Grace Church lobster rolls tempt tastes at Vineyard Haven

The sign on Woodlawn Avenue in Vineyard Haven says it all...almost. The taste treats are available only on Fridays. — Photo by Jack Shea

What happens when you hear the words summer, Friday, and lobster used in combination? (No pressure, but 16,000 people got this right last year.)

Most likely, Grace Church’s weekly lobster roll dinner at the parish hall on Woodlawn Avenue in Vineyard Haven is the answer. Has been for nearly a quarter-century, every Friday from May to September between 4:30 and 7:30 pm (except on Friday, July 8, when the doors will be open between 1:15 and 5 pm).

Last year, the church “moved” more than 16,000 sandwiches to hungry, worshiping pilgrims. That’s the kind of “turn” that make restaurateurs whimper with envy. That’s more than 200,000 sandwiches over 25 years, enough to fund all of the active parish’s year-long outreach ministry, pastor Rob Hensley said.

The Friday nosh has built a lot of momentum over the years. A New York Times travel writer suggested a few years ago that if visitors had only 36 hours to spend on the Island, this is the second-most important thing to do (a sailboat ride was first). The Boston Globe has noted the lobster roll experience, and the church’s lobster roll routinely wins Martha’s Vineyard Magazine’s “Best Of” annual competition.

Lobster Friday is successful for several reasons, based on conversation with fans and rollers.

First, price. The term “reasonably priced dinner” is a summer oxymoron here, so $15 for a cascading lobster roll, drink, and chips is a good deal.

Second, product. It’s all about the lobster. Overflowing with fresh meat, a dash of pepper, and a dab of mayo and no fillers, this item is generously big. We all know that sharing is a desirable human quality and while extending that state of grace to lobster may be a stretch, you can buy an extra roll for a buck if you’re looking to spruce up your spiritual condition at dinner.

In the event you somehow find yourself at this lobster fest and you don’t like lobster, you can get a hot dog, drink and chips for three bucks. Or, my personal favorite, skip right to dessert — fresh-baked cakes and pies for four bucks.

Third, vibe. The parish hall is one of those old-time creaky-floorboarded, tall-windowed, high-ceilinged small town delights. Community tables seat 60 to 70 diners. At my table, I chatted with folks from Slovakia, Tennessee, and California. Contact and fellowship happens. And where else can you be served by one of God’s own shepherds, complete with clerical shirt and collar? Watching The Reverend Hensley interact with both the feeding flock and food prep volunteers last Friday, an age-old theological question came to mind: Does this prove that God likes lobster?

For Maria Mitro, a Slovak Republic native, now a Vineyard Haven resident, the answer is simpler. “I’m addicted,” she said. “If it’s Friday, I’m here. Great food, a little expensive, but generous portions, it’s worth it. The atmosphere is comfortable.” She staunchly rejected suggestions that she invest in a slice of pie. “I’m active in Weight-Watchers on the Island. How can I do that?” she asked, albeit with a wistful glance at the treats.

Fourth, volunteers. Experienced, with the zeal of the kamikaze, this cadre of “Rollers” keeps ’em coming. Between Gerry Averill who helped make the first Grace Church lobster roll, Beebe Green and Lorraine Clark (of Red Stocking holiday gift-giving fame), the current group has more than 100 years of experience at this. Volunteers on hand Friday (with length of service) included: Anna Marie D’Addarie (11 years), Phyllis Smith (four years), Marcia Manter (three years), Donna Landry (two years), and rookie Susan Shreck. Ms. Manter’s sister, Deborah, another mainstay, wasn’t working last week. Bob McLean, church sexton and popular swim coach, is in his fourth year as a Roller.

Out front, five-year volunteer Carl Green was serving the dogs. A plush toy lobster peeked over the brim of his ball cap. “Why do I do this? I like the idea of people feeling good,” he said, gesturing to the diners, “And, listen to them, the people in the kitchen, the people I work with,” he said, above the laughter and conversation of his colleagues. “This serves the community and the church,” he said.

So if the veterans are still excited, what about first-timers to the event? Jennifer Meredith of Atlanta was munching her first-ever lobster roll. “This is awesome. I wasn’t sure what to expect,” the new graduate of the University of Tennessee said. Ms. Meredith was the guest of summer residents Chad and Rae Empey of La Quinta, Calif. Mr. Empey runs the tennis program at La Quinta Resort and Spa in the winter and the West Chop Club tennis program in summer where Ms. Meredith will work this summer.

Ms. Empey teaches school in La Quinta. “This is home,” she said. “It’s like having dinner with family. This Friday dinner really is an extension of the community.”