WARNING: The writer is not responsible for any sudden seafood cravings!
When I moved from the Boston area to Greenwich, my wife, Linda, introduced me to The Clam Box. As a child, my parents would take us to Cape Cod, and I fell in love with all kinds of seafood. Needless to say, I just loved the food at this local establishment. When it closed in September 1985, I was devastated, much like many other residents! I decided to research The Clam Box and write this blog about it.
The first Clam Box opened on the corner of Salem Street and the Post Road in Cos Cob on Memorial Day 1939. George Gross ran a seafood restaurant in New York City near Grand Central Station named Cooper's Fish and Chips. He and his family were traveling through Greenwich when they spotted a garage that was for sale. With a $400 investment, he bought the property. Then he painted the building white, put up an awning and had crushed oyster shells spread in front of the stand to give it a "nautical" feel. The roadside stand served fried clams, fried shrimp, fish and chips. His wife, Ana, helped work at the food stand. His prices were very reasonable: coffee and cream, 10-cents; glass of Coke, 5-cents; 6 clams on the half-shell, 15-cents. Of course, this was in 1939 dollars.
Gross' little food stand was a great success! He made more money in 3-months than he did the entire year at his NYC restaurant! As a result, he closed Cooper's Fish and Chips shortly after. Then he enclosed the counter area of his roadside stand so he could operate 12-months a year. The menu never changed. People stopped by year round. They claimed no one else prepared food the way The Clam Box did. There was a tremendous summer clientele. In the winter (November to March) business slowed, as you would expect. In the summertime, people would eat in their cars, or sit at one of 10 stools at the counter. Business got busier later at night, and some nights they were open til 2 or 3 o'clock.
The Clam Box in Westport CT.
In 1940, Gross decided to expand. His partner, Steve Zakos, started up a Clam Box restaurant in Westport. In addition to the regular fare (fried clams, shrimp and fish), Westport also sold cold lobster. Another branch was opened in Wethersfield in 1965. There were several imposters that also opened in the area, but the food wasn't nearly as good. In western Greenwich a small shed opened, and a small seafood restaurant was opened near the Stamford border. Neither lasted. Gross claimed his special cooking method was the key. The clams were seared for 30 or 40 seconds in a special machine at 375 degrees. He used corn flour, milk and eggs to dip his food.
As business grew, the restaurant underwent a number of renovations. The original shack seated 10 people on stools. Gross ended up building additions on two sides. At first, they expanded their restaurant to seat 250 people. Then they added an indoor dining area to accommodate 60 people. Another addition added an additional 60 seats. It became necessary to heat the areas for year round business. On the left side there was an open, elevated terrace with a picket fence and awning. This solved the space problem. . .temporarily.
Gross decided to move in 1946. He closed for six months while he moved into a new building in the 400 block of East Putnam Avenue in Cos Cob. A Dutchland Farms had closed there in 1940. Its signature trademark was a windmill on the roof. During World War II it was used as a laboratory. Now it was vacant. The original Clam Box had a 100-foot front, while the new location had a 400-foot frontage. This building was actually smaller than the building on Salem Street. Yet, the restaurant could serve 100 people in "The Starboard Port", the main part of the restaurant. The inside counter could also fit 100 people. In 1948, wings were added on the left side to increase capacity. Heat was added to one room since it had been designed for summer business only. In order to make it a 12-month a year operation, heat was built in.
The Clam Box was a big success. The owner attributed it to good food and good prices: half-a-lobster, 55-cents; whole cold lobster, $1.10; Silex coffee/cream, 5-cents; bottled beer/ale, 15-cents. An entire family could eat there for under $10. The restaurant never served canned seafood. Instead, they sent a man down to the Fulton Fish Market in New York City each morning at 3 am. He would order the freshest fish he could find, and have it delivered by 10 am that same morning! The fish was refrigerated (not frozen) on clean, fresh ice , which was changed regularly. They were able to produce an unusual amount of food in a small area. The restaurant baked their own fresh rolls, pies, cakes, pudding, eclairs, etc.
Family members were part of the 139-person staff. This ensured good service, as they all had a stake in the business. The Gross' son, Arthur, returned from the war, worked at the restaurant part-time while attending college, then took over management when his parents retired. Its reputation began to spread! People traveling from Boston and New York City would stop for a meal. The Rotary Club, Lion's Club and Soroptimist Club would meet at The Clam Box. (The local sign for the Rotary Club listed The Clam Box as its meeting place in the 1950s.) Not surprisingly, Mother's Day was the busiest day of the year. The restaurant offered a one-and-a-half price double drink. Instead of paying full price for two drinks, customers would pay a discount rate for a refill. Customers said The Clam Box had the best coffee. This may have been due to the light cream they served. Arthur Gross even had post cards made of the restaurant.
If the food and price were not enough to contribute to its reputation, a funny incident became a legend. A woman found a pearl in her order of oysters! Other customers started coming in and asking for the oysters with the pearls in them. Some of the people were serious!
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Management started to have a hard time getting service staff to work. It took 25 waiters/waitresses to service 100 tables each night. With the influx of Fortune 500 companies moving into the area, young workers found they could get better hours and benefits working for the companies. Young members of the Gross family, who could have continued the business, decided not to continue. Perhaps working their entire youth for the restaurant "burned them out". The Wethersfield restaurant, which opened in 1964, closed in 1979. The Cos Cob and Westport operations closed in 1985. A bank and condo complex has been built on the Cos Cob site.
I can't help but feel that, when The Clam Box closed, it was the end of an era. Sometimes I drive down East Putnam Avenue in Cos Cob and imagine I can smell the seafood frying. The Clam Box will forever remain a part of Greenwich history. I don't think it will ever be replaced. Bon appetit!
SOURCE: The Clam Box and The Food Mart; Oral History Project, 1998.
SPECIAL THANKS to Isabel Maddux and Robin Edelman!