Have you ever fallen so instantly head-over-heels in love with the way a restaurant feels, been so immediately comfortable and at home, that you find yourself willing to largely ignore whatever it is you’re eating?
A Midcoast Maine institution since 1973, The Cabin is located in historic Bath, directly across the street from the windowless, sixty-foot tall corrugated steel montolith that is the backside of Bath Iron Works. You can smell the pizza grease hanging heavy in the air from the moment you step out of the car. A single streetlight illuminates the front of the restaurant and the small sandwich-board sign highlighting the weekly specials, located on a side street next to what appears to be a completely vacant multistory apartment building.
Jillian: There’s something sinister about heading down into Bath. Under the dark, shady overpass, right at the railroad tracks. I can’t see the ships, but I know that they are there. In darkness, our car drove in the umbra of the ironworks, until we reached The Cabin. It was a port in the storm, amber-lit and nautical as dead reckoning.
Inside the first-floor restaurant space, a former rope mill used by Bath’s shipbuilders, The Cabin is divided like a private home into three comfortably dim, low-ceilinged rooms, all lit to varying degrees of brightness by hanging stained glass lamps. The wood-paneled walls are adorned with vintage nautical tchotchkes, including giant black-and-white etchings of ships, large bits of rope, and huge half-models of boat hulls. The overall effect feels like someone converted the bilges of an old wooden ship into a cozy dive bar, that happens to also serve pizza. Each tall dark wood booth further segments the various smaller dining rooms into several small, private, intimate spaces, lit by wall-mounted brass gaslight-style lamps,where you can sit and feel completely separate from the rest of the world, even as you eat in a communal space.
Jillian: I love the wooden beaminess of its low interior, the beers on the wall, the knotty tables and cozy booths. There were lots of nooks and crannies where we might sit drinking all night, ordering small pizzas slowly to stem the tide of intoxication.
When you first walk in the door and join the queue of locals waiting in line, it’s a little unclear what the protocol is. An ATM stands on one wall (a relief, since The Cabin is a cash-only restaurant), where you place your order at the counter, give your name to the busy kitchen staff, and let the counterperson know which area you intend to sit in. There are numerous blacklit boards advertising the daily beer and all-you-can-eat spaghetti specials, including a surprisingly wide selection of insanely inexpensive pints and pitchers that run the gamut from $1.75 Coors Light pints to pitchers of Pemaquid for $15 bucks. We settled on a Garden Salad ($3.50), a small Cheese Pizza ($8), and The Cabin’s specialty “White Pizza ($8),” a mozzarella and garlic butter-sauced creation that came recommended.
The first beer went down entirely too quickly, as we sat in the dim light, sharing the room with just a few other customers. The Cabin makes you feel immediately at home; the kind of place you can imagine sitting down to round after round of beer, the fuzzy warmth of the place growing ever fuzzier to match your beer-soaked brain. The kind of place where day and night seem irrelevant, where you can just as easily spend an afternoon filling yourself with a 28-inch pizza and cheap beer, or make a quick stop after work for a pizza to bring home. It’s dark, cavelike, all shadowy corners and low ceilings, cordial but not overly welcoming, staffed by a group of guys that are happy to hand-toss you a pizza, but don’t necessarily feel the need to dazzle you with the pleasantries of small talk. It’s exactly the kind of place I want to go, when I imagine going out for pizza.
The pizza itself? It’s just okay. The much-lauded hand-tossed crust, described on The Cabin’s pizza boxes rather assertively as “The Only Real Pizza in Maine,” is thicker than most, though light, with plenty of pockets lending a much needed airiness to the dough. The sauce is tart, perhaps even a tad overly acidic, with lots of raw oregano flavor. Both pizzas were a veritable celebration of rubbery, gummy, salty mozzarella, applied with such a heavy hand that the pizza crusts became more like enormous edible bowls, whose main function was to contain the pooling, stretchy white cheese. I wondered in each case if perhaps ordering a larger pizza might have gotten us a shorter pour of mozarella; there was easily enough on our small pizzas to cover a large pie.
There are red pepper flakes and Parmesan cheese (which I realized I have collectively referred to for years in my mind as “shakie bits”) at each table, which helped add spice and flavor to our slices. The “White Pizza” was strongly flavored with garlic and herbs, like a gigantic round cheesy breadstick. A few dollops of ricotta, a pizza topping unfortunately not offered by The Cabin, would have improved it mightily. The Garden Salad was a bit of a bummer, as well, a plate of iceberg lettuce, a few tough tomatoes, and some sliced onions. For three bucks, though, even if this salad only serves as a vehicle for blaze-orange Thousand Island dressing, it has done its job.
Jillian: Yes, the sauce was too tart and the cheese heavy-handed. Fortunately, I have a high tolerance for cheese, and though I am particular about what I consider the best pizza, I am in no way discerning. I am powerless against its melted cheesy goodness. Not very elegant, but there you have it. An admission of a guilty pleasure makes us all faster friends.
Why, then, will The Cabin be the next place I likely visit, when I want to pack the family into the car and spend an hour eating pizza in public on a weeknight? It’s because The Cabin delivers absolutely perfectly on a cozy, warm, winter oasis, free of pretense and prejudice, where I can get a cheap pizza, an even cheaper pitcher of beer, and be left alone to hungrily munch away in a back corner, until I am more mozzarella than man.
Jillian: The Cabin is a sort of perfect place. It’s snug and welcoming on a Thursday night, a restaurant for secrets plans and weekday revelations with the people you love best. We wanted to leave before the baby woke up, which meant we only had one round of ale and porter. A new normal. The bulwark was less intimidating on emerging into the night. We drove home in silence, in a gooey pizza stupor, happy to live right where we do, near the coast in Maine.
It’s the kind of place where you want to be a local, the kind of place where you either start or end a night of drinking combatively. It’s the kind of pizza place that I didn’t know I needed until my first visit; the kind of place that has existed only in my imagination. I loved every minute of my time there. Okay, so it may not be mind-blowing pizza. It hardly matters. There are plenty of places to get a less-than-stellar pie in the area, but there may not be a pizza place in the whole state that is delivering quite as much atmosphere, personality, and sense of history. I’m already planning my next trip.