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Boston Restaurant Blog >> 2006 archives >> April, 2006 >> blog entry

Boston Restaurant Blog -- April, 2006

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Twilight Zone? No, the Red Barrel in Essex, MA

I had a rather bizarre experience at the Red Barrel on Route 133 in Essex, MA, last night. We were on our way back from Rockport and decided to hit the first restaurant we saw in Essex. It turned out to be this cozy looking English restaurant and pub set in a wooded location just over the border from Gloucester. I was pretty excited, especially coming off a really nice meal (with amazing beers, too) at the British Beer Company in Pembroke a few weeks back. Well, the Red Barrel turned out to be something quite different from the British Beer Company, or any other restaurant, for that matter.

We should have know it was going to be an interesting night when we tried to order clams and the waitress (perhaps the owner?) told us there were no clams there. As she said that, I thought back to the huge "CLAMS" sign I saw in the parking lot of the restaurant. We changed up our order and were halfway through it when she started to walk away. I told her that I hadn't ordered yet, so she came back and took it. Then we proceeded to wait about an HOUR for our meal--no bread, no soup, no salad. We were not the only ones, however; I kid you not, patrons were going behind the bar, helping themselves to beers and sour mix to make drinks. And even if they were regulars, this just seemed a little freaky to me.

About 45 minutes into our wait (and about 15 songs into the jukebox, which included songs from Bobby Vinton and Helen Reddy), I got up to go to the rest room. Covered on the walls of the rest room were old pages from British newspapers, including a couple of pages with photos of Page 3 Girls, wearing large smiles and nothing else. For some reason, by this point of the night, I was not all that surprised that there were pictures of women without clothes on in the rest room, so I sauntered back to the table and casually mentioned it while waiting for my salad that never came.

Finally, our Portuguese kale soups came, then, eventually, some rolls, then our dinners. And to be honest, both the beef and onion pie and the beef and mushroom pie were very good. As one of the diners brought over a couple of beers from behind the bar to us, I was actually thinking that the food was worth the wait. Then I looked out at the pitch black night and realized that when we first arrived at the Red Barrel, the sun was still pretty high up in the sky. We finished our dinners, paid the $65 for the two dinners, and left the Red Barrel, scratching our heads for a good several minutes as we drove past the wonderful seafood restaurants that line Route 133 in the center of Essex.

Sadly, we were still hungry after our two-hour stay at the Red Barrel, so we ended up drowning our sorrows in lots of ice cream at the excellent Soc's on the Lynn Fells Parkway in Saugus. It didn't quite make up for our strange, slightly disturbing experience at the Red Barrel, but it certainly helped a great deal.

