My obscure inquiry into the Vineyard’s fried chicken fetish began this spring when Roman Brabec, a server at both the Chilmark Tavern and Beach Plum Inn restaurant, raised the question: Why is this Island crazy for fried chicken? He told me about Beach Plum’s sold out fried chicken night, and together we listed fried chicken on a roster of local menus, many from restaurants that pride themselves on being hyper-local. And he wanted to know – why here? Why on a New England island with so many locally caught ocean delicacies are we so hot for fried land-dwelling birds?

During the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival in August, I posed the question to food maven Ruth Reichl who was here to speak. “I wish someone would do an anti-fried chicken story,” she said to me, “I am so tired of it.” This only deepened the inquiry: If the greater food world is over fried chicken, why then, is this Island so deeply committed, practically in love with this Americana food?

Flocco's Fried Chicken at the 2019 Ag Fair.
Susie Middleton

To get the answer, I did a roundup, starting with tasting the delicious fried chicken at a new booth at the Ag Fair called Flocco’s Fried Chicken. Flocco's was a collaboration between Island chef Aaron Zender and Mermaid Farm. Zender raised the birds himself and then gathered a group of Island kids to help cook the chicken in his custom Airstream trailer. He even wrangled water-logged fisherman Otto Osmers for the popular job.

After that, I came up with a list (see below) far longer than I anticipated, and this is just the tip of the Island’s fried chicken iceberg.

“We have people who come every day and eat the same fried chicken sandwich year-round,” said Tara Reynolds, kitchen manager at Rosewater Market & Take Away in Edgartown where their fried chicken sandwich is the most popular thing on the menu and has been since they opened.

Rosewater Market & Take Away's Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich.
Susie Middleton

“I just think everyone loves fried chicken, it’s a universal truth.” Their sandwich, which she calls a “staple of Rosewater,” is homemade with off-Island hand-pounded antibiotic-free chicken, with homemade pickles and aioli. “There’s a lot of labor that goes into it,” Tara says. “It makes it unique, and it’s everyone’s favorite.”

Similarly, Biscuits in Oak Bluffs has been serving their fried chicken and waffles since they opened eighteen years ago. According to owner Christopher Arcudi, they soak theirs in buttermilk for about five hours.

“We make a special flour seasoning,” Christopher explains. “You got to shake the flour in a paper bag and quickly deep-fry it. It was my wife, Celeste Elser’s idea, she’s the chef.”

Biscuits serves Southern food in New England — shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes. Why?

“Everyone here has seafood,” says Christopher, “Traditional New England fare. We wanted to do something different here on the Island and thank God we did.”

“Seafood every day is too much,” says restaurant manager Moira Radigan of the Beach Plum Inn in Menemsha. “Fried chicken gives people a break from what we usually do and offers more of a variety. Beach Plum offers an Island supper series all summer long, Friday nights the most popular was an $80 five-course family fried chicken night, serving local GOOD Farm chicken. “We don’t do much with red meat. White meat is more fresh, even though it is fried. It’s a break and an alternative. Other places do fried chicken nights too. It’s what people want.”

“Fried chicken is something we stumbled upon and ended up doing really well,” says chef Ben deForest of the popular Red Cat Kitchen in Oak Bluffs where apparently singer Harry Belafonte used to gush over the fried chicken. Over the last eight years they have served the fried chicken with over fifty sides. Earlier this summer they served it with watermelon and feta, and this month it’s cheddar grits and braised North Tabor Farm kale.

“Bruce Willis loves fried chicken,” recalls Ben. “I was his personal chef for six years. When someone eats as much fried chicken as he used to, it promotes developing a dish and a formula to make it right.”

Hyper-local is also relevant to the fowl industry on-Island, which is small and dominated by the ethical poultry production at The GOOD Farm in Vineyard Haven. (Owner Jefferson Monroe makes and sells his signature fried chicken on Fridays at The Larder in Vineyard Haven, and sells cold fried chicken at the Saturday West Tisbury Farmers’ Market).

