Is it any wonder people drive thousands of kilometres to savour Maine’s stunning coastal scenery? Blue sea, bluer sky, crashing surf, rockbound shores, pristine beaches, and picturesque fishing villages – it is scenery that has inspired writers and artists for decades. It’s all here in one lovely, alluring, addictive package.
Add to this a generous serving of down home hospitality, a gentle pace and you’ve got powerful bait for burned-out city folk in need of a respite from urban bustle.
And then there’s the food.
In the 210 km stretch from Kittery north to Rockland, there’s enough good food to satisfy the most discriminating critic or persnickity eater. The area has everything from rustic BYOB (plus BYO cutlery at some) lobster shacks to fine dining establishments that capture the essence of Maine in a more sophisticated manner than traditional shore dinners.
Late spring – before the onslaught of summer tourists – is the perfect time to spend four or five leisurely days exploring the back roads and quiet coves, discovering charming inns, poking through antique shops and eating your way up the coast. You will find it’s as easy to indulge in a classic shore dinner – lobsters, steamers, fried clams, a bowl of chowder – as it is to move on to more sophisticated fare.
Here are a few eateries along the Maine route that are not to be missed:
Bob’s Clam Hut
In Maine’s southernmost city, Bob’s has been a landmark since it opened in 1956. Today a string of Kittery’s outlet malls surrounds the little roadside establishment. The original Bob retired 16 years ago, but the place is still the same. Up to a thousand customers a day attest to the freshness of the lobster rolls, the clam chowder or their most popular item, soft-shell Ipswich clams fried to golden, crunchy perfection. Everything is cooked to order. The cooking oil is changed six or seven times a day to ensure freshness. Place your order at the little kitchen window. Take out or eat in at picnic tables or inside on rainy days. For those with a sweet tooth, Bob’s also serves Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
Bob’s Clam Hut. 315 U.S. Rte 1, Kittery. Open year round 11 am to 9 pm, 9:30 Friday and Saturday. Visa, MasterCard, Amex. www.bobsclamhut.com
Although technically not a restaurant, anyone who loves good food shouldn’t miss an opportunity to visit the production line and sampling room of this specialty food manufacturer. Partners Jonathan King and Jim Stott got their start 11 years ago selling jams, mustards and vinegars at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire farmer’s market. The first day, they made $250. Today they manufacture 150 different products, processing 25,000 bottles a day in their spiffy modern 45,000-square-foot facility. With a cookbook to their credit, and another on the way, awards at American and Canadian gourmet food shows, these guys are on a (blueberry jam) roll. Patio lunch service is planned for summer 2003. Don’t miss a taste of their most popular item, Wild Maine Blueberry Jam or the sinfully good Roasted Onion and Garlic Jam.
Stonewall Kitchen. Stonewall Lane, Rte 1 across from the York thruway exit. Open 9 am to 5 pm year round, except Fridays off-season. www.stonewallkitchen.com
If Arrows was in France, it would undoubtedly vie for a Michelin star or three. On this side of the Atlantic, it has been voted one of 50 best restaurants in the U.S. and one of the ten most romantic. Chef/owners Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier have transformed an 18th century post and beam farmhouse into the sophisticated country restaurant of their dreams and part of the surrounding property into sumptuous flower and vegetable gardens. It’s their way of insuring the best and freshest local produce is available. Menus change regularly and meld the best Maine ingredients with California flair and Asian flavours. Arrive early to work up an appetite while strolling through the gardens. A la carte entrées – $40; six course tasting menu – $89. Arrows Cookbook to be published in 2003.
Arrows Restaurant. Berwick Road, 3km west of Rte 1, Ogunquit.
Open mid April to December except Mondays. Dinner 6-9 pm.
www.arrrowsrestaruant.com Reservations : 207-361-1100. Dress code : jackets required.
Merriland Farm and Cafe
Locals refer to it as ‘The Raspberry Farm’ because it is a 200-year old restored berry farm located in one of Wells loveliest rural areas. The Morrison family farms almost one hectare of berries (blueberries and strawberries as well as raspberries). For the first 15 years of operation, the berries provided the basis for a few simple, delicious dishes served at thieir charming garden café. To the fresh berries, raspberry crêpes, fruit pies, blueberry coffee cake and individual tea breads that are traditional menu items, son John, who took over from his parents two years ago has added breakfast and lunch items such as sweet potato lyonnais omelet, homemade breads, corn beef hash and eggs benedict. Go for breakfast or brunch on a nice day when you can sit under umbrellas on the patio and enjoy the pastoral view and adjacent 9-hole golf course.
