Like many Irishmen, my father never lets truth eclipse a good story. His tales kept three mouths quiet for most of I-95 during the annual Maine pilgrimages of my childhood. One of his inventions was “Henry,” a seagull who, my dad convinced us, awaited our return each August. As soon as we smelled grease from the Kennebunkport clam shack, my father would urge us to find our friend. Henry was a creature of habit, but a bird of many moods. There was Henry in repose, perched on the bridge and sneering at slow-motion tourists. Or Henry the pickpocket, swooping to snap clams from slippery fingers. We wouldn’t build sand condos and polish beach glass until we knew our pet gull had survived the winter.
Martha Piemonte is the Henry of Cap’n Jack’s restaurant. The loyal legions that flock to this East Matunuck institution must know her whereabouts before they order. The forty-seven-year-old pastry chef and hostess seats with Swedish efficiency and charms customers with her dry Scottish wit. One summer, Martha drove three “little old ladies” to the next pit stop after a tour bus left them behind in the bathroom. “We’re not getting back on that bus,” her passengers declared upon arriving in Watch Hill. “We’re staying with you!”
Cap’n Jack’s gray-blue building overlooks Succotash Salt Marsh. Sails luff in the marina next door and cranes forage in wheat-tall dune grass. The restaurant combines the ease of a clam shack with the comfort of a family restaurant. Some seafood places exploit the nautical theme until diners feel seasick, but Cap’n Jack’s keeps it simple: antique ship lanterns and brass portholes outside, captain’s chairs and pine panels inside. Jack Piemonte, sixty-one, and his father, Pete, paid $20,000 in 1971 for “Granny’s,” a twenty-by-thirty-foot burger barn on one-and-a-half acres. They renovated and expanded the space before opening Cap’n Jack’s the following year. The property is now worth $1.1 million. “In the old days,” Jack says, “closing time was when we ran out of food.”
Pete, who died five years ago at the age of eighty-five, was famous for his quick temper and for chain-smoking Marlboros in the restaurant’s non-smoking section. In the summer of 1980, Martha waited tables before classes resumed at the University of Rhode Island. The twenty-one-year-old nearly quit when Pete shouted at her that first week on the job. But the tips were good, so Martha reasoned, “I could get yelled at for $40 bucks a night.”
When Martha first met Jack, galaxies didn’t exactly collide, and she declined his overtures. But after her roommate sputtered, “You can’t date the boss,” Martha, who was never one to take another’s advice, had no choice but to accept Jack’s invitation for drinks. The couple was engaged by winter. Such spunk helped Martha weather her father-in-law, a baker who saved his sweetness for cinnamon rolls and grandchildren. When his grandson was a toddler, Pete gave him a chef’s hat and a Cap’n Jack Jr.-embossed apron. Junior played with pastry dough while Pete made crumb buns and blueberry muffins.
By age twelve, Jack Jr. grew to counter height. It was time to serve in “Vietnam,” the takeout side of the business. Taking orders from sun-bruised customers with grit in their shorts and fries on their mind can reduce a server to tears. A former air traffic controller lasted three weeks. But Jack Jr. enlisted. For his nineteenth birthday, his parents sent him to a bartending school. The twenty-two-year-old cooks at the restaurant during breaks from studying hospitality management at the University of New Hampshire. When his parents retire (only for the off-season), Jack Jr. will run the business. He even dates one of the waitresses; Martha-in-law hopes that history will repeat itself. “But no, I’m not planning their wedding cake,” she insists, with a Mona Lisa smile. “I’d make it if they asked. What do you think of individual cakes for each guest? Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Like Martha’s personality, Cap’n Jack’s is supersized. Its five-page menu is not for the fickle: Italian entrees such as gnocchi with meatballs ($11.95) and fettuccine Alfredo ($10.50) cozy up to seafood dishes like lobster bisque ($4.75) and flounder stuffed with shrimp, scallops and crabmeat ($14.95). Portion control is not on the menu. Waitresses compare biceps honed from hoisting platters of twelve-ounce fish and chips, one-and-a-quarter-pound lobsters and blueberry turnovers the size of baseball mitts. Martha, who studied pastry arts and baking at Johnson and Wales University, is flattered that little old ladies cut her eclairs in four and freeze them for desert.
The small-belly clam cakes here won’t stain your pants or ooze primordial sludge. They’re as light as beignets. Overmixed flour and recycled grease at other restaurants make clam cakes that are more dumpling than cake, “sinkers” that drop anchor in a customer’s memory. A reputation for sinkers does just that to business. In South County, Cap’n Jack’s, Aunt Carrie’s in Narragansett and Flo’s in Middletown are clam cake rivals. It took a decade for Jack and Pete to perfect their clam cake recipe. Only a few chefs know the process. “It takes a year to learn the details,” Martha explains, smoothing her sensible brown bob. “They have to know exactly when to add the clam juice and how to handle the dough.” It’s rumored that a Cape Cod restaurateur offered $200,000 for their clam cake recipe. “Do we look stupid?” Martha quips. “Of course we’d sell for $200,000!”
While some chefs guard a recipe as if it were the Holy Grail, Jack and Martha will share with customers — and they don’t “forget” a crucial ingredient. If the sun shines all week, Cap’n Jack’s may sell a total of 10,000 clam cakes, 2,500 pounds of fries and 4,000 lobsters. “We’re afraid that God is going to be a lobster,” says Martha. “When Jack dies, God will say, ‘How many of my people did you kill?’ ” The restaurant reaps 90 percent of its profits in the twelve weeks between Memorial and Labor Day. Summer business is 90 percent tourists and 10 percent locals; those ratios inverse during the off-season. Buying word-of-mouth advertising requires dedicated employees, so Martha is picky about whom she keeps around. (When she fires people, Martha tells them, “It’s not you, it’s me. I’m going to see other servers, and I think you should see other restaurants.”) The business remains open year-round to keep a core staff that includes a nineteen-year-veteran chef. Customers are equally faithful. Wakefield residents Ralph and Barbara Bowley have dined every other week at Cap’n Jack’s since 1979. They would stand on their roof deck and estimate the wait by surveying the parking lot.
The Bowleys and other customers appreciate a waitress who knows their idiosyncrasies. “One man has eaten here every Friday for ten years,” says manager Karen McPeake. “He gets upset when a waitress hands him a menu because he always orders the same thing: fish sandwich, no roll, lettuce and tomato, and black coffee with one Sweet’N Lo.” Martha has a particular soft spot for the eighty-two-year-old on a nursing home furlough. But those little old ladies can be dangerous. One scorching day, Martha had to call an ambulance three times to fetch elderly customers dizzy with sunstroke. By the third call, the dispatcher thought it was a prank. Her honest blue eyes mist as she recalls customers who have passed on; she never inquires about the spouse when regulars arrive solo. She and Jack celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary this year, but Martha doesn’t have a secret recipe for marital success. “We don’t bring work problems home,” Martha shrugs. “And if one of us is having a bad day, the other one keeps away. We’ll say, ‘Don’t poke the bear!’ ”
Cap’n Jack’s, 706 Succotash Road, East Matunuck, 789-4556 .