It starts a few weeks out from Memorial Day and lasts through Labor Day. Maine Recommendation Season is an annual phenomenon in the Knowlton house, as friends (and friends of friends) plot out their perfect getaways to the Pine Tree State. The texts, emails and DMs start rolling in the moment the weather turns: “Hey, hope you’re well! Going up to Maine in a few weeks. I know you love it up there. What should we make sure to hit?” It’s as much a ritual as baseball’s opening day—and something I take just as seriously.
See, for 20-plus years I’ve made a living telling people where to eat, drink and play around the globe, but there are few places I love—and know—better than Maine. Last year in Bon Appetit magazine, I declared Portland as the Restaurant City of the Year. (Read all about it here). But as any native will tell you, there’s way more to Vacationland than the big city. There’s Western Maine (aka the Lakes Region), which, embarrassingly enough, I’ve been to only a handful of times. There’s DownEast, which is practically Canada and encompasses stunning Acadia National Park. But when it comes to Maine destinations, MidCoast, roughly from the city of Bath to Searsport, is the area I know best, offering the best introduction to all the state has to offer. Of course, now that we’re friends and you’re finally planning that trip to Maine, I’m going to share my personal recommendations for what do in my favorite state. Season’s greetings...
(A note to actual Mainers: This list is far from complete. I know this, and I’m sorry. It’s simply a slice of one section of your great state. Odds are, you have favorites that I omitted. Or I included an overcrowded spot you’d never set foot in from May to October. I’ve still got lots to discover about Maine. Still, I’m hoping these recommendations will keep first-time and long-time visitors coming back. But don’t worry; even though the word has gotten out about how great it is here in Maine, most tourists are gone by leaf-peeping season anyway.)
Celebrating its 20-year anniversary in 2019, Primo isn’t just one of Maine’s most beloved restaurants, it’s one of America’s most important. Thanks to chef Melissa Kelly, farm-to-table actually means something here in Rockland, as evidenced by the pigs, chickens and row after row of vegetable beds just behind the restaurant. Walk the grounds before heading up to the more casual second floor for house-cured prosciutto, expertly charred pizzas and, yep, plates filled with all that produce you were just gawking at.
Surprisingly, beyond the iconic lobster pounds and shacks, there aren’t that many waterfront dining options in these parts. The two exceptions (and standouts) are Rhumb Line in Camden and The Slipway in Thomaston, both run by Scott Yakovenko. Rhumb Line feels more “big city,” offering prime people- and yacht-watching, while The Slipway feels like its country cousin. The simple, seafood-focused menus at both feature some of the best fried clams in the area, not to mention new favorites like Jonah crab claws, fish tacos and fried monkfish nuggets. And don’t sleep on dessert: house-made pies made by Scott’s mom, Sandy.
Think all steamed lobster dinners are the same? Just looking to check off that lobster roll box from your bucket list? There are plenty of perfectly fine places in the state to do just that. But for the ultimate lobster pound experience, one where the food matters as much as the view, McLoons Lobster Shack on Spruce Head Island is our family’s favorite. I’m partial to the underdog crab roll in place of the favorite lobster version, but even I’ll order the latter drenched in butter and tucked into a crispy top-split bun. Start with some grilled clams and, if it’s chilly, a cup of chowder. BYOB and BYOP (bring your own patience), because McLoons gets busy.
Nina June in Rockport is where my wife and I do date night. We sit at the bar overlooking the open kitchen (on a warm night, the patio view out over the harbor ain’t too shabby either), chat with Chip the bartender (a legend), and eat all the salads and pastas chef Sara Jenkins can throw at us. The chitarra al limone pasta is quickly becoming our favorite dish, with the simple rigatoni with anchovy a close second. And just for the record, my parents would want me to tell you that this is their favorite restaurant in MidCoast. Heads up: Jenkins cooks pasta al dente and then some. (If you’ve been to Italy, you know what I mean.)