Merriland Farm and Cafe. 545 Coles Hill Road Wells. 2.5 km west off Rte 1 at north end of Wells. Open May 1 to Columbus Day 7 :30 am to 2 :45 pm. Brunch served indoors weekends from Columbus Day until mid December. Cash, travellers cheque, or personal cheque with ID. www.merrilandfarm.com
The Maine Diner
The cars jammed into the adjacent parking any time of day lot provide the first tip that, as diners go, this one has something going for it. What started out as a produce stand in the 1940’s, evolved into The Maine Diner in 1950, is now a 90 seat eatery that serves between 1300 and 1600 customers a day. ‘There isn’t a busier seat in New England,’ claim the owners Myles and Dick Henry. This is a diamond in the rough serving home-cooked, comfort food at a counter or in two small dining rooms. Some of the recipes (lobster pie, for instance) have been handed down by the brothers’ grandmother. Along with diner speciaties such as chicken pot pie, meat loaf and baked beans, there’s a there’s the usual selection of local seafood favourites. Expect to wait 30 to 60 minutes for a table but once seated you will be out in an hour.
The Maine Diner. Rte 1 at north end of Wells. Open year round; 7 :00 am to 9 :30 pm in season. No reservations. Visa, Master Card and Discover Card. www.mainediner.com
The White Barn Inn
The area’s only member of the prestigous Relais and Chateaux chain, the White Barn is a standout among romantic, luxury dining establishments. In a restored 1820 white barn, chef Jonathan Cartwright turns out an imaginative four-course, prix fixe dinner that starts with a tasting plate of nibbles, followed by appetizers such as sesame crusted scallops on mango and scallion salsa with herb salad and soy vinagrette. Main course options include steamed Maine lobster (out of its shell) on a bed of fettuccini with cognac butter sauce. The biggest problem with the dessert menu is choosing. The 300 selections on wine list range from $28 to $500 and the wine-savvy staff is helpful. Prix fixe menu $81.
The White Barn Inn. 37 Beach Avenue, Kennebunkport. 207-967-2321
April to December daily; closed Monday and Tuesday remainder of year.
Visa, Mastercard, Amex. Reservations recommended. Dress code : jackets required.
Mabel’s Lobster Claw
It’s not unusual to see a gaggle of wired, khaki-clad, preppie young men hovering outside of Mabel’s – a sure sign that Barbara and George Bush are inside. Mabel’s is a Kennebunkport institution and a favourite of the senior Bushes. Mabel sold in 1995 but not much has changed. Here you’ll find hearty servings of comfort food in a family-friendly setting that is not as frenetic as the Maine Diner. Of the classic selections – broiled haddock, baked stuffed lobster, baked sole stuffed with lobster and mushrooms – steamed 2-lb lobsters are the perennial favourite and like most seacoast restaurants are priced according to the market.
Mabel’s Lobster Claw. 124 Ocean Avenue, Kennebunkport.
Lunch and dinner daily from Memorial day to November 30. Visa and Master Card.
Fore Street Restaurant
Portland boasts more great eating places than most cities twice its size. Hard pressed to choose only one, it would have to be Fore Street located a block from the water near the old port. A cavernous exposed brick and beam building that once served as a munitions warehouse offers a comfortable ambiance. The kitchen with its 17-foot open hearth with a wood-burning brick oven at one end, a rotisserie at the other and a grill in between opens onto the dining area and full service bar. Apple-wood roasting and rotisserie self-basting are chef Sam Hayward’s special cooking methods. 95% of all food is locally grown organic.
Maine farm-raised rabbit, monkfish roasted with wild mushrooms, spit-roasted chicken are just a few of the memorable entrees.
Fore Street. 288 Fore Street, Portland
Open seven nights a week year round from 5:30 pm except a few major holidays. Reservations strongly recommended. Visa, Master Card and Amex. www.foodinportland.com/forestreet.html
Further north up the coast from Portland in Rockland, you’ll find the region’s newest fine-dining gem, Primo. Opened last year to sensational reviews, it is the dream come true for star chef Melissa Kelly and pastry chef Price Kushner. Kelly named the restaurant after her much loved grandfather, Primo Magnani and it should come as no surprise that she serves the robust, imaginative food of her Italian background. Experience this young award-winning chef’s signature dish – seared Maine halibut with corn and lobster risotto – and you’ll think you’ve died and gone to Tuscany. The old Victorian house that they renovated now accommodates five dining rooms each with a warm, charming country feel.
Primo. 2 Main Street. Rockland. 207-586-0770
Serving dinner five nights a week year round. Appetizers $7- $12; Entrees $12-$22. Visa, master Card, Amex, Diners Club, Discover Card. Dress code: casual.
TheToronto Star, May 31, 2003