It’s a bit of a know-it-when-you-see-it situation, trying to pick classic restaurants. The food, atmosphere, people, location, history — some sort of alchemy is at play, variables combining with (and amplifying) each other until a restaurant seems as well-aged as it is ageless. A place like Primo, in Rockland, may come to mind, where chef Melissa Kelly has steadily built up a nationally acclaimed, locally beloved farm-restaurant paragon that helped spur the midcoast’s reputation for excellent cooking. And yet, Primo, which opened in 2000, doesn’t appear in our July 2023 package on classic Maine dining, on account of lines needing to be drawn somewhere.
For the print feature (there’s a lot more to it than this list, including separate pieces on diners, lobster shacks, and more), we included only those restaurants opened before Y2K, meaning they’re all at least approaching the quarter-century mark, although many are two or three times older. (Not entirely coincidentally, 25 years is the benchmark age in Maine for an antique car.) Of course, age isn’t everything — an old restaurant isn’t necessarily a great restaurant. Whether serving ployes with cretons in Frenchville, freshly caught lobster in Frenchboro, or red-snapper hot dogs in Lewiston, every establishment herein is seriously recommendable, regardless of whether the food arrives on fine china or in plastic baskets.
This isn’t, however, just a collection of classic restaurants. It’s a collection of Maine classics. The admittedly slippery word “Maine-y” won’t show up in any dictionaries, but nary an issue of this magazine goes by without it popping up. All of these Maine-y restaurants represent something essential about the state’s cuisine or feel deeply rooted in the local culture (or both). If UNESCO took a break from naming World Heritage Sites to designate Maine Culinary Heritage Sites, which restaurants would make the list? Ultimately, what defines a classic is how it makes you feel: deeply satisfied, and not just because you’re stuffed. One person’s classic might not be another’s. These are ours. — W.G.
Two Rivers Lunch, Allagash
The only restaurant in this tiny Aroostook river town started as a hot-dog stand in the ’70s, with founders Tylor and Leitha Kelly expanding it in the ’80s into a full-on café. Their daughter runs it these days, but plenty hasn’t changed: not the family recipes (including a dynamite burger and indulgent fry mix — aka poutine), not the taxidermy décor, not the fact that it’s essentially the community’s living room. 75 Dickey Rd. 207-398-3393.
“Everything at Dysart’s . . . feels intentional, like somebody actually gives a damn.” So declared no less a foodie authority than Food & Wine magazine last year, extolling the highway diner outside Bangor. Greg and Betty Feeney set the template for honest, generously portioned comfort food when David Dysart recruited them to run his truck stop’s kitchen in 1967: baked beans, fish chowder, a famed pot roast. Betty’s rich, flaky pie-crust recipe is still used today. Generations have sidled up for post-church brunches and, back when it was 24-hours, post-bar feeding frenzies. Fill ’er up. 530 Coldbrook Rd.207-942-4878.
Three reasons this clubby harborside stalwart has hosted a zillion Down East business lunches: our office was very briefly across the street when Waterfront opened, in 1978; you can’t beat the deck, with tall ships and yachts on one side and a Camden Hills vista on the other; the kitchen is as consistent as they come, especially with seafood standards like the luscious lobster stew, perfectly battered fish and chips, and mussels in white wine and garlic. Every town should have a place so reliably good. 48 Bayview St.207-236-3747.
The only AAA five-diamond restaurant in Maine, the White Barn Inn has long been the state’s undisputed standard bearer for white-tablecloth dining. The restaurant turns 50 this year, and in all that time, neither food nor service has ever been anything less than superlative. It comes at a high cost, but you get what you pay for. And while head chefs have come and gone, the menu retains its greatest hits, like the sublime butter-poached local lobster in cognac-coral sauce that has a way of making the splurge feel utterly justified. 37 Beach Ave.207-967-2321.
We know of no other Maine restaurant offering the trinity of Acadian cookery: chicken stew with dumplings; ployes, a buckwheat cross between flatbreads and pancakes; and cretons, a pâté of pork, fat, onions, cinnamon, and cloves, which Dolly’s regulars spread on their ployes, with a splash of maple syrup too. Keith Pelletier, who runs the modest St. John Valley joint founded by his mother, Odette, 35 years ago, also offers five variations on poutine, including the authentic 1950s Quebec version: thick-cut fries smothered in gravy and squeaky-fresh cheese curds. 17 Rte. 1.207-728-2050.
Before there were raw bars offering local oysters all up and down the Maine coast, there was Eider’s. Sherry and Larry Schneider embraced the bivalve when they opened the English-style public house in 1996, when there were just a few growers on the Damariscotta River. They sold in 2003, in order to market a shucking tool of their own design, but the pub they launched is still a mighty cozy place to slurp and sip. 2 Elm St.207-563-6008.