A bucket of fried chicken at Noman's comes with slaw and biscuits.
Courtesy Noman's

The GOOD Farm wholesales chicken to at least ten local restaurants and takes pride in its ethical practices. “Our guiding principle,” says Jefferson, “is carbon sequestration through food production with a focus on animal welfare.”

This means chicken, like seafood, can be local fare. The Larder’s batter is a potato starch mix with ancho chili powder, and along with the popular fried chicken bucket at Noman’s in Oak Bluffs, is gluten- and dairy-free. “We brine the chicken which is helpful,” says Jefferson, “But obviously the quality of the chicken is the biggest factor. Everybody loves fried chicken.”

To honor the Island, and Brabec's question, I called restaurants, took a poll on Islander’s Talk on Facebook, and was not disappointed in my findings. It turns out good old American nostalgia is the biggest reason Vineyarders love fried chicken. It’s comforting, and well, delicious.

A bucket of gluten-free fried GOOD Farm chicken from The Larder comes with an ever changing variety of sauces.
Jefferson Monroe

My opinion? We should all get out there and eat some deeply crisped bird for anywhere from $14.75 to $33 a pop. Here are ten favorite Island fried chicken joints.

1. The Larder
342 State Road, Vineyard Haven
Served Fridays, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Local GOOD Farm chicken, gluten- and dairy-free
Small bucket, pick 8 pieces (dark meat) $32
Large bucket, pick 16 pieces (dark only) $55
Half bird, 6 pieces (3 breast, 1 wing, 1 thigh, 1 drumstick) $25
Fried chicken hearts, 12 for $5
Served with a homemade slaw side and a variety of sauces, which include honey mustard, preserved lemon-black pepper mayo, kimchi mayo, spicy lime sauce, chipotle mayo and Michael Ruhlman’s sweet and spicy Carolina BBQ sauce

2. Rosewater Market & Take Away
20 South Summer Street, Edgartown
The Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich, $13

3. Biscuits
26 Lake Avenue, Oak Bluffs
Fried Chicken & Waffle, $14.75
Belgian waffle topped with Southern fried chicken, or served with fries and slaw

4. The Red Cat Kitchen
14 Kennebec Ave., Oak Bluffs
RCK Buttermilk-Fried Small Farm Chicken, $33
Served with banana pepper braised kale, cheddar Grits, country gravy

5. Noman’s
15 Island Inn Road, Oak Bluffs
Bucket of Chicken, $30
Fried Island chicken, biscuits and slaw
Local GOOD Farm chicken, gluten- and dairy-free.
Served with Rosewater quick pickles, greens and aioli on ciabatta.

6. Rockfish
11 N. Water Street, Edgartown
Buttermilk fried chicken, $29
Served with smoked cole slaw, mashed potatoes, roasted corn cobs, jalapeno honey.
Chicken from Mountain Air Farm, Delaware.

7. Beach Road
79 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven
Fried Chicken, $28
Half chicken, cole slaw, Leslie’s cornbread, hot sauce 
Chicken from D’Artagnan (off-Island sustainable New England chicken)

8. Offshore Ale Co.
30 Kennebec Ave, Oak Bluffs
Buttermilk fried chicken breast, $21.98
Fried crispy, topped with a natural pan gravy and served with house mashed potatoes and vegetables

9. The Newes from America
23 Kelley Street, Edgartown
Fried Chicken, $18
Fried in buttermilk batter, served with mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables and linguica gravy

10. Barn, Bowl & Bistro
13 Uncas Avenue, Oak Bluffs
Come fall, their popular fried chicken returns to the menu.

Merissa Nathan Gerson is a reluctant food writer who adores eating. Her writing on food appears in LA Weekly, Tablet Magazine, and The New York Times, and her favorite fried chicken is Willy Mae's in New Orleans. 

Editors’ note: We welcome other favorites or additions to this list. Leave them in the comments section below.