Best in Show
After a long career in radio, former DJ Scott Lucas is getting his highest ratings ever.
Hot dogs are like memories.
Picture your mom slicing a boiled weiner into tiny chunks when you were a kid. How about your dad working the grill at the annual holiday cookout calling out, “Dogs are done, come and get ’em!” What about this: Wonder Bread, hot dogs, and beans for dinner anyone?
It’s one of the great American traditions. Standard fare at the ballpark. A year-round favorite for some, and, strangely enough, even though there aren’t many foods we dress up as, the hot dog makes a great Halloween costume, too.
“We’ve all been through a hot dog phase,” says Scott Lucas, co-owner of Top Dog of Rockport.
Even so, Lucas, who had an 18-year career as an on-air personality in Boston at radio stations like 92.5 The River, WZLX, WBOS, and WBCN, and before that was a cook at the famous Ken’s Steakhouse in Framingham for many years, admits that hot dogs never ranked too high on his list.
But one day, while sitting on his couch, pondering the future of terrestrial radio, the idea hit him. He had just flipped his TV over to WGBH, which was airing a documentary called A Hot Dog Program.
Lucas watched as the show traveled from a Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest at Coney Island to a gourmet reindeer-dog vendor at the start of Alaska’s Iditarod sled dog race, visiting some of the country’s coolest hot dog places in between. It was a celebration of everything hot dog.
And as he watched the pure joy of the customers, the passion that they had for every last bite, and the spirit of the men and women behind the counter whose faces screamed I have the best job in the world, Lucas was captivated.
It wasn’t long before he and his wife, Eliza, began brainstorming menu ideas for their hot dog shack fantasy.
“It all started by batting around funny ideas,” says Lucas. The just-for-fun concept they giggled about that night was: Maybe the dogs could be named after ... DOGS! They volleyed ideas for toppings. Starting with sauerkraut. They thought, Oh, that’s a German thing. We‘ll call that one the German Shepherd.
Fast-forward almost two decades and it’s that same concept that keeps tourists and locals coming back to the cozy shack on Rockport’s Bearskin Neck, year after year.
The menu reads more like the lineup at the Westminster Dog Show — Purebred, Boston Terrier, Golden Retriever — not to mention the Mutt, which comes with two toppings of your choice, and the Junkyard Dog, which allows unlimited toppings and comes highly recommended by Lucas, whose personal go-tos are cheese, jalapeños, and sauerkraut.
The Seeing-Eye Dog, piled with fresh relish of Vidalia onions and carrots, reminds customers of their mother’s plea to finish their veggies before leaving the dinner table because they’re good for yah’ eyes hunny.
Before opening, the couple went on a tasting tour in search of the best dog to serve at their restaurant. The winner? Maple Leaf hot dogs, from Winnipeg, Canada. “It was the last one we tried. And with the first bite, I was like, ‘that’s it!’” says Lucas.
When Top Dog opened in May 2001, the menu was simple: Dogs, fries, and soft drinks. That’s it.
And though the staple remains tried and true, this 640-square foot gem on the Neck has seen some change.
As Rockport liquor laws relaxed in recent years, Top Dog added seasonal beer taps, while the menu has expanded to include things like chicken fingers, lobster rolls, chili cheese fries, and fried, locally-harvested seafood.
“Over the years, we realized that we needed to add more variety to appeal to a wider cross-section of visitors to the Neck,” says Lucas.
“Now we have enough hooks in the water to satisfy everyone in the group. It’s a lot of evolving for one restaurant,” says Lucas, who believes that catering to your audience is the trick to staying successful.
“If you asked somebody ‘hamburger or hot dog?’, 80 percent will say ‘hamburger,’” Lucas explains, which is why he added handmade angus beef sliders to the menu.
Veggie dogs came along after Lucas began noting that vegetarians would take a look at the menu and turn away. Every additional item was born from client demand or a gap in the marketplace.
Then there’s the fried clams.
“We saw a void here on the Neck. There was no fast fried seafood. Only the sit-down places had it,” Lucas says.
He decided to start selling fried haddock and clams for diners who were craving those local specialties, but who didn’t want to commit to the trappings of sit-down restaurants.
“We called the people at Ipswich Shellfish Company, the best supplier of clams by far. They sent a guy over here one night and he showed us the techniques for making fried clams. We spent about an hour working with him and shortly after that we started selling them,” says Lucas.
“At the beginning, it was sort of a weird combo: Hot dogs and fried clams,” he admits. But they remain a bestseller.
Top Dog buys the most expensive clam available based on the location of the clam beds, which is always local — unless there’s a red tide. The belly size select is another factor in making them a hit with customers.
But there’s one thing that’s out of Lucas’ control: The mud.
“The local clams sit in mud all day long and it makes for this really unique taste in the bellies,” Lucas says, “I credit the mud. It’s nice and sweet.”
Lucas says there are four factors to achieving clam perfection:
The clam itself.
The oil it’s cooked in.
The batter it’s breaded in.
The cook that’s cooking it.
Lucas feels pretty confident about his clams, but the real proof is what the customers say. And they’ve been talking. A lot.
“After years of perfecting the fried clam, we won Best Fried Clams for five years in a row in Northshore magazine’s Best of the North Shore (BONS) Awards,” says Lucas.
These days, Lucas says, his worlds are “gelling nicely.”
Top Dog requires most of his focus from April until the end of October, but Lucas enjoys working as a utility camera grip for Boston sporting events during his off months.
Some people think you have to be a businessman or woman to start a company, but Lucas says that’s a bunch of boloney. “I still don’t consider myself a ‘businessman.’ I’m just a guy who opened up a hot dog shop. I’m just a guy that likes to cook good food and make people happy enough to keep coming back.”
And he’s very good at it. On a good day in the summer Top Dog can feed over a thousand people. “This tiny place is very tired after a Saturday in July,” he jokes.
Jonathan Kozowyk is a commercial photographer based in Boston and New York.