Ask anyone from away about iconic Maine road food, and the conversation will turn, inevitably, to Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro. Part of the reason for the legendary diner’s fame is a simple matter of location; the plum US Route 1 location means that nearly every single tourist on their way up the coast to attend the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland or spend a few nights in a tent in Acadia national park has had to pass the restaurant, has had to take notice of the unassuming white trailer with the big, art deco orange neon sign that reads “EAT.”
Jillian: It’s been more than a decade since Malcolm first absconded me from Connecticut to visit his childhood home on the craggy, peninsular coast of Maine. Since then we’ve made the epic journey once a year, escaping the humidity of New Haven summers and Yucatan winters staying at The Samoset, where we would swim and brunch and walk the breakwater. I’ve been a license-holding resident for well over a year, and yet, there are still many mysteries there to be uncovered. He’s been threatening me with Moody’s for I-don’t-know-how-long. I quietly resist and we sail on by, stopping instead for hot dogs or lobster rolls, depending on the season. Is now a good time to share my theory that force-feeding a lobster one of Wasses awesome hot dogs, then eating that lobster would be the ultimate Maine eating experience? Well, I do.
Moody’s empire began in 1927 as a three-cabin motel, built with screened porches but with no running water, that rented for $1.00 per person, per night. Built to capitalize on the influx of Summer visitors to the state that would use the yet-to-be-built Route 1, the motel grew over the years into a full-blown compound that includes 18 cabins, a 104-seat diner, and a gift shop.
My first experience at Moody’s was as a little kid in the early 1980′s, watching my dad somehow manage to eat plates full of liver and onions while simultaneously drinking coffee and chain smoking Marlboro Reds. By the time I got to high school, Moody’s had done away with their smoking section, but their (then) 24-hour schedule made it a bit of a late-night destination for bored teenagers from further north. After a night spent driving between the parking lots of Wal-Mart, Ames, and Shop ‘n’ Save, where we would sit for hours in one of our cars, a slice of pie at Moody’s was often a final stop, a focused destination during a very unfocused time in all of our lives. The 20 minutes that separated Moody’s from our home town was enough to ensure that we didn’t visit often, but I was always happy when we did.
Now, my best friend from childhood has a teenaged stepson of his own, who was briefly a dishwasher at Moody’s. His mother-in-law worked there for 30 years. That’s the kind of multi-generational impact a family business like Moody’s has on everyone who grows up here. Though we returned to Maine two years ago, and despite countless trips up the coast to visit friends and family, it didn’t occur to me until recently to actually stop at Moody’s and write a review. When a place has been around for 80 years, has become such a central institution in everyone’s mind, has become this legendary piece of scenery, it almost doesn’t dawn on you to stop and eat there, doesn’t occur to you that you could possibly have anything to add to the retelling of its story. I’ll do my best.
When you first step into Moody’s, you have a choice to make. On the left, the diner’s original Formica counter and leather-and-chrome stools run the length of the building, some of which are occupied by locals who eat at Moody’s every day. Hang a right, and Moody’s opens into a slightly more spacious dining room, with a few free-standing tables and another row of booths. On most weekdays during the Winter, you can sit wherever you’d like. The pale green linoleum on the floor is mirrored by the low foam drop-ceiling that runs throughout.
Jillian: It felt strangely temporary for a place as enduring as this. Where I’m from, diners resemble Tomorrowland, chrome-shiny and neon-new. I like how barely indoors Moody’s feels, like an extension of the coniferous forest just beyond its walls. It’s a diner in many ways that are familiar. Waitresses who carry the weight of the world on a plate with two fried eggs, who can be coaxed by a cute newborn into smiling, bottomless cups of coffee, substantial plates of fries and onion rings greasy enough to get you through those bleary-eyed mornings that once were caused by whiskey and now are the result of the 3 A.M. feeding.
