May 22, 2014

[Retro Roadmap] The Clam Box in Ipswich, Mass.

  • By: Beth Lennon
Credit: Beth Lennon
The Clam Box restaurant in Ipswich, Mass., was founded in 1935.

As the weather turns warmer, hitting the road in search of snapshots and snacks is a fun way to spot programmatic architecture (also known as “places built to look like something other than a building,” e.g. shoe houses).

Thirty miles north of Boston, the Clam Box in Ipswich is just such a roadside destination, a beacon not only for travelers curious about this uniquely shaped building, but also for the famous and tasty mollusks served within.

The Clam Box was built in 1935 by Richard Greenleaf, who designed the tall trapezoidal building to look like a king-sized cardboard to-go container popular for fried foods and ice cream. The flaps are tipped open on top as if to welcome a gargantuan portion of the Ipswich fried clams that make this roadside stand doubly famous.

Credit: Ed Kopp, Flickr
The Clam Box's menu boasts more than 20 different seafood plates, from scallops, clams, and shrimp to lobster rolls and haddock sandwiches.

Initially, the building was freestanding, serving clams and ice cream to travelers on this route between the highway and the coast. An expanded dining and kitchen area was added in the 1960s, but was designed so as not to obscure the distinctive shape of this roadside landmark.

In keeping with the classic New England look, the grey cedar shake shingles are accented with crisp white painted trim. Snappy red and white awnings hang above flower boxes studded with geraniums, and white clam shells dot the landscaping. Hidden behind the top “flaps” of the second story of the box, a rubber roof has been made to fit to the unusual building shape.

A seasonal business, the Clam Box springs to life from mid-March until just past Thanksgiving. During the stormy winter months when the restaurant is closed, the flat roof often needs to be cleared of snow with special shovels designed just for such a task.

Credit: Beth Lennon
The restaurant's design is intended to represent a large cardboard to-go container, which is commonly used for fried foods and ice cream.

Current owner Marina “Chickie” Aggelakis and her son Dimitri have owned the Clam Box since 1985. Distinctive restaurants are a family affair, as her father once owned the classic Agawam Diner just a few miles away in Rowley. As only the fourth owner of the Clam Box in almost 80 years, she’s committed to keeping the Clam Box’s reputation for quality food intact, and only serves locally harvested clams.

“They may stop here because of the shape of the building,” she says, “but the quality makes them come back again and again.”

She and her crew pause every afternoon to change and filter the oil used for frying the soft-shelled clams -- a combination of beef tallow and vegetable oil. (“Lard gives an aftertaste,” Aggelakis says.)

Credit: Beth Lennon
Customers are welcome to enjoy their meals in the dining room or on the outdoor deck during the warmer months.

Folks waiting patiently in a line that sometimes wraps around the building know that this is part of the ritual, and their food will be well worth the wait. After all, this is Ipswich, famous for clams.

The topography of the North Shore of Boston lends another interesting regional distinction to the clams served at the Clam Box. While many restaurants will call any clams with bellies “Ipswich Clams,” real Ipswich clams come from the tidal mudflats of the Great Marsh, the largest salt marsh in New England.

Where other soft-shell clams can be harvested from the sandy bottoms of coastal waters, genuine Ipswich clams are grown in mud, not sand, and have a distinctive (and less gritty) flavor. Dredged in flour and fried to their bursting point, they are a seasonal delicacy that many feel embody the taste of summer at the beach.

Credit: Beth Lennon
The popular fried clams plate entrée is served with french fries, onion rings, and cole slaw.

Purists know the only way to eat a clam is with the belly attached, savoring each the briny earthy bite, and road scholars know that the Clam Box is the place to do it.

The Clam Box

246 High Street
Ipswich, MA 01938
(978) 356-9707

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