Sampling summer standards

Two beachside meals, compared
By BRIAN DUFF  |  June 15, 2011

BEACH BONANZA A meal at the Crescent Beach snack shack.

Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth offers a chance to experience two varieties of summer dining. Right next to the beach hulks a massive concrete bunker housing the official beach lunch stand/snack shop. Just a Frisbee-golf par-four away, down a sandy path that yields to wooden slats, is the tony Sea Glass Restaurant at the Inn by the Sea. In order to compare these two approaches to summer food, we ordered identical meals at each establishment.

One of the best things about dining at Crescent Beach's state-run (or corporate-subcontracted?) snack shack before the crowds arrive is that you can appreciate the team running the grill. Nothing inspires faith in the future like an upbeat and responsible-seeming teenager. The kid at the snack shop gets it just right. He has a few favorites on the menu (cheeseburger) but he isn't picky ("clam burger is definitely good too"). He is realistic about the cuisine ("they're the frozen kind of fries") but in a tone that reminds you to lighten up about beach food. He balances a beachy mellow with the good posture and solid eye contact of the son of a military family. He relays your order to a woman at the grill who might be his mom, and he does it with respect.

The food is less inspiring, but it has its good qualities. The golden yellow of the cheddar really glistens in the sunlight, as do the amber granules of breading on the clamburger. The beef in the burger is mostly tasteless, but the meat is not visually offensive. The experience is more about fatty, bready mouthfeel than anything else. The flesh of the clamburger appears as an uninterrupted sheen of palpably post-frozen white. The taste is ambiguously seafoody. The fries were fine. The onion rings were lovely to look at, but in biting them a strange moisture ran into the mouth — possibly due to an under-fry. We could actually taste the onion, which was surprising, almost inappropriate, in this context.

The snack-shack tables offer entertaining views of families coming and going, which are always the most fraught moments of a visit to the beach. At the Sea Glass we saw several grandmothers being taken out for a birthday lunch — with teenage grandkids dressed as if for prom and on their best behavior. It is quite a different scene. The dining room is all red leather and plush carpet, and the patio all dark brown chair-caning. Our waiter could have been the older brother of the beach-shack kid. He assumed the seriousness appropriate to this fancier meal without being stuffy.

This high-end burger was genuinely pretty great. It was cooked to a perfect, juicy medium with a hint of pink. The meat had been given a nice char, and the rich flavor mixed nicely with a creamy blue cheese. The house potato chips where translucently thin, where we expected a thick cut. The crab cakes were also terrific — all meat and herb, with an overall lightness.

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