A peek into the past: Martha’s Vineyard restaurants from years gone by

Nancy's in Oak Bluffs is one of the Vineyard restaurants that has stood the test of time.

If you’ve been frequenting the Island for years you might remember when the restaurant at the end of Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs was Nick’s Lighthouse. What about when it was the Brass Bass? Oyster Bar? Balance? Oyster Bar again? That is the nature of Island restaurants: the buildings and facades mostly remain the same but the food and ownership change. We all have our favorite restaurants and dishes from years gone by that shine bright in our memories.

Here are some memories from the Island community:

“It was a real treat for us to go out to dinner. We went maybe two times a year,” says Eckie Wolff of Edgartown. “There was so little to choose from back then.”

As a child, Ms. Wolff lived across the street from The Kafe, currently The Wharf Restaurant & Pub in Edgartown. “I could look out of my bedroom window and watch the drunks brawling,” Ms. Wolff recalls. “I had so much fun watching what was going on across the street.”

When she wasn’t staying up past her bedtime spying out of her window, Ms. Wolff spent time at the Colonial and Edgartown Drugstores on Main Street in Edgartown. They featured soda fountains with round tables and sold ice cream and penny candy. Ms. Wolff worked at the Edgartown Drugstore for a short time and remembers there being “quite a bit of competition between the two.”

Drive half way down North Road in Chilmark, and you will see a red gas pump that marks the remains of the The Kapigan Diner. “You have to be really old to remember The Kapigan Diner,” says William H. Smith of Chilmark. He was about four or five years old when the tiny establishment closed.

“I remember staring at the Boston cream pies in the cases when I was kid,” says Mr. Smith. Also in Chilmark, The Galley in Menemsha used to be a diner. During the striped bass derby they would write who was winning on the walls with chalk. “They would open at 4 am so the fisherman could eat and then go fish.”

A collection of menus from Vineyard restaurants past and present.

As a child, Mr. Smith frequented the A&W at five corners in Vineyard Haven, the location that most recently housed The Golden Dragon. “That was one of my favorite spots,” he says. “There were big root beer barrels on tap and you could get root beer floats, burgers, and fries.” He describes the location as not having walls; you could walk in right off the street. For other tasty treats, Mr. Smith recalls the Dairy Maid on State Road in Vineyard Haven, where Cronig’s Market stands, and the old milk man, from Whiting’s Milk, who delivered ice cream bars and eggnog to his back door.

But when it came down to business, the best of the best on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Smith couldn’t decide on a favorite. Mr. C’s on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, “had the absolute without question finest steak sandwich you have ever eaten,” he proclaims. He goes on to describe the steak as being sliced sirloin, not shaved, and for him, topped with mayonnaise and onions.

Another favorite spot was Mannings in Gay Head. “Walter Manning had the best fried food on Martha’s Vineyard; it made me cry when he closed,” Mr. Smith said. According to him, the secret to Mannings fried clams was the oil, which was kept nice and fresh.

Another favorite eatery was The Portside, a sloped roof takeout joint and dairy bar with garage doors that opened on the sides, located on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, the current Wind’s Up location. “It was owned by Frank Frank, but we used to call him Franky Frank,” Mr. Smith says. “They had the most amazing hamburgers and fries, the best on the Island in the 70s.”

Peter Cronig of Vineyard Haven recalls the soda fountains on Main Street in Vineyard Haven in the 1960s. Both Leslie’s and Yates drugstores, the latter where the store Alley Cat is currently located, featured long counters and soda jerks who would make you a float, frappe, sundae, or other frosty treat.

Another favorite was the original Nick’s Lighthouse, on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, housed in the current Ben & Bills location. “I remember my parents taking us there when were kids, before it moved down the street to the building where the Oyster Bar was,” says Mr. Cronig. At the latter location, they made pizza. “You couldn’t get a pizza in the winter back then. After Giordano’s closed for the season, Nick’s was the first place to get pizza.”

Like Mr. Smith, Mr. Cronig was a big fan of Mr. C’s. “Mr. C was a big guy who used to sit on a bench and was always smoking a cigar,” recalls Mr. Cronig. “Every imaginable thing was sold there.” But when it came down to his favorite long-gone place, it was Seguistas, the little hole in the wall on the backside of the Flying Horses. According to Mr. Cronig, the refried bean burrito was a must-have. “Oh yeah, that’s all I would eat in early 80s,” he says.

Perhaps one of the most loved treats on Martha’s Vineyard was the flavored popcorn bars at Darling’s in Oak Bluffs. Jessica Burnham of Edgartown remembers them fondly. “We had them when we were kids and my dad talks about having them when he was a kid,” Ms. Burnham said. “It’s one of those things that you had on a summer night out in Oak Bluffs, you went to The Flying Horses or the bandstand then went to Darling’s and got a popcorn bar.” Ms. Burnham describes the bars as sticky solid crushed popcorn served in wax paper. The pink bar was a favorite, but while many remember them as strawberry flavored, Ms. Burnham recalls them as peppermint flavored.

Another favorite stomping ground of Ms. Burnham’s was the second location of Nick’s Lighthouse on Circuit Avenue, the former Oyster Bar location. She describes it as an old school seafood restaurant with low dark ceilings and fishing nets with glass balls and crabs hanging from the walls. “My dad used to take us there for fried clams with vinegar,” Ms. Burnham recalls.

Finally, Lou’s Worry in Edgartown, currently Isola, rounds out Ms. Burnham’s top picks. A favorite watering hole, Lou’s Worry was in the same era as the Kafe and when the Colonial Inn and Square Rigger were bars. “Lou’s Worry wasn’t about eating,” says Ms. Burnham. It was a year round hangout for the Island community.