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Tradition and taste make Arnold's the place

EASTHAM -- It was 30 summers ago when Nathan Nickerson made that fateful move to change restaurant locations from 4 miles away in Wellfleet to the former site of Gertrude's Beach Box here. Having been in business for only a year, Nickerson had already amassed a loyal following, eager to dine on burgers, fried clams, and frappes served by roller-skating waitresses a la 1950s car hop.

But once his lease was up, "Nick" Nickerson was forced to find another space -- and Arnold's Drive-In would soon blossom into the Cape's eminent seafood-in-the-rough joint, Arnold's Lobster & Clam Bar.

Grab a tray from late morning to closing time at 9 p.m. and more than likely you'll be standing in a line, waiting for lobster rolls and a mound of tender onion rings to bring to nearby Coast Guard Beach, or for a fried clam or lobster dinner to devour at the outdoor picnic tables under the pines. Thankfully, the "Happy Days" theme went nautical in 1980 , and Arnold's has been a great success ever since. That's not to say Nickerson, 55, hasn't weathered a storm. In September 1993, most of the restaurant burned to the ground, but the consummate optimist had the place up and running by the following spring.

This year, he worries about the scarcity of lobster and its increasing price .

"I paid $5.95 a pound for lobster last May. Now it's close to $14 a pound," he says. So that one-pound lobster you purchased for $14.95 in 2006 could very well be $25 in 2007. Nickerson, who sells close to 300 lobsters a day in high season, expects the price to drop as the weather and the water warm up, and Massachusetts lobstermen can start working closer to the shore . He believes the lobster shortage is due to Canada increasing its overseas business.

The surge in lobster prices comes after five springs of red tide scare that greatly affected the cost of clams in the region.

But Nickerson seems unfazed, noting that the demand will always be there for quality seafood, which, after all, is Arnold's forte.

"The sea scallops you get off Chatham are fresh as can be, but they don't have any taste," he says. "I know, because I eat them raw. But the ones you get off Cape Cod Bay are flesh-colored and delicious. You have to pay a couple dollars more a pound to get them, but that's what I want."

Scallops collected by fishermen early that morning arrive at Arnold's at 10 a.m. Nickerson then puts all his seafood on ice, instead of refrigeration, noting that the difference of 10 degrees cooler keeps the seafood fresh for the next day or two. He prefers to get his clams for steamers at the Town Cove on the Eastham/Orleans border. Clams for frying can come from as far away as Rhode Island, but Nickerson prefers the ones that come from sand beds to those from mud flats, saying those clams taste like, well, mud.

Lobster can be another quandary because he prefers the hard-shelled version found on the back shore of the Cape, off Coast Guard and Nauset beaches. This does not necessarily stem from Nickerson's loyalty to local purveyors, but the fact that the hard-shell lobster lasts longer and is meatier.

Arnold's is expanding this summer, converting the land just north of the restaurant into a miniature golf course. It's going to have a historic bent, with reproductions of the nearby Captain Penniman house and old railroad station. Of course, it will feature a signature waterfall, but Nickerson insists on real boulders.

"I'm not going to have any of that gunite junk," says the Arnold's owner, always the perfectionist.

If you go . . .
Arnold's Lobster & Clam Bar

3580 Route 6; 508-255-2575
Directions: Take Route 6 or 6a east to the Orleans rotary and, beyond that -- now on Route 6 -- to the Cape Cod National Seashore Visitors Center. Arnold's is a mile ahead.

Stephen Jermanok, a freelance writer in Newton and author of "New England Seacoast Adventures" (Countryman, 2002) can be reached at farandaway@comcast .net.