For starters, it’s damn good pizza, with a slightly sweet red sauce made with a top-secret spice blend. It’s also where 70 years of UMaine students (and others) have gathered to unwind, study, flirt, celebrate, etc. The Tiffany lamps, formica countertops, and parlor-style stools nod to the history, and founder “Pat” Farnsworth’s son still runs the place. Pro tip: make it “double dough” for a fluffier pie. 11 Mill St.207-866-2111.
Street & Co. has been packed nightly since 1989, when it opened on cobblestoned Wharf Street and word spread about Dana Street’s delectable Mediterranean-style dishes. The seafood-only menu changes daily, but customers won’t let Street retire his simple, elegant sole française (lightly floured fillets sauteed in nutty brown butter) or scallops in Pernod and cream, which arrive at tables in sizzling pans. Cozy with salvaged barn floors, low-hanging beams, and an open kitchen, the dining room thrums with the convivial clamor of chatter and clanging pots. 33 Wharf St.207-775-0887.
It’s changed hands plenty and gone by different names (some still slip up and call it the Trail’s End), but there’s been a restaurant turning out home cooking on Millinocket’s main drag for almost as long as there’s been an Appalachian Trail (80-plus years). Come for the local gossip, stay for the whopper flapjacks and the signature squash donut, plus ceiling tiles signed by decades of famished, triumphant thru hikers. 210 Penobscot Ave.207-723-6720.
The setting — a renovated 1941 car ferry in Portland Harbor — is about as novel it gets. The roots stretch to 1954, when Tony DiMillo opened Anthony’s, on nearby Fore Street, which changed locations and names twice before DiMillo launched his floating restaurant, in 1982. And though it may look like a tourist trap, savvy Portlanders know otherwise. The menu has always been roundly a-sea, with a variety of fried and broiled seafood dishes, plus lobster every which way — steamed, stuffed, deep-fried, tucked into rolls, and baked into mac and cheese. 25 Long Wharf.207-772-2216.
After a full day of charging down the slopes — legs a little wobbly, nose still tingly from the cold — the remedy is a proper après-ski experience: warm, cozy vibes and a chummy clientele enjoying the sense of camaraderie engendered by coming in from the cold. As luck would have it, both of Maine’s biggest ski areas have just such a place. At Sunday River, there’s Matterhorn Ski Bar, in a big Alpine-looking barn just a mile down the access road from the base lodge — its original location, from 1995 to 1998, was farther away, in downtown Bethel (292 Sunday River Rd., Newry; 207-824-6836). The bartop is made of old skis, steins belonging to mug-club members dangle overhead, and the walls are covered in old racing uniforms, ski posters, trail signs, and other mountain bric-a-brac. Over at Sugarloaf, customers have been skiing right up to Bag and Kettlesince 1969 (21 Village West, Carrabassett Valley; 207-237-2451). Dimly lit and low-ceilinged, the Bag has a different look than Matterhorn — more of an English pub. But the effect is the same: a convivial place to let relaxation wash over (while washing down a couple of the Bag’s house-brewed beers). And though it’s nearly impossible for food not to taste good after a winter day outdoors, whether it’s poutine and buffalo mac at Matterhorn or chili and chicken wings at the Bag, both kitchens make everything exceptionally tasty.
Harmon’s Lunch, Falmouth
For nearly five decades, Harmon’s served a strictly neighborhood clientele and the occasional passerby unable to resist a hole-in-the-wall luncheonette with the word HAMBURGERS running across the facade. Then along came Roadfood authors Jane and Michael Stern in the early aughts, and Yelpers were suddenly driving out of their way to order from an extremely limited menu in a spare, timeworn dining room staffed by a crew who, some enthused, snapped at them. The quarter-inch-thick, cooked-to-medium-only burgers are genuinely good, and the price — $3.75 (or $4 with cheese) — can’t be beat. 144 Gray Rd.207-797-9857.
It was called the Locust House when it opened 102 years ago, catering to sports who arrived by train to rusticate on the Belgrade Lakes. In 1969, new owners Paul and Priscilla Provandie renamed it — and introduced slow-cooked duck to the menu. That dish is still the inn’s claim to fame, along with the tranquility of the lawn dining out back, where summer patrons nurse cocktails while watching boats cruise the channel separating Long Pond and Great Pond. 157 Main St.207-495-3553.
Not one diner showed up to the Bear’s opening, in June 1979, but by year’s end, owners Dave and Weslie Evans and then-partner Chip MacConnell had already solidified their pub’s reputation for hearty food and good times. The place is chock full of vintage Americana (and a taxidermied bear). The menu is punny — e.g., the Almighty Cheezus Burger — but the beer program is almighty serious. The Bear was one of the first bars to start pushing Mainers’ palettes at the dawn of the craft-beer revolution, and the constantly changing draft list is now up to almost 70 brews. 540 Forest Ave.207-772-0300.
