The Home of Cape Cod Clam Chowder

Courtesy of Sturgis Library

Long before there was a yearly Chowder Festival held on Cape Cod there was one restaurant which could lay claim to being the king of clam chowder. Mildred’s chowder was so beloved that everyone from Presidents to the average Joe would flock to the cozy establishment abutting the Barnstable Airport. In the forty-plus years it was in existence this restaurant and the name Mildred would become one of the most popular establishments the Cape had ever seen.

Before she opened the legendary Chowder House abutting the Barnstable Airport, Mildred Desmond ran a smaller restaurant located diagonally across the street in the area where the Quarterdeck Lounge stands as of 2016. It was more a coffee shop than a full-fledged restaurant.

She opened the restaurant which bore her name in 1949 along with her two sons Bernie and Jim Desmond. It was a much quieter time on Cape Cod in the years just after World War II but the Desmond family created mouth watering dishes that soon set the senses aflame of any customer that passed through the doors.

In the early days of Mildred’s Chowder House the competition was much different than in later years. Mega-chains and fast food spots would not come creeping in until the 1960’s and 1970’s. Back then it was other one-off establishments, many run by families like the Desmonds, that dominated the scene. Quality and service were how these places got popular; it was often an uphill climb that took a while to build a reputation.

Mildred Desmond did not fear the hard work it took to give her eponymous restaurant the glowing reputation it would develop. She would serve up fresh local seafood including classics such as fish and chips, clams, scallops, lobster, and shrimp. As tempting and necessary as the abundant seafood offerings were the Chowder House also dipped into steaks and chicken dishes as well, in case there were any customers who were not fans of meals from the ocean’s waters.

Of course any restaurant with ‘chowder’ in the name had better make a worthwhile representation of the New England favorite. Mildred’s succeeded in making a truly legendary clam chowder that is still talked about to this day. How popular was Mildred’s chowder? President John F. Kennedy would order the base from the Summer White House in Hyannis Port. He would also order a specially made lobster stew made by Mildred’s son Bernie. It would consist of only knuckle meat; it took twenty-five pounds of lobster to get a pound of knuckle meat which was put in the stew for the President. Mildred’s chowder recipe was often imitated and never duplicated. A former employee even sent in the recipe as they remembered it to the Cape Cod Times in 2008 helping many people longing for another taste make it themselves. Although the recipe would have to be scaled down as only large batches of the sumptuous soup were made.

The restaurant would feature a casual down home atmosphere and traditional Cape Cod décor dealing with fishing and the ocean adorning the walls and ceiling. Locals loved it and soon word began to spread about the little restaurant next to the airport. In the early 1960’s there was even entertainment at Mildred’s. The Happy Hour at one point featured Cape Cod’s First Lady of Jazz, Marie Marcus. She played there for about eight weeks along with Jim Blackmore and Carl German before moving on to Rooster in West Yarmouth which would later become Johnny Yee’s.

Soon though the little restaurant would grow to become too busy to have room for entertainment, the Desmond’s would focus solely on the food. Mildred’s would become a destination for those vacationing on the Cape during the summer. It was in 1969 that things hit the tipping point and a large addition had to be put on to the little chowder house to allow the ever-increasing crowds to be served.

In the 1970’s it became commonplace for Mildred’s to serve 900 customers a night for dinner with a line out the door waiting to get in every night of the week during the summer from 5-9pm. Despite the addition Mildred’s was still too popular to fit all of its adoring public. It was necessary to have a staff of sixty waitresses and eight busboys each summer to handle the volume the establishment was putting out. Business was booming, Mildred’s had become one of those rare restaurants that was known outside of New England, being mentioned by newspapers in New York and Chicago.

The little chowder house had become a Cape Cod landmark. In the early 1980’s Mildred’s sons Jim and Bernie would sell the restaurant. Despite the ownership change its legacy would continue even as things around them were changing with an influx of big chain restaurants like Chili’s, Pizzeria Uno, and an increase in fast food spots like Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The 1990’s would see business begin to slow down at the iconic Mildred’s. The restaurant would be sold again. Then after five decades of building a reputation as one of the premier restaurants on Cape Cod Mildred’s Chowder House was sold a final time in 2000 to Mark Bobola. He would renovate the property and reopen it as Fish Landing Bar and Grill. Nothing could replace Mildred’s and the new venture was closed in two years. The empty building was discussed as a possible homeless shelter in 2003 but nothing came of it. It was torn down in 2005 and as of 2016 all that remains of Mildred’s is the overgrown parking lot.

For five decades Mildred’s Chowder House was one of the most popular restaurants the Cape had to offer. Its chowder is the stuff of legends and countless people still speak of it to this day with adoration. Places like Mildred’s come once in a generation and are not easily replaced. Neither are the memories of it.

By Christopher Setterlund
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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