BELFAST, Maine -- Thirty years ago, visitors to this working-waterfront city could expect to find only pizza and surf-and-turf to tide them over until they got to their ultimate destination of Bar Harbor or Camden. While these scenic coastal towns catered to exotic urban tastes, Belfast's few restaurants stuck to the meat-and-potatoes fare favored by locals.
Today, most of the factories that once sustained this midcoastal community of 6,500 have vanished, but Belfast is seeing salad days of a different kind: avocado and grapefruit with oil-cured olives and mint, for instance, or baby spinach, bacon, mandarin oranges, and Vidalia onions. More than a dozen local restaurants, including some that could hold their own in any big city, now thrive year round in Belfast, which has seen only a modest increase in population over the past few decades but a big surge in diversity. It started with the back-to-the-landers who settled in the surrounding rural communities during the 1960s and '70s, bringing their sophisticated taste buds with them.
"The type of people who have moved in over the years are well educated, well traveled, and independent," says Jerry Savitz, a restaurant owner and lifelong Belfast resident. He and others say the quest for intriguing fare has inspired more risk-taking restaurants. Word is getting out that eating in Belfast is worth a drive.
Darby's One new place is Darby's, Savitz's establishment on High Street. At lunch, customers fill the wooden booths and sunny window tables in the warmly painted space, tucking into offerings such as chicken chili with cashews ($4.75 for a cup) and a crabmelt open-faced sandwich ($9.95). At night, they warm up with dinner entrees like pad Thai in three degrees of spiciness ($10.95) or sweet-potato raviolis with fresh spinach and roasted red-pepper sauce ($11.95).
"We're shooting for an English pub atmosphere, except that I chill my beer," quips Savitz, who reports steady business year round. Since he transformed a former lowbrow dive into Darby's nearly two decades ago, he has catered to world-roving tastes with a menu that sneaks in curry and Cuban mojito sauce beside a good steak and gourmet macaroni-and-cheese. He believes the secret to keeping the doors open lies in "creating a niche."
Twilight CafeServing up artful variety in an art-filled atmosphere is the niche at Twilight Cafe a few blocks away on Main Street, where owner Mary Salvatore and her sister and manager, Kathleen Knight, transform a daytime art gallery into a nighttime restaurant. The dinner-only cafe, which Salvatore describes as "casual and comfortable with high-quality food," moved to Main Street two years ago after opening on the outskirts of town in 2000. Chef Brian Harvey, another relative, prepares grilled salmon with rosemary mustard sauce and sweet corn cakes ($16) and Caribbean jerk jumbo shrimp over citrus linguini ($21). The restaurant is known for its desserts (all $6), which change daily.
Salvatore describes the food as "upscale eclectic," adding that this family operation (almost everyone on the small staff is related by blood or marriage) strives to "create a memorable experience, not just dining. I want customers to enjoy the atmosphere and the people, too." The gallery, owned by the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped, has hung work by such international stars as Chuck Close, and in January, a James Strickland kite hovered over the center tables. Founded in New York in 1977 by Brother Rick Curry, the theater group now runs a workshop center and bakery as well as this gallery in Belfast. Curry offered the restaurant a home in the gallery two years ago, and business has boomed. Also a lifelong Belfast resident, Salvatore agrees that the community can support adventurous restaurants like hers because of the variety of people who live here these days.
"It's an eclectic town now, and it takes a mix of things to make people happy," she says.
Chase's DailyAnother two blocks up the street, Chase's Daily, a bakery, farmer's market, and restaurant, has found its niche in creative vegetarian cuisine. Run by another familial tribe (this one includes painters and farmers), the restaurant serves breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday, with exquisite Friday night dinners. Mediterranean and Mexican themes run through the offerings, but co-owner Penny Chase, a former elementary school teacher, says the driving concept is "to get the freshest and highest-quality ingredients we can get our hands on." In summer and fall, almost all vegetables on the menu, and for sale in the back-room market, are grown at the Chase family's 500-acre farm in nearby Freedom.
A recent Friday dinner featured winter squash-and-leek galette with gruyere and thyme ($13); a spinach enchilada with jack cheese and roasted red-pepper sauce ($14); and a mezze of tabouli, grilled halloumi (a cheese), spinach and chickpeas, baba ghanoush, and pitas ($14). Lunch might be a sweet pepper pizza with chipotle oil, cheddar, feta, and cilantro ($7.50), or a sandwich with goat cheese and roasted artichokes with watercress and olivada on a grilled baguette($7). "We try to make the menu balanced for dietary needs as well as for varied budgets," says Chase. "Someone can pay five dollars for a delicious meal of beans and rice with salsa and cheese, or buy a more exotic pasta-of-the-day for $8.50."
