The Payomet Performing Arts Center, Getting Lost & Littlenecks!

“How far does this road go?” Ali asked. I had no idea. How could I? Clearly it was our first time on it. The road was unmarked, and I just decided, in the spirit of getting to know every square inch of Truro, hang a right and take a leap of faith. Off into the forest we drove. a red truch drives down a wooded road

“What if we have to turn around?”, she asked. Again, I had no clue. The road was narrow–just wide enough for my truck–and with thick woods on both sides.

“It’s gotta end some where…right?” She seemed a little nervous now. The road was beautiful, and dropped and raised, banked left then right, but had absolutely no end in site. We kept driving…and driving…and driving deeper into the thick woods of the Cape Cod National Seashore, with barely a place to turn around. This was a road I never thought would exist on Cape Cod, but we were on Cape Cod–back for another day of exploring Truro.

Truro’s Payomet Performing Arts Center

We found the road when we went searching for Payomet Performing Arts Center. I had driven by a road sign on Route 6 for years, but we never exited the main road to take a look. The signs were advertising that Mavis Staples would be performing that night. Staples was a name I knew–a multi Grammy award winner, and had been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. Looking on my phone for a miracle, I thought maybe some last minute tickets would be available, but to no surprise, the show was sold out. We decided to take a look around anyway.

An indoor theater is shown under a tent

Inside the famous Payomet Performing Arts Center tent

The Payomet Performing Arts Center is a volunteer driven, non-profit performing arts organization committed to producing professional live music, theater, circus arts and humanities events rooted in strong social values. The main venue is under a tent and first opened in 1998 by local Guy Strauss, and has become one of the leading smaller live music venues in New England. Headliners in the past have included Arlo Guthrie, Aimee Mann, Blue Oyster Cult, The Wailers, Graham Nash and Rosanne Cash, who calls Payomet her “favorite performing arts center in the country”. The facility is located on 110 acres at the Cape Cod National Seashore’s Highland Center, on the end of Old Dewline Road, within a clam shell throw of the ocean. The Payomet Center’s online calendar is always jam packed in the warmer months, and highlights the family-friendly “Circus By the Sea“, as well as a summer Youth Circus Camp for kids, ages 7-14. Having to reinvent themselves during the Covid crisis, the venue now includes an outdoor venue with seating, and a “drive-in” option. As we explore the property we can hear the echo of sound checks mixed with clattering chairs being set up. We decide that, although tonight is not possible, an evening under the tent, or under the stars, must be included in our next trip to Truro.

A stage overlooks a great lawn with chairs

Boyscouts 101: Always Travel with a Lobster Roll…

A bowl of steamed clams sits on a bar

Our steamed Littlenecks at “The Bookstore”.

“Maybe we should turn around.” I heard her repeat. I couldn’t. I stopped in the middle of the dirt road and looked in my rear view mirror. Should I start backing up? I would have to be in reverse for a mile or two. The woods were peaceful, and serene, and for the first time in our 21 years on Cape Cod we felt truly alone–in the middle of nowhere. It was eerie, but only because of all the stupid horror movies we’d watched over the years. If I could disconnect myself from the “fear” of the unknown, this was truly a beautiful moment. Any hiker, camper or lover of the great outdoors would thank their lucky stars to stumble upon such an unmarked gem as this, and it could only happen in Truro.

“Well, if we get stranded, I got dibs on the lobster roll!”, Ali declared. Our trusty “just in case” travel cooler had made the trip, so we decided to take advantage of it and the freezer bags it contained. An hour before our late afternoon woodsy adventure was to happen, we were having lunch at the bar of The Bookstore Restaurant in Wellfleet, where we would have the idea to grab said lobster roll, “to go”. And just a few hours earlier than that was when we decided to lake a last minute drive to Truro. As soon as the wheels were set in motion, the very first thing on my mind was Steamed Littleneck Clams.

Steamed Little Littleneck Clams: A Cape Cod Mystery?

If you don’t live on Cape Cod this is a culinary fact that you would not be aware of, and one that puzzles me to no end. Cape Cod is chock full of clams. They’re all over the place. Walk any beach and you’ll see the shells–and fat and happy seagulls not far away. Fried clams are on pretty much every seafood restaurant menu (thank goodness), as is clam chowder, everyone claims to have “the best” baked stuffed quahogs (pronounced co-hogs for those coming over the bridge) and we have no shortage of linguini with clam sauce. Raw bars all feature raw Littleneck clams with red cocktail sauce and the better ones highlight “steamers”, which are very weird looking soft shelled clams, and always served piping hot with a hot water bath to draw out any sand, along with drawn butter (and they’re a gleeful mess to eat). So the mystery is, why do so few Cape Cod restaurants serve Steamed Littleneck Clams?

Our Steamy Salvation…The “Bookstore Restaurant” in Wellfleet

A woman sucks broth from a strawTypically steamed Littlenecks are served in a bubbling bath of lemon, white wine and herbs, and with a side of crunchy bread for dunking. If the clams are plump and meaty enough, for my money, its the very best way to enjoy such a bivalve. So when I’m a craving hits, I go where I know they serve the best steamed Littlenecks–to The Bookstore Restaurant in Wellfleet. It’s a 45 mile drive, and worth every slow tourist breaking in front of me. To be honest, if there were some place closer, I might not make the trip as often as I do, but there doesn’t seem to be, and that’s OK. It’s a fun family-owned restaurant (run by three generations and opened in 1964) with a hopping bar, indoor and outdoor dining, located right across the road from the water–and with a unigue bookstore attached–so what’s not to love? Also worth mentioning are their oysters, their famous Wellfleet Oysters to be exact, which live in the very waters that patrons look out on.

