Cape Cuisine: Historic Restaurants of Cape Cod


As one of the oldest settled areas of English colonial America, the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts maintains a rich and eventful history despite its relatively small geographic area. Once a region used predominantly for fishing and whaling, Cape Cod and its nearby islands boast a booming tourism industry in the modern era.

The region consists of the Cape, a peninsula jutting out of Massachusetts into the Atlantic Ocean, and two major islands, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

Although Cape Cod has evolved beyond the centuries serving as a notable fishing and whaling hub, much of its diverse and varied culture remains intact. The local cuisine reflects the region’s rich cultural heritage, and many of Cape Cod’s restaurants have historic, as well as culinary, significance. Most of all, the proud tradition of fishing results in exquisite, fresh seafood.

A Taste of History

Before it was colonized by Europeans, the Wampanoag Native Americans resided on the peninsula. Europeans first settled there when the Mayflower landed near modern-day Provincetown in 1620 before ultimately settling in Plymouth.

From the 1600s to the 1800s, Cape Cod developed relatively slowly due to a lack of arable soil on the narrow, sandy stretch of coastal land. Through the 1800s and early 1900s, Cape Cod rose to prominence as the cornerstone of the East Coast fishing and whaling industries. By the late 1900s, Cape Cod’s reputation as a tourist destination had grown substantially, paving the way for the culturally diverse region it has become today.

Currently, Cape Cod is more vibrant than ever, with a booming tourism industry driven by its beautiful landscape and centuries of rich history. Many of the original buildings are brimming with history, from colonial-era inns to the docks and lighthouses that memorialize Cape Cod’s nautical prominence during the last two centuries.

Cape Cod’s coastal landscape also informs a rich tradition of food and cooking. Colonial influences and an abundance of fresh seafood have merged with more modern styles as Cape Cod’s tourism industry gained prominence.

Historic Locations, Fresh Flavors

Cape Cod’s restaurants are often housed in historic buildings or notable sites. Colonial-era inns and old nautical supply stores make up some of Cape Cod’s most beloved restaurants. Many owners have maintained their historical value, carefully preserving the architectural details that make them unique.

Old Yarmouth Inn

One restaurant, the Old Yarmouth Inn, claims to trace its ancestry back to a Colonial era inn founded in 1696. Though the current restaurant no longer allows guests to rent rooms, it still provides an amazing dining experience. A guest registry dating back to the mid-1800s definitely supports its significance as a century-old inn. It continues to serve traditional Cape Cod fare, emphasizing local seafood like clams and oysters.

Mac’s Shack

Mac’s Shack is a locally popular seafood restaurant located in the town of Wellfleet. This local seafood joint has a giant lobster fisherman adorning the roof, an homage to the restaurant’s history. In prior decades, the building housed another well-known restaurant, the Lobster Hut.

Like many Cape Cod restaurants, Mac’s focuses on seafood. However, they go beyond traditional recipes and incorporate broader influences into their dishes, taking advantage of the popularity of seafood trends like sushi and sashimi.

You can find a second Mac’s location in Wellfleet, a clam-shack and fish market right on the harbor. This traditional-style seafood market on the docks of the Cape bay recalls its rich nautical history; for centuries, people have been eating fresh seafood on that same pier.
A third Mac’s location exists in Provincetown, a town close to the site of the original landing of the English pilgrims.

Riverway Lobster House

The Pazakis family owned and operated the Riverway Lobster House from 1944 to 1996 before it was purchased by the current owners, the Siscoes.

Famous for its basic New England fare, like clams and lobster, Former Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill loved to stop by for a non-traditional menu item, the Riverway turkey dinner.

The Red Cottage Restaurant

Located in South Dennis, locals as well as tourists gather each morning for breakfast or lunch at The Red Cottage.

Owned and operated by the Rosenbach family since 1951, The Red Cottage started off serving basic Cape Code fare, but they currently offer dishes based on local traditions. They also enjoy a great reputation from online reviewers like Fodor’s, Yelp, and TripAdvisor, who list The Red Cottage as one of their most highly recommended establishments in Cape Cod.

A Tasteful Conclusion

A diligent explorer will uncover a wealth of regional lore by simply eating at Cape Cod’s local restaurants and fraternizing with locals. It’s amazing how local flavors can teach us about aspects of history that we can’t learn from books, so starting planning your trip to the charming village of Cape Cod!