Wednesday, November 11, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Mildred's Chowder House, Hyannis

The Home of Cape Cod Clam Chowder.”

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.

Mildred Bassett was born in 1897 in West Dennis to J. Franklin and Abbie Bassett. She married James Desmond and had 2 children, James Jr., and Bernie. After they divorced in 1925 she moved to Hyannis while James moved to Boston. She later married Maynard Johnson.  

Shortly thereafter Mildred began to showcase her cooking skills for the public. Before she opened her legendary Chowder House Mildred was already staking her claim to the best chowder on Cape Cod. Beginning in 1934 she was in charge of serving said chowder and her equally beloved apple pie at Liggett's Drug Store at the East End of Hyannis' Main Street. Years of honing her craft coupled with rave reviews from customers led her to bet on herself and branch out on her own.

The choice for her initial establishment was 251 Iyannough Road in Hyannis. A small restaurant more akin to a coffee shop it was a perfect starting point. She enlisted the help of her son James to manage it. He had been doing the same job down the road at Carl's Restaurant, formerly Brad's Soda Shoppe, in West Yarmouth. Together they crafted a homey feeling places suitable for Mildred's cooking.

C. Sturgis Library 

Opening day for the restaurant that bore her name was June 17, 1949 with the help of James and his brother Bernie. The building had the ability to seat 44 in the dining room and another 10 at the counter. It was a much quieter time on Cape Cod in the years just after World War II but the 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 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's Menu c. Sturgis Library 

Mildred did not fear the hard work it took to give her eponymous restaurant the glowing reputation it would develop. She served 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 also ordered 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 purported recipe for Mildred's Chowder./Pinterest

The popularity of Mildred's Chowder House grew so much that in 1957 a larger restaurant was built diagonally across the street in front of the Barnstable Airport. It featured a casual down home atmosphere and traditional Cape Cod d├ęcor 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. The rapidly growing business soon had to continue without its matriarch though.

Mildred Johnson died suddenly at her home on Norris Street on April 13, 1961 at the age of 64. This left the immensely popular Chowder House in the hands of her two sons. They were more than capable of continuing on the legacy their mother had created. The first new step was bringing entertainment to 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 grew to become too busy to have room for entertainment, the Desmond’s had to focus solely on the food. Mildred’s became 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.

C. Sturgis Library 

In 1983 Mildred’s sons Jim and Bernie had become understandably burned out from years of the high sales restaurant business. They looked to the family to continue on the legacy but seeing no takers they sold the restaurant to a group headed by Robert Allen of South Dennis. Allen had previously run Lobster in the Rough and Ship's Fare in Yarmouth. Despite the ownership change its legacy continued 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 saw business begin to slow down at the iconic Mildred’s. The restaurant was rumored to be for sale. 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 March 2000 to Mark Bobola. He renovated the property and reopened it as Fish Landing Bar and Grill. Nothing could replace Mildred’s and the new venture was closed after the 2002 summer. 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 in 2020 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.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I grew up in Hyannis and my dad use to clean a few restaurants and take me with him. He did the floors there once that I can remember but my favorite memory of Mildreds is having an amazing dinner and talk with my Grandfather. It was so full and everyone was enjoying the food, the atmosphere and conversation Mildreds in the 70s yes that was great