I live in Marblehead and have eaten at the Barnacle many times. Most visits are to host a friend from out of town. The Barnacle's location requires a drive through scenic old town ('downtown' to the old Headers). I take my guests here for this reason and because the greatest attribute of this small harbor-side restaurant is its view. Everything else falls short of what it could be.
Come here for the bar, a cup of chowder and the view. Its best to set your food expectations on 'fair to middlin.'
The Barnacle is located on the far north eastern tip of the Marblehead pennisula. Just steps away from the historic Fort Sewall, the canons of which once protected the USS Constitution from pursuit by the British during a battle in 1814. If you like the view from The Barnacle, you'll love it from Fort Sewall.
The service is generally good. Many of the staff have worked here for years and are friendly and efficient. The exception is usually the less-tenured hostesses. They tend to be high school aged young ladies who seem to begrudge the fact that their parents have made them get a job. Their goal appears to be to exert as little effort as possible while being unfriendly and uninterested in customers.
Be forwarned, this place can get very crowded as it attracts tourists and locals alike. Compounding this is a tiny dining room where customers are crammed in cheek to jowl. There are precious few tables on the deck outside that are open during warmer months.
The food is here is unispired. The chowder is above average. Thick and creamy with enough clams in it to remind you that it really is clam chowder, not fish chowder. The rest of the better items tend to require little skill from the kitchen staff - fish and chips, every assortment of fried seafood, steamers, and boiled lobster. No real culinary skill required here.
Stay away from the specials. I once had a crab leg entree and it reeked of amonia. A sure sign that it was well past it's prime. When I reported this disturbing find I got an acknowledgement that I was correct and nothing more. That is, not even an apology. The fact they even served it shows the lack of skill and caring coming from the kitchen. Hence my recommendation to stick to the basics.
The Barnacle is one of those places that will always do well because of it's location. Tourists are drawn here and so it will continue to thrive well above what it merits.
It's unfortunate that a town as beautiful and scenic as Marblehead does not have enough restaurants that rise to the gastronomic level of its charm. If you make a day trip here, walk around for a few hours and if you want something to drink and not-so-special to eat, The Barnacle awaits. Enjoy the view.