When friends from out of state come to visit, where do you go? Where do you bring them to walk, to witness, to eat Maine? They demand a lobster, perhaps a cup of chowder. You take them on a boat, to an island, in the hope of seeing seals, or whales. You went deliberately to the woods, the hiking hills, the breakwater, and then, invigorated, lungs full of crisp, northern air, you realize that you are starving. You’ve never been hungrier, in fact. Your thoughts turn to pints of amber-colored beer and cracking open crustaceans with your bare hands. We can do it ourselves, and we did at last month’s First Annual From Away Labor Day Lobster Feed, but why? The aftermath of liquid-filled cavities, jettisoned claw shells and clam sheathes is a reality I don’t care to face the next morning. Better to take your hungry party out, to the seafood shacks and hurricane lamp lit bars line that our craggy shores.
We have family from L.A. visiting this weekend and wanted to fill them from stem to stern with seafood, almost immediately upon arrival. In this situation, it’s imperative to adopt an outsider’s perspective. Not so long ago, we were those visitors to Maine from faraway lands. And while the good folks here were eager to show off their Primos and Suzukis – admittedly outstanding restaurants well worth visiting, in time – the happy traveler merely wants a 1 1/2 lb lobster with drawn butter, corn on the cob, cole slaw and a heft of baked potato served on the side. Their needs are simple. They likely have been to an excellent dining establishment in the area from wherever they hail, and have no pressing desire to get off on your hamachi. Their needs are regional. We seek out what is local, wherever we are. You never order mussels in Iowa.
And even after over a year of being here, dining out, and squiring visiting dignitaries around town, we are often left wondering where to go for the best of the best, the unparalleled pairing of quality comestibles and Downeast ambiance. We’ve written about Commercial Street in Portland, about DiMillo’s, J’s Oyster Bar and The Portland Lobster Company, and when and why we find each of those places perfect for guests. When we’re up to the Midcoast in the Summer, we always end up stopping for a lobster roll at Patty’s Seafood in Edgecomb, grabbing a beer and haddock sandwich way out at Cod End in Tenant’s Harbor, or in Winter, getting cozy at Cappy’s in Camden for chowder and many warming pints. We didn’t have an inspired and informed idea about nearby places, closer to Topsham. We do plan to write up a place called “Something Fishy” on RT 201 before season’s end, but again, we needed to set the scene with buoys, compasses, and wood paneling.
Three attempts in two days have been made, with varying success. More out of proximity than loyalty, we often end up taking a meal at the Sea Dog in Brunswick. There is no denying the charm of the gracious yellow building perched over the Androscoggin; inside it feels like a decent beer hall, with charming views and a basically good burger. We grabbed a quick bite there before our houseguests collapsed from red-eye exhaustion. Their artichoke dip is one of those things you shouldn’t ever order, but you do, and it’s better than you expect, until it’s not. Because it had been spotted from the highway and Malcolm had fond childhood memories of the former Edgecomb location, we ventured out to the Muddy Rudder in Yarmouth for dinner hours later. We didn’t expect it would be the most remarkable food, but it seemed like it might be funny, and often that is enough.
Metaphorically speaking, we’ve all had brunch at the Muddy Rudder. Granny wears her maroon pant-suit and a carnation corsage for Mother’s Day, an unmanageable passel of relatives assembles there after a christening or graduation, and sometimes unwittingly four somewhat-cool or once-were-cool adults end up there for dinner on a Thursday night. The interior is aqua and smooth as a cruise ship piano bar. It has a large lounge where you may drink while waiting for a table, and where I imagine many divorcees have been talked out of their control top hose. The meal was average, with a few highlights. But it doesn’t have to be better. It rained on the window panes and lightened and thundered over the river. The starter of steamers was sweet and not all gobbed up and mangled, as can occur. The steamed lobster was just what it should be, and the bill was really quite reasonable.
Determined to enlarge our collective horizon today, we set out for the islands, Orr’s and Bailey, south of Brunswick and Harpswell proper. What a stunning last day of September it is here in Maine. Shining and clear, with the yellows and oranges of autumn unveiling, we followed the signs to the quaint (I hate to call it quaint) spit of land in Casco Bay. Oh, but it is so very! Churches and cemeteries from the 19th century, harbors mottled with boats and traps, and a storied, ghostly sort of a quality you wish that you could capture as art, make it one of the most moving and pictureqesue places I have yet seen in Maine. And it’s a goddamn picturesque state. We drove all the way to the Land’s End gift shop and stopped to see up close the masculine statue for those who dedicated their lives to the sea, then doubled back toward Cook’s Lobster House on Rt 24 Bailey Island.
This is the place. From photographs of the fishermen whose names became the landscape, to the ice cold Maudite and Ephemera, to the sea level location with waves lapping over the parking lot rock, I loved this place to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach. Your wish for a lobster plain and simple is easily fulfilled, and if you want to make it a four pounder you can do so, and stuff it with seafood for a tidy $87. We kept it modest. Lobster dip in a crusty boule, a lobster dinner, a lobster roll, haddock chowder x 2, haddock nuggets and a small order of mussels. Nothing fancy. Not too excessive. The sign of a stellar bowl of mussels? Not feeling an ounce of embarrassment asking the waitress to bring more bread for bathing in your buttery broth. I am not ashamed to have sopped it all up. The mussels themselves were the sweet little Bang Island variety. All the food was the best we’ve had in days, whether fried, steamed, or floating in a briny broth.
I’m stuffed. And we’re going out to dinner again in less than three hours. We don’t always pick the right restaurants. We eat our share of adequate food. And we stumble into awesome as often as we possibly can. It isn’t problematic to make a lobster meet its maker here. But you want to impress your guests, not being all like, “Look at me on my yacht with my long haired white cat and cummerbund made of diamonds”, but you know, with how beautiful and good it is where you live; you want them to be happy. You can play high/low in Maine and slug through a lot of mediocre fare in between. Keep your eyes open for salty old couples who say little but look lovingly at one another, and if you see too many gentleman farmers with mealy mouthed wives in North Face fleeces, have a small bag or pretzels and keep moving.