The sign for the Bookstore Restaurant

Knocking locals and visitors out since 1964!

The bartender at The Bookstore Restaurant hands us menus, but we have our sites locked in, and order a Bloody Mary, a beer and an order of steamed littlenecks (just as a heads up, steamed clams are best enjoyed with either/or–white wine is also acceptable). As always, the beer is icy cold and the clams come out steaming hot, with that crunchy bread that will soon leave its lovely crumbs all over the bar, the floor and our shirts. We sip, and slurp….and order a second round…of everything. As we await our next heaping bowl of shelled beauties, I grab a quick photo of Ali sipping the leftover broth through her water straw (she didn’t think I saw her–until now!). Tempted by so many other things on the Bookstore menu, the day was early and we didn’t want to fill up, so we ignore the tempting crabcakes, oyster stew, artichoke dip and their famous “Fish Pot”, but, what’s the point of carrying around a cooler if you’re not going to use it? So we order a lobster roll to go, “for whenever.” Before leaving Wellfleet and heading to Truro, we stop by a Cape Cod favorite for some gift shopping, the colorful shop at Wellfleet Marine.

Wellfleet Marine, a shopping experience not to be missed…

One thing about a writing gig like this, it’s a ton of fun, but it will never make your rich. Especially if you travel like we do. We love to eat, and we love to shop. Cape Cod has a lot of both. Needless to say, an afternoon of chowing down on clams and beer will put a dent in your budget, but a place like Wellfleet Marine can clean you out. And it’s not because they’re overly expensive, but more so because they sell some of Cape Cod’s most unique and thoughtful nautical gifts, and at very fair prices. It’s hard to behave yourself in a place like this and I’m embarrassed to say that Ali and I went on a hog wild shopping spree. Their outdoor line of seaglass and drift wood garden art and the wall of wooden “funky fish” is enough to draw you in, but once inside it’s hard to get out. For oyster lovers the shop has a “oysterlicious” line of oysters in just about every artsy invention.

Their seaglass line is as colorful as it is hypnotizing (and where we got sucked in) and there’s greeting cards, china, toys, jewelry, bath and body stuff–just about anything you can think of, and all having to do with the sea. If you’re in the Wellfleet area, put this shop at the top of your list of places to stop. Even if you don’t buy anything, its guaranteed to put a whale of a smile across your face.

OK, now where were we? Oh yeah…Lost in Truro

Highlands Center sign in red

Highlands Center signs point toward Payomet

The thought of me having to rip a lobster roll out of a starving Ali’s hand made me feel sad, if not a little guilty, so when I finally found a small turn around spot a couple of miles into the forest, I made my move and turned the truck around with a tricky 5-point maneuver. As we bounced slowly back up the same road, we eventually saw an older man with a walking stick in one hand and a dog leash in the other. “Excuse me,” I interrupted from my window. The white muzzled dog looked up with a wag. “Can you tell the name of this road we’re on?” (I wanted to look it up online at home). “I have no idea,” he answered, “Don’t think it has one.” “Well, how far this road goes if we took it all the way?”, I ask him. The man gave a small grin and looked squintily down towards where we just came from. “Well, eventually you should come out on Long Nook Road. You take that to Hangin’ Valley Beach if ya like–It’s a beaut!” I thanked them both and continued back toward the main road.

A photo of deep woods

Our view during our “ride to nowhere”

As the sun began its descent, we continued in and out of a few more of the area’s forest lined roads. We stopped by the famous Highland Lighthouse for a sunset photo, but the light is currently under construction and beautification, so we decide to skip it and wait for its unveiling. There are plenty of other lighthouses in the area, so we’ll tack another photo op onto our next Truro trip.

Once home, I typed Payomet Performing Arts Center into Google Earth on my computer, and I could see our no-name road snaking around and eventually disappearing mysteriously into the woods of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Around it, nothing but lush, green forest. Beyond the forest, from the satellite cameras were the cliffs, sandy dunes and beaches surrounding Truro on both sides. From high up above, the water is as clear as any I’ve seen in the Caribbean. Like Payomet, there are so many other treasures for us to explore. August is now upon us and the summer will fly by, as it does this time each year. Looking over my shoulder at the computer Ali said to me, “Let’s go back again next week. I promise, if we get lost I’ll give you first dibs on what’s in the cooler.”

Now that sounds like a plan…  TD

PS.  As I type this we heard about another Cape Cod restaurant that serves the elusive steamed Littleneck clams, and guess where it is?? Wait for it...TRURO! This all sounds like some grand universal plan. Stay tuned for a delicious follow up!!


~ Tommy Dott is an innkeeper, restaurateur and award-winning food writer. He lives on Cape Cod with his partner Ali and their two Yorkies, Jiminy Cricket and B.G.