Herbie’s is Worcester.
Pre-Renaissance Worcester, that is. Herbie’s is a living artifact of the city’s Medieval age: the town I first encountered decades ago. A place where thrift trumped trendy and townsfolk pinched pennies so hard that only Spag’s Supply had figured out how to pry them loose. Anything new and shiny was automatically suspect.
Lest I sound as if I’m setting the stage for negativity; Relax! Dinner at Herbie’s is as comfortable and welcoming as your favorite pair of jeans and those sneakers that fit perfectly. The staff are begrudgingly friendly in a way that makes you seek their approval; seat yourself! I know what you want to drink… enough with all the questions!
The place is divided into bar and dinner tables. The décor is kind of roadhouse, but without the sinister milieu; no one seems to have the energy left for acting up. Smokers form a queue on the shallow ramp leading to the front door. Inside, an honor system prevails that anticipates the next available table and who’s in place to get it.
Once seated, it’s time to scan the tri-fold menu that’s laminated so stiff it slaps closed like a trap when you let go of it. It mostly lists salads, burgers and sandwiches. What’s really interesting is the full-page, single-spaced sheet of the day’s dinner specials – tilted toward seafood dishes. While prices aren’t crazy-cheap, they’re low enough that it’s natural to suspect an onslaught of high school cafeteria fishstick dinners. But as any customer knows, that’s not Herbie’s.
Traditionally, chowder in Worcester was creamythick; so thick that if you stuck your spoon into it and let go it would stand there in defiance of gravity. Herbie’s is more to my liking; my friend’s cup of Seafood Chowder was creamy but in a flavorful, seafood-brothy way that permeated right into the soft cubes of potato. With bits of sweet corn niblets, clam and other seafood it was a promising start to the meal.
The menu lists plenty of carnivore options, but a commonly held belief is that Herbie’s = Fried Fish. In adherence to that, I ordered the ultimate, their Fisherman’s Platter entrée. Admittedly, the expectation of ingesting all that grease made me apprehensive, but when I sampled my first bite, I was relieved to discover fresh seafood not thickly cloaked in breading, not over-fried, and not oily!
Indeed, there were a scattering of whole-belly clams – no sand, just sweet clam flavor; a half-dozen juicy jumbo sea scallops; a few large shrimp and a couple filets of flaky-moist white fish. Many restaurants fluff up their fried seafood dinners over a big pile of boring French fries; Herbie’s platter was a generous portion (plenty for sharing) set over a barely visible layer of tasty fries. No deception.
But wait a minute! I matched my meal up with a tall glass of Wormtown’s Be Hoppy IPA. For just Four Bucks! When I went to Herbie’s with the neighbors last summer, we shared a huge pitcher of Be Hoppy for the same money some places charge for two glasses. Not bad, Renaissance Worcester at Medieval prices.
Meanwhile, my friend had chosen Herbie’s Lobster Roll. The industry’s standard format for this dish is to cram a toasted hotdog bun with lobster meat drenched in mayonnaise. Herbie’s, in contrast, looked like an avalanche of lobster meat had buried the bun and crowded out a pile of French fries and cup of coleslaw. Three (no, could that be four?) full claws of fresh sweet lobster meat tossed with a bucket of chunks of knuckle and tail meat. And not soaked in Hellman’s; just lightly coated with fresh dressing.
In old Worcester, if some hotshot suggested, “How about going to Maine for lobster dinners?” any real Worcesterite would reply scornfully, “And pay double the price?” For our cheap twin lobster dinners, we’d queue up at Barber’s Crossing or a place on Lincoln Street where they’d seat you in what felt like a cagedin dog run.
That’s all fading memories. But we still have Herbie’s.
Herbie’s 1028 Southbridge Street, Worcester Phone: (508) 757-5083