Red Barrel on Urbanspoon

Related Blog Entries: British restaurants, Essex restaurants

17 COMMENTS:
J R said:
You think it's bad now, you should have gone in there when her father was alive; they fought like cats and dogs right in front of the customers...four-letter words, you name it.
Posted on 4/25/08
Oscar Reed said:
Well, I have to say this. The Essex/Ipswich area is the only place on Earth where you can get the genuine small, white, clean sand soft-shelled steamer-type clam. There's something similar in Maine - but it really doesn't matter 'cause no one down there knows a thing about steaming them. Worse, they know even LESS about frying them.
This is where the Red Barrel comes in. Too bad they were out of clams the day MH was there. The Red Barrel fried clam is truly the best in the world. Joyce uses the same recipe her father Brod (and many locals of decades past) used - exactly the right combination of Carnation canned milk and corn flour. Exquisite!
But this is not to say the Barrel experience is anything short of eccentric.
I was once there with my wife. We sat down at a table next to a party of four from New York who had been waiting for their order some 20 minutes before we'd arrived. Both of us ordered fried clams.
They were delicious! The problem was, they came BEFORE the New Yorkers' order came. Also, one member of the group said she ordered fried clams and was told (and I quote), "I'm really not in the mood to fry clams today. Why don't you order something else?"
It is bizarre, no doubt. I've known Joyce (the owner) my entire life. So, it's probably an advantage I have over tourists to get exactly what I order.
But MH should know. A big "CLAM" sign in front of ANY Essex restaurant does not necessarily mean they have clams. They're dug fresh, and sometimes there are red tides and local restrictions.
The Red Barrel does an extremely small volume of business (albeit likely because it's so weird). Joyce orders limited amounts of clams. Enough so they're extremely fresh when they ARE on hand.
Posted on 4/25/08
J.R. said:
Yup, she does cook great clams.
Posted on 4/27/08
Javier said:
She is weird..but amiable....the food is great and is always fresh. She cooks what she has in inventory...there is no food cooked the day before....Yes, you need to wait, it is an experience...I like it...she is eccentric but with a good heart..You need to get there and relax and travel back in time...
Posted on 5/6/08
SC said:
I have been to the Red Barrel many times, and I can tell you that is as close to a real English Pub experience as one can get in the United States. Joyce, the owner, bartender and cook, has created a very charming atmosphere to sit and have a drink as well as a good meal.
A real English Pub is a very casual place to have a pint and something to eat. In most pubs the emphasis is on having a drink and perhaps some food to go with the food. The Red Barrel serves English Ales and beers that are available in the United States. Menus are not extensive but rather homecooked and what is available that particular day. The menu choices are authentic to England as well as with an emphasis on fresh local seafood. Joyce is very particular about what she serves. She will only serve the absolute freshest of seafood so you can forget about being served anything frozen at the Red Barrel!
I have eaten in all of the restaurants in Essex and Gloucester that serve seafood. The fried clams and steamers served at the Red Barrel Pub are absolutely the best of any of the restaurants in the area. Joyce will feed you well, but as is the case in any authentic small English Pub, the menu items may not be available, especially on a Sunday night after a long weekend and the day before the restaurant is closed.
If you are looking for an authentic pub atmosphere this is it! If you are not interested in a place to have something to drink and perhaps what is available to eat that particular night, but are looking specifically for a seafood restaurant than this is not the place for you. You will need to go to a large restaurant.
Posted on 6/5/08
RAS said:
We visited RB a few years ago because we heard there would be some Irish music. When we arrived the musicians were in the back room rehearsing. Made me a little nervous. The owner (waitress) told us to go ahead and get our own drinks behind the bar because she was the only one working! It was the best Irish music ever!
Posted on 9/14/08
Dave Mig said:
We made the mistake of eating down he road at a best of..yuppie/ known clam place "worst clam chowder ever".....coming off the exit we passed the Red Barrel and made the call to stop on the way back..it made our day..great bartender, laughs and as the fried clam were served to the couple next to me I realized that money buys the best of....Go to the Red Barrel...Unless you want to sacrifice lousy food for overlooking a swamp and eating at a picnic table.
Posted on 4/18/09
DP said:
The Red Barrel Pub and Restaurant is a great place for a night out. Best Seafood dishes that I have had on the North Shore. Day-Boat scallops and local clams dug daily are incomparable. Good selection of beers from around the world. Great place for a casual, affordable night out.
Posted on 4/19/09
b said:
The best. Yes you have to wait for your food, but it is all made by Joyce...Brilliant. Red Barrel is unique.
Posted on 6/19/09
Mr. B. said:
Yes, The Red Barrel is the place to go when you want the best. This place is a bit "wacky," but you will get the best food in the area. This place is a national treasure. Go Now.
Posted on 11/3/09
Bee said:
Go to The Red Barrel before it goes away. It is unique and yummy. Hurry.
Posted on 12/1/09
da said:
Listen, you are not going to find a more charming or interesting character than Joyce. My husband and I look forward to going to the RED BARREL every year. Fancy? No! YUPPIE, god no! great food? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Who cares. It is always interesting.
Posted on 1/4/10
DSG said:
The Red Barrel is the best. Joyce works the place by herself. If the food she prepares for you is not freah she will not serve it to you. Sometimes there is a Red Tide with the clams so she can't get them that time and will not buy them from just anybody. I find going to the RED Barrel to have a evening out to have a very good meal and good chat with Joyce is the best. At times you go to a movie and spend that much for candy, popcorn and soda and a bum movie. So go and have a good time.
Posted on 3/22/10
Alan H Clark said:
Dear Sirs,
This 64 years YOUNG Englishman was delighted to visit this year [made me feel as though I was at home] "The Red Barrel" and wants to say "hello" to all those that have visited/still do that pub, plus other like-minded friendly social drinkers wherever.
Yours HOPEFULLY,
Alan H Clark
Posted on 7/3/10
Buz said:
I have been eating fried clams, and home-made fish and chips, at the Red Barrel for more than 40 years. Joyce is indeed an authentic New Englander and a great cook. Do yourselves a favor and stop by when you visit the North Shore. Have a pint and tell her that "Buz sent you."
Posted on 7/27/10
PB said:
Wait until the snow clears and the place opens for business. My family has not had a bad meal here in many years. Hidden gold within the knowing public.
Posted on 1/2/11
Brenda Gehrke said:
The food is very much worth the wait; and just think this: if YOU were owner, waiter, cook, bartender, bus'boy', and dishwasher, wouldn't you think that it would take quite a while to do all those things and still maintain a great tasting, authentic meal in a way cool place - and not to mention her age... yes, it's worth the wait, this one customer thinks! Plus, she doesn't really mind if you fetch your own beer or brings your dirty dishes and put them in the sink! Think of it as part of the ambiance!
Posted on 6/29/11

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