“You’re sending me to a Thai restaurant … in Maine?” That’s the reaction I often get when I implore friends to check out Paula Palakawong’s and Bas Nakjaroen’s Long Grain in Camden. The follow-up is usually something along the lines of: “Holy !#$&, that was awesome.” Get the crab-fried rice, steamed pork dumplings, any house-made noodle dish, and crispy whole fish. Reservations are a must for lunch and dinner, and there’s always takeout for those lazy nights.
Chase’s Daily in Belfast is known for its Friday night dinners, fluffy biscuit breakfast sandwiches, and the incredible farm stand that pops up during the warmer months in the back of the restaurant. For a few months out of the year, you will not find more beautiful produce in all the country. (Yes, I see you, California.)
The best pizzas in all of Maine are the wood-fired pies coming out of the oven at Tinder Hearth, a bakery/pizza shop on an idyllic farm in Brooksville (technically not in MidCoast but in DownEast for you geographic sticklers). Here’s how it works: Call a few days ahead to reserve your pizza, bring some wine and friends, and keep your fingers crossed for nice weather (there are a few tables inside just in case). Opening times vary depending on the season, so check their website.
Erin and Casey Dominguez’s charming Salty Owl Cafe, located inside the tiny Knox County Regional Airport, has quickly become my family’s unexpected favorite spot for lunches of flaky hand pies, an egg salad sandwich of the gods and fresh, seasonal salads. Yes, I am recommending that you eat at an airport. The duo also runs a popular pop-up taco stand called Tacos Leon on Tuesdays out of the South Thomaston Lions Club shed that features handmade tortillas and fillings like smoked chicken and barbacoa. Go!
The award for most overlooked restaurant in MidCoast goes to Sammy’s Deluxe in Rockland. It’s a quirky, homey dinner-only spot run by chef Sam Richman with a strong following among locals. My daughter Signe thinks their cheeseburger is the best in the area, and her dad thinks that she is not wrong.
Wasses (with three locations in the area; my favorite is in Rockland) is my go-to for a quick lunch of hot dogs topped with fried onions and crinkle-cut fries. Scientifically proven to taste better if eaten out of the back of a pickup truck.
As far as summertime traditions go, it doesn’t get any better than the post-lunch or -dinner trip to the local ice cream stand. I’m a soft serve with rainbow sprinkles kind of guy, and I get my fix at two spots: Dorman’s Dairy Dream in Thomaston and River Ducks in Camden.
Maine’s locally owned general/convenience/variety stores—the kind of places where you can get a sandwich, bag of chips and an earful of opinions—are, sadly, disappearing. But a few old and newly restored spots still exist. The ‘Keag Store (pronounced gig) makes one of my favorite crab rolls on a buttered hamburger bun. The Lincolnville General Store has a smart selection of natural wines as well as surprisingly good pizza. Andes Variety in Warren is known for their steak and cheese. And Wallace’s Market in Friendship elevates Maine’s Italian sandwich game with the meaty “Boston.”
I know plenty of Portland folks who make the trip up to Rockland just to eat at Suzuki Sushi Bar. It’s gas money well spent. Get the omakase tasting menu, which features fish and shellfish—uni, scallops, tuna, whelks—caught exclusively in the nearby Penobscot Bay.
I drove by Willow Bake Shoppe along Route 1 in Rockport hundreds of times before I finally took the advice of locals and picked up some OG cake doughnuts in flavors like maple, cinnamon, blueberry, and chocolate. Don’t make the mistake I made for so long; they are now my favorite doughnuts on the planet.
Morse’s in Waldoboro is a MidCoast institution known for their sauerkraut, German market and deli that features schnitzel, pierogis and sandwiches, including The Reubenator, which will feed four adults and put all of them to sleep for hours.
Lobster may get all the attention, but the true treasure of Maine’s waters are oysters. I do my best to start every meal with a dozen or so. You can shuck your own at the source at North Haven Oyster and Glidden Point or hit up The Shuck Station in Newcastle for a tour of some of Maine’s best varieties.