The Birches Resort shows its age in the best possible way. At 90 years old, the dining room has a rustic wilderness-lodge feel, with hand-hewn log walls, a mighty stone fireplace, and a wooden canoe balancing on ceiling beams. The Willard family bought the resort in the ’60s, and they’ve dished up ultimate comfort foods ever since: fluffy pancakes and omelets, hefty burgers and pulled-pork sandwiches, and prime rib and turkey dinners. The other draw, of course, is the unobstructed view of Moosehead Lake and Mount Kineo from the restaurant’s windows. 281 Birches Rd.800-825-9453.
Nowadays, lots of dives aren’t really dives — they’re savvy operations signaling a particular streak of cool. Then, there’s Ruski’s, without a whiff of camp or irony about it. The tavern opened around 1900 and, except for a stint as a bakery during Prohibition (albeit one that sold illicit booze), it’s been there ever since, under various names. Ruski’s is open morning to night, but the inside light level is never anything other than dim, whether you’re starting the day with a Bloody Mary and a Hangover Special (eggs, corned-beef hash, home fries) or finishing it with nachos and a shot of Jim Beam. 212 Danforth St.207-774-7604.
A trip to Flo’s is about hot dogs, but it’s just as much about the cutthroat parking, highly limited hours, and Seinfeldian-soup-nazi ordering rules. It’s an experience. When first addressed, reply only with how many dogs you want. Once they’re steamed, you can choose your toppings, then add chips and drinks. The house special is relish, mayo, and celery salt, and the relish is made with the same secret recipe Florence Stacy used when she opened the stand, in 1959. Now, Flo’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter man the line. 1359 Rte. 1.
Boone’s has two big things going for it. One is a pair of decks right on Portland’s waterfront, where fishermen come in with their catch. The other is what the kitchen does with that catch, making the stuffed lobster that Alexander Boone put on his menu when he opened the place, in 1898. Baked, split, and loaded up with scallops, shrimp, and crushed-cracker stuffing. The restaurant claims Boone invented the dish. Maybe so. At the very least, he certainly nailed it. 86 Commercial St.207-774-5725.
A Kawanhee Inn brochure from the ’40 or ’50s — black-and-white shots of canoers, sunbathers, and a pipe-smoking fly-fisherman — describes “delicious home-cooked food” for “care-free, outdoor-loving people who like to eat.” With dishes like filet mignon in bordelaise sauce and duck breast with date-and-olive relish, the menu definitely isn’t as “home-cooked” as when the inn opened, in 1929, but the handsome fieldstone fireplaces and sparkling views of Webb Lake are exactly as they’ve always been. 12 Anne’s Way.207-585-2000.
The James Beard Foundation, whose annual prizes are the Oscars of American food culture, introduced its America’s Classics Award in 1998, bestowed annually on a handful of mom-and-pop spots that smack of timelessness and offer A+ food “that reflects the character of their communities.” Maine eateries have thrice been recognized. Alas, South Thomaston’s Waterman’s Beach Lobster, which got the nod in 2001, closed seven years ago (it’s now a brewery). In Brooksville, Bagaduce Lunch(145 Franks Flat; 207-326-4197) picked up the honor in 2008. Established in 1946, the fried-seafood shack overlooks a riffly stretch of its namesake river and turns out baskets of exquisitely golden clams, haddock, and scallops, plus colorful and creative soft-serve cones. This year, the foundation recognized Nezinscot Farm(284 Turner Center Rd.; 207-225-3231), a century-old family farm in Turner with a from-scratch café that owners Gloria and Gregg Varney opened in the ’80s and have since expanded into a bakery, fromagerie, and farm store. The fluffy omelets are terrific, with veggies and eggs off the farm, alongside bacon from farm-raised pigs, and so is anything on the house-baked bread. So too is the feel of a welcoming rural hub, which moved foundation judges to observe, “The energy behind it all feels directed at building community.”
Employees at the Dark Harbor Shop are, per pre-WWII slang, still called “soda jerks,” and behind the counter at the century-old soda fountain, they continue to concoct floats, frappes, and hot-fudge sundaes that probably would have onetime been described as the cat’s pajamas. These days, the jerks also make hearty turkey clubs and roast-beef grinders, among other sandwiches, which, for some reason, taste best at the old bolt-down barstools. 515 Pendleton Point Rd.207-734-8878.
Before Portland was brimming with kitchens committed to all things local — seafood, meats, fruits and vegetables both farmed and wild — there was Fore Street, sketching out the blueprint for contemporary New England cooking with chef Sam Hayward’s impeccable dishes, from mussels roasted in a wood-fired oven to grilled island lamb with foraged mushrooms. Twenty-seven years and a slew of national accolades later, Fore Street is surrounded by a whole bunch of restaurants it helped inspire. 288 Fore St.207-775-2717.
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