The food, like the interior of this sparely decorated 19th-century storefront, is visually stunning without a hint of showiness. With vast stretches of exposed brick wall at their disposal, the Chases are transforming the restaurant into a gallery. Penny's daughter, Phoebe, a New York-trained baker whose fragrant breads and pastries fuel a brisk counter business, is the only member of the family formally schooled in cooking.
"We like to eat, and we like to cook," Penny says.
These three downtown spots stand within shouting distance of old faithfuls like Dudley's Diner, a decade-old establishment, and recent arrivals including the Bay River Bistro and Market and the Lookout Pub. Also in walking distance are the Belfast Co-op, a health-food hangout; the Dockside, a family restaurant dishing up traditional burgers, seafood, and pizza; and the Weathervane, specializing in seafood. Still other choices abound across the PassagassawaukeagRiver (known locally as "the river") and west of downtown at Reny's Plaza, where Bell the Cat serves espresso drinks, pastries, and sandwiches.
They're all part of what some have called the "Belfast renaissance," somewhat to "Field of Dreams." As Savitz puts it, "If you make a market, people come."
Jane Roy Brown is a freelance writer who grew up in Belfast, Maine, and now lives in Western Massachusetts.
How to get there
Belfast is about four hours from Boston. Take Interstate 95 north to Augusta. Follow Route 3 east to Belfast.
Where to eat
For more options, and places to stay, call the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce at 207-338-6519 or visit www.belfastmaine.org. These listings cover winter hours; most restaurant owners suggest calling in May for summer hours.
Bay River Bistro & Restaurant
39 Main St.
Italian-New England restaurant, European bakery, delicatessen. Breakfast 7-11 a.m., Monday-Saturday, $3.95-$8.95. Lunch 11-2, Monday-Saturday, $5.50-$10.75. Dinner 5:30-9, Thursday-Saturday, entrees $13.50-$22.95.
123 High St.
A deli-cafe. Open seven days. Breakfast served all day, $1.95-$3.95. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., $3.50-$5.95. Deli dinner 2:30-7, $4.95 average.
Bell the Cat
Reny's Plaza, Belmont Avenue
Soups, salads, sandwiches, espresso bar, shakes. Open seven days; Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday 9-5 $3.50-$6.50.
96 Main St.
Vegetarian restaurant, bakery, farmer's market. Breakfast 7-10:30 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday; Sunday brunch 8-1; $4-$7.50. Lunch 11:30-2 Tuesday-Saturday, $3.50-$8.50. Friday dinner 5:30-8:30 p.m.; entrees $13-$14.
155 High St.
Eclectic fare specializing in Asian, North and South American. Open seven days. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-3:30 Sunday; $7-$13. Dinner 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-9:30 Friday-Saturday; 5-8:30 Sunday; entrees $11-$19.
Dockside Family Restaurant
30 Main St.
Seafood, steaks, sandwiches, soups, pizza, calzones. Lunch/dinner same menu, Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11-8, Sunday 11-7. $2.95-$18.95.
57 Main St.
Homemade diner fare. Monday-Saturday, breakfast 6-10:45 a.m., $2.95-$7.95; lunch 11-3, $2.25-$8.95. Sunday, breakfast only, 7-noon.
37B Front St.
Pub sandwiches, burgers, pizza. Lunch/dinner (same menu) Monday-Saturday 3 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sunday 4-1, $5.95-$19.95, depending on market prices.
Maine Chowder and Steak House
Route 1, 139 Searsport Ave.
Open seven days. Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m., $5.50-$24.95. Dinner 4-8, entrees $11.95-$24.95.
Seng Thai Restaurant
160 Searsport Ave., Route 1 north
Lunch/dinner (same menu) 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11:30-10 Friday-Saturday; entrees $6.25-$12.95. (Closed Feb. 16-18.)
2 Pinchy Lane
Waterfront bar serving seasonal local seafood; tapas-style menu changes weekly. Tuesday-Saturday 4-9 p.m., with a full menu and daily specials, $3.25-$10.50; 9-11 p.m. limited menu, $3.25-$7.
72 Main St.
Casual fine dining enhanced by the artwork of the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped gallery. Open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 5:30-9 p.m.
2 Main St.
Restaurant serving fresh Maine lobster, haddock, scallops, clams, more. Open seven days. Lunch/dinner (same menu), Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11-9:30; entrees $6-$14, depending on market price.