Peter Simon didn’t really plan to make blueberry muffins when he wrote his post on the Wellfleet Community Space Facebook page asking for a recipe. It was February, and with Main Street pretty much dark, Simon was thinking about — and missing — the Lighthouse Restaurant, which was, until it closed in 2018, the go-to place for a diner-style blueberry muffin in this town.
It was the Lighthouse recipe Simon asked for. The request unearthed a few versions, including one recipe for 15 dozen from Steve Miner, who had once been a dishwasher at the restaurant and was the nephew of Alan Burgess, the Lighthouse chef in the early years. Someone posted a similar version that had been printed in the A.I.M. Medical Center’s 1976 cookbook and scaled, somewhat oddly, to make three-and-a-quarter dozen.
Along with the recipes came an outpouring of nostalgia. “I haven’t found anything as good as the Lighthouse blueberry muffins,” wrote Susan Adler. “I used to drive them all the way back to New Jersey to share with my family.”
“I survived on those as a child,” wrote Kai Potter. There were calls to do a muffin-off at the library and a competition at the Wellfleet OysterFest to find the closest version to the Lighthouse originals.
I waited until blueberries were in season to make some of my own, using the scaled-down version of the recipe. On the morning of the Fourth of July, I enlisted the help of my sister, who was visiting the Cape with her family. We spent part of our childhoods in Wellfleet, and she has a vivid memory of the muffins: sliced, buttered, and grilled, and accompanied with a cup of hot chocolate. I was younger when we left Wellfleet, and I remember only the hot chocolate. It was served in chunky white mugs topped with whipped cream and has remained in my mind as the gold standard for a good cup of cocoa. For us, and apparently so many others, breakfast at the Lighthouse was pure comfort.
Perhaps nostalgia is always a little imprecise because, to be honest, while the muffins we made were satisfying, they weren’t mind-blowing. The memories involved are less about the culinary superiority of the muffins and more about everything they represent: a time when Wellfleet was perhaps simpler, more accessible, more neighborly. The muffins are an object of yearning for something lost.
Anyone who has followed Facebook is well aware of the snark in “community spaces” there, and Wellfleet is no exception. Pity the person who asks innocently about why it’s so hard to find a plumber for her summer home. What Simon, a long-time summer resident who moved here full-time in spring 2020, was really looking for on his Lighthouse blueberry muffin recipe quest was good conversation — even among people who might not agree on most things.
The Lighthouse itself was a place where those kinds of conversations happened. George and Gertrude Clarke started the restaurant and ran it for a decade before selling it in the late 1970s to Bob Derow and Joe Wanco, grade-school friends from New Jersey. Open for most of the year, it was a gathering spot for locals and tourists alike.
“Everyone reminisces about the breakfasts and lunches we served,” says Dawn Derow, Bob’s daughter, who grew up working at the restaurant. “The lines would be out the door,” she adds.
“My brother and I started bussing tables for quarters when we were eight years old,” says Dawn. “Total child labor — but it taught us some remarkable work ethic.”
The muffins, baked from a recipe developed by the Clarkes, were a big hit. “The old kitchen in the ’80s was a sea of blueberry muffins,” says Bob Derow. The record output: 42 dozen in one day.
“The Lighthouse reached across classes,” says Dawn. “You had your fishermen, construction workers, summer tourists, and second-home owners.”
Her father recalls workers coming in for lunch specials and the pay phone ringing off the hook throughout the day. “Painters and construction workers would be making deals from the restaurant,” says Bob. “Then cell phones and convenience stores came, and guys would eat in their pickup trucks instead. It was harder in the winter to survive. The local fabric had frayed.”
Wanco bought Derow out in 2008, and with the addition of a few TVs and a selection of beers on tap, the place continued, though more as a watering hole, until Wanco’s death in 2018. Now the building houses Ragg Time, a clothing store. A miniature lighthouse — part of the restaurant’s signature sign — still decorates the front of the building.
“There’s a lot of bemoaning,” says Bob, who now works at Ace Hardware in Eastham, where he often hears people say Wellfleet is not the same without the Lighthouse.
“The heart of Wellfleet is gone,” says Dawn.
Some of those responding to Simon’s social media post expressed similar sentiments. “Losing a central location for a restaurant left the town center feeling like a bit of ghost town,” wrote Ronda Fowler. Fowler became a volunteer chef at the 246 Community Kitchen partly as a result of that loss. “I became completely aware of how important the sense of community, connection, and belonging are to small-town living,” she wrote. “Seasonal retail shops on Main Street have their place, but there’s a huge void.”
“The Lighthouse was what the community development people call a third place,” says Simon. “It’s not work or home but a place where you have coffee with friends or a meeting. There’s a need for that. We’re social animals, and we need social connection outside of work.”
At least one group of Wellfleet residents still meets to talk over coffee every day throughout the year. They can be found on the deck at the Flying Fish café in the summer. They gathered there in the winter of 2020-2021, at the height of the Covid pandemic, even though the café was closed, shoveling snow off the deck so they had a place to meet.
On a Wednesday morning in April about a dozen people were assembled at PB Boulangerie. The conversation ranged from town politics to sneakers to what’s streaming on Netflix.
The group is eclectic, says Wil Sullivan. “I’m a former attorney,” he says. “We have people in the trades, a professor, artists, punk rockers, a former Wellfleet police chief.”
“This is the real town meeting,” says Mike Page, the group’s punk rocker who had just returned from the U.K., where he watched The Damned perform six times during their 40th anniversary tour.
“New members are nice to have,” says Sullivan. There are summer people who join in. The congeniality of the get-togethers is apparent. But what the group lacks is a stable home.
“We always migrate somewhere, but it would be nice to have a place like the Lighthouse,” says Wayne Clough. No one seemed to know how long the group has been meeting, but Sullivan says it began at Uncle Frank’s Coffee Shop, which has been closed for decades.
“Fox and Crow became our venue and lasted until April 2022, when they had to close down,” says Paul Savage. Although the Fox and Crow has since re-opened at the old Duck Creeke Tavern, at that point the group had migrated to PB, which is open year-round but outside the town center. Plus, being a French bakery, it’s not known for its blueberry muffins.
“What this town needs is a greasy spoon,” says Page. Like many things in our culture, the café has become a space divided along class lines. What I loved about the Lighthouse blueberry muffins my sister and I made was their lack of pretension. The muffins are firm, perfect for slicing, slathering in butter, and browning on a skillet — diner food at its best.
But don’t be surprised if they’re not exactly like you remember them. Even Dawn was slightly disappointed with the batch she made last summer.
She says she found herself wondering if things like the Lighthouse’s huge mixer or the oven or something about the way Crisco was back then might have been the mysterious element that made those muffins so delicious. Maybe she got used to using butter in her baked goods; it works fine to swap in butter for the shortening in the ’70s rendition. Or perhaps a muffin, a small-town gathering spot, or anything else we cherish from the past can never really live up to our memories.
George Clarke’s Lighthouse Blueberry Muffins
Makes 3¼ dozen muffins
Note: The muffin batter can be made in advance and refrigerated for three or four days, or muffins can be baked in advance and frozen.
1½ lbs. (3 cups) sugar
¾ lb. shortening (or butter)
3 lbs. (12 cups) flour, sifted
1½ tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. baking powder
1 quart milk
¾ lb. blueberries (1.5 cups)
- Heat oven to 375° F.
- Cream together sugar, shortening, and eggs.
- Whisk together flour, salt, and baking powder and add to creamed mixture.
- Stir in milk and blueberries by hand.
- Bake in greased muffin tins for 20 minutes.