A Cape Cod dining guide

April L. Dowd photo

CAPE COD, MA -- In this eclectic place we call America, it isn't difficult to find a huge variety of dining choices along the highways and byways and even in the highrises that overlook them.

But, boil down the geography to the tourist haven we call Cape Cod and choices are largely confined to just three main roads.

The Cape, 75 miles long from the Cape Cod Canal in the west to Herring Cove Beach in the northeast, is shaped like the upraised arm of someone "making a muscle.'' It is traversed largely on Routes 6, 6A and 28. Once you're off them you'd better know the local layout intimately to avoid being caught hungry in the many culs-de-sac and roads that dead-end at salt marshes or ponds.

In past years, our "Cape Cod Dining Guide'' centered on various aspects of the food scene. This eighth annual version celebrates its eclecticism. (For a broader look at the region, see our 2005 New England Dining Guide.)

The annual caveat: I don't work for the Chamnber of Commerce. The guide is guaranteed to lead you to some pleasant experiences as well as guaranteed to annoy anyone whose favorite spot isn't mentioned. However, with literally hundreds of places to eat, totality is impossible.

Logistically, since Route 6 -- the Mid-Cape Highway -- is a limited access thoroughfare until you get past Orleans and head north, the principal dining clusters are mostly on Routes 28 and 6A.

A four-mile stretch of Route 28 from the edge of Hyannis, the Cape's largest town, east to West Dennis on the Bass River is a prime example of how packed with dining variety the Cape's main roads can be.

At least 40 food-related spots are jammed into that span, from the brand-new Oinky & Moo's southern barbecue (think about it) in West Dennis to the self-explanatory old Riverway Lobster House in Yarmouth.

This is a good base of operations for families who like very casual, inexpensive food plus proximity to inexpensive motels and elaborate miniature golf layouts, or for couples who need the nightlife. You never have to leave the locale to experience an astounding variety of foods: Irish pub, seafood, Thai, hot dogs and ice cream, soups and salads, Chinese, brunches, Mexican, Polynesian, pizza and the inevitable Dairy Queen, McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts spots and more.

One of the most popular establishments is Sundowner's, a pleasantly raucous bar and restaurant in West Dennis with an atmosphere that seems provided by Jimmy Buffet -- rough-hewn wood walls, waitresses and bartenderesses (a noticeable dearth of male waitstaff) wearing wild tropical-print blouses, a deck with a water view, frequent live music from pop to reggae, inexpensive and tasty food (they offer a shockingly good New York strip steak as well as the usual clams and shrimp).

The drinks are fine if you limit yourself to beers or frothy blender products, not so fine if you want expertly mixed cocktails. But, how can you dislike a place that offers a weekly "karaoke gong show''?

In nearby West Yarmouth, Molly's offers a traditional Irish breakfast (thick Irish bacon, sausage, black and white pudding, eggs, tomatos, beans and home fries) for a paltry $8.50. I still think of the tiny slip of a girl I saw easily polish one off while her boyfriend toyed with a regular-sized ham and eggs.

Then there is a neighborhood spot called Kevin's Seafood & Spirits. Blink and you'll miss it. A sign on the weathered exterior proclaims "Finest Fish 'n Chips On the Cape.'' Such bragging is commonplace on the Cape, but Kevin's (no credit cards, please) walks the walk with its delicate, tasty platter.

You'll find a lot more upscale dining as well as some great breakfast spots in Hyannis.

One example: Persey's Place, several blocks east of the Kennedy Museum. It serves what it boasts is "New England's Largest Breakfast Menu'' from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Recommended: such delightful oddities as hash Benedict, chocolate chip/banana/walnut pancakes and an array of omelets.

Start your day there, take a ferry from Hyannis Harbor over to Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard, then come back in the early evening and have dinner in the cool pub atmosphere of the British Beer Company on Main Street. (It has sister locations in Sandwich and Falmouth.) Better still, try Alberto's Ristorante, also on Main. It offers sidewalk dining or white tablecloth tables inside behind frosted glass room dividers.

The clientele is eclectic (I marveled to my companion about how clever the little child at the next table was, what with her command of French, before realizing it was a French-speaking family), and the Northern Italian food is top-shelf. Particular treats: a salad of white cannelini beans, mixed greens, onions, capers, calamata olives and roasted peppers; a battered veal cutlet stuffed with prosciutto and a mixture of five cheeses, served in a lemon/butter/wine sauce.

Good as this all is, along with such other lasting treats as the elegant Dan'l Webster Inn in Sandwich and The Red Pheasant in Dennis near the Cape Cod Playhouse and the Cape Cod Museum of Art, we can't forget the Outer Cape, from Orleans at the elbow to Provincetown at the fist.

A longtime favorite had been Aesop's Tables, located in the heart of Wellfleet village off Cape Cod Bay where we met each year with another couple for a shared anniversary dinner. Since our last visit it had been purchased by the owners of Moby Dick's, a lobster-and-clam shack on Route 6 usually packed with people who like a rough-hewn place that also sells plastic float toys and faux buoys as souvenirs.

Aesop's has become Winslow's Tavern. A sign proclaims it was established in 2005, a whimsical thumbing of the nose to competitors who brag too much about their lineage. The 1800s Victorian mansion once had the feel of a European country tavern. Now, the food is a bit better, the drinks a little less impotent, but annual regulars like us might find it too fresh and antiseptically pretty.

The remainder of the Outer Cape remains largely the same as before. The lineup is variety personified. Some examples:

On the elbow way down in wealthy Chatham is the Wayside Inn, a restored structure located next to Kate Gould Park where the town's brass band offers concerts every Friday night in the summer. Try their "short stack.'' No, not pancakes; grilled medallions of swordfish and filet mignon with spinach and carmelized onions, stacked on mashed potatoes with two sauces.

The elegant 130-year-old Orleans Inn on Town Cove in Orleans, where the Cape begins bending upward, still has both casual and fine dining with water views from virtually every seat.

The Sea Dog on Route 6 in Eastham, where they usually roll up the sidewalks at 9 p.m. (except down the road at the always-buzzing Ben & Jerry's store which stays open till 11), has a good steakhouse menu plus live entertainment and a good late-night bar menu.

The most popular spots, and arguably the best, on Route 6 between Eastham and P-town are in South Wellfleet. They are Van Rensselaer's, whose stuffed baked lobster is a consistent popularity poll winner, and Serena's, an Italian family spot that fills up almost as soon as the doors open each evening.

Once in P-town, you'll find wall-to-wall eateries that are OK but rarely much different from one another except for the quality of water views. (That doesn't include the iconic Portugese Bakery and its grab-and-go toothsome treats). A pleasant exception is Ciro & Sal's on hidden Kiley Court where they serve Northern Italian cuisine in an intimate grotto/garden setting. And, there you have it. A long list, although hardly all-inclusive. I take comfort in the fact that there's enough meat here to feed you for even a very long stay.

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