There’s a cider boom happening in America right now, and Maine is at the heart of the movement. Perennial Cider Bar in Belfast features bottles from some of Maine’s best, including Rocky Ground, High Ridge and Bent Bough.
If you come to Maine and don’t stop at Oyster River Winegrowers in Warren for a glass or two of their natural wines (Morphos and Carbonic Nation are my favorites), we can’t be friends anymore. Period. If you need more of a reason to visit, Wednesday nights feature pizza from local favorite Uproot Pie Co.
Oxbow Brewing Company, one of my favorite breweries in a state filled with dozens of great ones, now has locations in Portland and Oxford, but I’ve still got a soft spot for the original site in the woods in Newcastle.
As much as I like to eat out in Maine, throwing together a dinner at home with inspiration from local ingredients and some killer views is my idea of heaven. Here’s where I do my food shopping. Bleecker & Greer (aka Maine Street Meats) in Rockport is the only place I buy local butchered meats. It’s also the place to pick up the best bread in the area as well as natural wines, olive oil and really good canned tuna. Jess’s Market in Rockland sells the freshest and widest selection of local seafood to restaurants as well as locals. If you don’t see what you are looking for (that would usually be mackerel for me), just ask and they will usually get it for you. Good Tern Natural Food Store is my top choice for basic groceries, bulk bin items and locally raised eggs. In the summer months, there’s no shortage of farmers markets. At Rockland’s Thursday morning market, I always stock up on greens from Fine Line Farms and radishes and tomatoes from Dandelion Spring and Dickey Hill Farms. If you aren’t there on a market day, no worries—head over to Beth’s in Warren for all the vegetables you need, including the sweetest corn around.
You can’t go home empty-handed, and while you will find every object known to humankind emblazoned with a lobster up here, you can do better. I love the hand-thrown ceramics from ANK and Meghan Flynn, in Camden and Lincolnville, respectively. Daughters in Rockland carries vintage clothing and independent labels as well ceramics and locally made goods. For everything else, just go to a Reny’s, a Maine chain of department stores that sell pretty much everything under the sun—at least it seems that way.
Let’s be honest, you could spend pretty much every waking hour eating or drinking something special to Maine, but then you’d miss out on its greatest asset—its natural beauty. No matter how many times I’ve cycled up and down St. George Peninsula, paddled in and out of picturesque harbors, or driven along country roads in search of this or that farm stand, I will never forget the real reason I fell in love with Maine so many years ago. To fully appreciate coastal Maine and its 3,478 miles of shoreline (more than California!) you’ve got to get on the water. If you’ve got your own yacht, well, then good for you. For the rest of us, here are three ways I like to hit the water: Take a ferry from Rockland to either North Haven or Vinalhaven islands and spend the day or, better yet, the night. Taking a cruise on one of the several windjammers docked in the harbors might seem like a tourist trap, but once you’re sailing by Owls Head Lighthouse (also a great spot to explore by foot with its nearby rocky beaches and tidal pools) or watching seals play on rock ledges, you’ll forget all that. If you are a bit more adventurous, rent a kayak or canoe and explore one of the harbors or a lake like Megunticook or Norton Pond. Swimming in Maine should qualify as an Olympic sport, the water is so cold. In the warmer months, my family likes the sandy beach next to the harbormaster building in Rockport harbor. The surrounding lakes and ponds are much better swimming for those with a working nervous system. Whenever we are in MidCoast with first-time visitors we always hike Mount Battie in Camden Hills State Park for amazing views up and down the coast. Rainy days mean visits to the Farnsworth Museum and Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. And because it always comes back to food for me and my family, it’s always fun to take a cooking class at Saltwater Farm in Lincolnville.
That should get you started on your next trip to MidCoast Maine. If you have another question or perhaps a spot I left out (I know you’re going to tell me!), contact me at @andrewoknowlton on Instagram.
Written by Andrew Knowlton – Editor at Large for Bon Appétit
© 2019 Maine Office of Tourism