros arrived in Provincetown in 1938 from Plymouth, where he’d been born and raised. The next year, he married Adeline Santos. They opened the Lobster Pot in 1943. (Varying dates are given for this milestone, but ads that appeared in 1960 and 1961 referred to the 18th and 19th seasons, respectively.) In 1944, the Medeiros couple expanded the Lobster Pot to include a rear building and garden terrace.
After Medeiros died in 1965, his widow married Richard LaFrance. They continued the business until 1979, when they sold it to Joy McNulty, who had arrived in Provincetown in 1972 with four young children in tow and soon opened J’s Port of Call restaurant at the Crown & Anchor, with Jean Ann Siar (±1931-2003).
Tim became the executive chef of the Lobster Pot in 1982, when he was 20. The Top of the Pot — a second-floor bar, lounge and dining room — was added in 1990. The kitchen was substantially renovated in 2000 and 2001. These days, Joy can usually be found at the front desk, sorting out the arrivals with the aplomb of an air-traffic controller, and good deal more wit in the bargain. Shawn is the front-of-the-house manager.
From the moment you enter the Lobster Pot — and that can be many, many moments after you arrive — you’re aware of being inducted into a hyperenergetic production line. Just walking to your table, you’ll pass the lobster tanks, the pantry, the lobster station, the first and second grill stations, the fry station and the first and second sauté stations. There is a lot of artwork on the walls, most of it depicting the Lobster Pot. An enormous dining room sprawls out ahead, seemingly all the way to the water. Another dining room and bar, the Top of the Pot, are upstairs. As many as 600 lunches and 800 dinners are served here daily at the peak of the season by about 100 employees.
This could be off-putting, if not plain oppressive. And yet, the McNultys have managed the feat of making the Lobster Pot feel happily informal, as if one has stepped back a few decades’ worth of summers to a time of convertibles and Coppertone, 45s and transistor radios. Rather than being overwhelming, the kinetic energy is appealing. So is the mix of customers — young and old, big families and intimate couples, gay and straight, lifelong residents and flabbergasted tourists —in what otherwise seems sometimes to be an increasingly stratified town. So is the mix of employees, about 40 percent of whom come seasonally from Jamaica on H-2B visas. To criticism that she is exploiting foreign workers, McNulty has said that the Jamaican workers get equal pay for jobs that Americans won’t take in any case, that they pay taxes but also take home enough money to improve life on the island.
In the best tradition of civic Provincetown, McNulty has also seen to it that the Lobster Pot is involved in community affairs and causes, as sponsor and as host.
The most popular item on the menu, according to Tim McNulty’s Lobster Pot Cookbook (2010), is the Lobster Pot Clambake: lobster — boiled, baked stuffed or pan roasted — with mussels or steamers; clam chowder, lobster bisque or Portuguese soup; salad; pumpkin bread; corn on the cob; and roasted red potato. I am typing these words in Manhattan in mid-winter, thinking I’ll just have to wait another six months.