After settling into a booth, ordering a cup of coffee, and reviewing the daily specials, I cursed my bad luck for not stopping at Moody’s on American Chop Suey Wednesday. I settled, instead on the Salisbury Steak with Mushroom Gravy ($7.99). Jillian usually opts for breakfast when visiting a diner, and was pleased to see that Moody’s offers the morning meal all day. There are, she learned, some peculiar exceptions to this. You can order breakfast all day at Moody’s, unless you want a poached egg. Those are only served until 11:00 A.M., and after 9:00 P.M. The same holds true for omelets. If you want breakfast, that’s fine. But if you want an omelet, well, those aren’t served after 11:00. Throwing her hands up in a last-minute panic, she settled on a grilled cheese on rye with a side of onion rings ($5.38). We also sampled the pan-fried Haddock Cakes, with pickled beets and potato salad ($7.99).
Expecting standard diner fare, I was very pleasantly surprised by my Salisbury Steak. The two hamburger patties were fairly nondescript; a little dry, a little underseasoned, a little puckish, but with a fantastic sear and crust around the outside. The star of this dish, though, was the mushroom gravy. Moody’s makes their own gravy, and it is studded with tons of fresh sauteed mushrooms, adding a salty, beefy layer of flavor to the meat and mashed potatoes it covers. I kept making (and breaking) mental bargains with myself about how much of the dish I would eat, ultimately nearly finishing it.
Jillian: I had the grilled cheese on rye. Rye bread is a diner essential.
Jillian’s grilled cheese sandwich was unremarkable, but certainly good, with golden-toasted rye bread and lots of melted Swiss cheese. The onion rings were nothing short of remarkable; tender ribbons of perfectly-cooked onion wrapped in a crunchy batter that positively begged for additional salt and ketchup. Jillian ordered the coleslaw to give to me, but I found that the dish of slaw that accompanied my dinner was plenty.
I was¬† most surprised by the haddock cakes, a dish I would never order ordinarily. I expected them to be bready and mushy, with lots of filler and very little fish. Instead, these perfectly-crisped rounds of haddock were packed full of my favorite fish, and the sear from the pan added a delicious crunch that proved the perfect vehicle for plenty of tartar sauce.
While all of our entrees were good, it is the pie at Moody’s that has become so iconic over the years. With eleven varieties of homemade pie available at any given time of the day or night, the shortening-laden flaky crust at the bottom of a Moody’s pie ($3.69/slice) is enough to warrant a visit. We tried two huge slices of chocolate cream and coconut cream pie, both double the size of a regular slice of pie and covered in a thick mound of whipped cream. Both slices of pie were, quite frankly, perfect; not too sweet, impossibly creamy, thick and velvety, with tons of chocolate and coconut flavor in each slice. The pie may be the single greatest reason to stop; I can imagine skipping lunch altogether, ordering a slice of four-berry pie a la mode, and foregoing other¬†meals for the rest of the day.
Jillian: Moody’s is a roadside icon, as much a part of the fabric of that Route 1 drive as Bath Ironworks and the Wiscasset Bridge, to me. I like being a small part of this place, though I may just be passing through.
What started as a Summer rental cabin business, founded by a serial entrepreneur who also had his hands in the cattle and Christmas tree export business, has evolved with the times to grow into a family business that has kept the Moody family employed for generations. What is most surprising, though, is that in spite of its prime location and attention to Summer business, Moody’s has never felt like a tourist trap. Go in the Winter, and you’ll find customers that have been eating there for years, enjoying the same low-priced, hearty diner fare. While the locals may be mostly absent during the Summer, and there may be a bit of a wait, tourists will receive the same treatment and be served the same quality meals. There are no $40 “Shore Dinners” made with six bucks’ worth of seafood at Moody’s. Instead, locals and tourists alike have been delighted by Moody’s versions of classic diner cuisine, executed faithfully, quickly, and inexpensively, for over 85 years. It’s a Maine institution.