Wanted: A nice dinner place for a Maine island with a long, hungry winter

John Feingold reluctantly closed his restaurant, Salt, in October, and has been trying to find another restaurateur to reopen the space. Salt was one of few options for dinner during the off-season. —Sarah Rice / The New York Times

VINALHAVEN, Maine — Vinalhaven is an island that does not want to be found.

Getting there requires riding a ferry from the harbor city of Rockland that takes more than an hour and makes its last daily run at 3:15 p.m. The town has no airport, just an open field with a limp windsock. Cellphone service is extremely limited. There is one gas pump, one motel and no hospital. Until 2005, there were no street names.

Unlike many popular summer destinations in Maine, Vinalhaven has no shacks selling fried clams, or tourists clad in stripes and prim boat shoes. There are moneyed families living here, but in the offseason, the island — a former quarrying center that is now primarily a fishing port — has a distinctly working-class feel, with snow-white lobster boats dotting a vast harbor, and lobstermen in oversize gear heading back to the docks after early-morning visits to their traps. Though the island is the size of Manhattan, its peak population in summer is about 3,000.

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But to see Vinalhaven in its truest form is to visit in winter, when that number shrinks to about 1,200. The island is serenely quiet. Its granite quarries (swimming holes during the summer) freeze over. For the year-round residents who remain, it’s a chance to slow down and recharge.

Carvers Harbor, on Vinalhaven Island, a fishing port where the population shrinks to about 1,200 in winter. —Sarah Rice / The New York Times

A nagging concern, though, is food. Most restaurants shut down for the season, and the shelves of the town’s single grocery thin out. To make matters worse, this winter Vinalhaven will be without Salt, a beloved restaurant that was among the few gathering places to stay open during the coldest months. It ended its nearly five-year run in October.

The only remaining options for dinner are Pizza Pitt and the Sand Bar, more of a pub than a restaurant. The Haven, the only other fine-dining restaurant that stays open past summer, closes from roughly Christmas to May.

Salt was something special: a casual but ambitious restaurant that for much of the year served local vegetables and seafood. Craft beers were delivered several times a week in a 15-foot skiff from the North Haven Brewing Co., on a nearby island. Even the electricity was produced here, at Vinalhaven’s wind farm.

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The restaurant’s owner, John Feingold, 66, reluctantly closed the restaurant in order to spend more time with his family. He has gone to great lengths to find someone to take over the space, seeking out people on the island and circulating a flyer among friends in the Maine restaurant industry. The Portland Press Herald wrote about the search.

His hopes are high — for a replacement as enterprising as Salt — but one criterion is particularly important: that it be open year-round. Here, a good restaurant is a precious thing to have in winter.

“You feel like you are the only one in the world,” said Linda Baron, 69, a retired real estate developer in Boston who spends summers at her home on the island and visits during the winter. “You go to the grocery store and the shelves might be bare because the ferry isn’t running due to high winds, so they can’t stock the shelves. If you wanted to have chicken that night, you might end up with hot dogs.”

Jean Conway, who owns Island’s Closet, a convenience and gift store, misses Salt. “I don’t know what we are going to do if someone doesn’t open it back up,” she said. —Sarah Rice / The New York Times

Jean Conway, a year-round islander, said the winter grocery selection is limited mainly to packaged foods and limp fruits and vegetables. “In the summer, they stock it up for summer people, but in the winter they don’t,” said Conway, 59, who used to work for the Maine State Ferry Service and now owns a convenience and gift store called the Island’s Closet. “When we go to the mainland, we spend thousands at once because you have to plan so much ahead.”

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She loved the communal atmosphere of Salt. “I don’t know what we are going to do if someone doesn’t open it back up,” she said. “There just aren’t enough restaurants,” especially ones “where people feel really welcome.”

Feingold was working as an environmental and economic consultant in Manhattan and living in Larchmont, New York, when he first started visiting Vinalhaven in 1998. His wife’s family had a vacation home here; he quickly fell in love with the natural beauty and “the self-selected community,” he said. He and his wife, Nancy Seligson, bought a house on the island.

Feingold had a long-standing interest in food. Seeking to switch gears from consulting, he quit and enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education, in New York; after graduating, he worked at high-end Manhattan restaurants like Daniel and Tocqueville.

At Salt, he hired chefs to execute his vision: a restaurant that felt steeped in local flavor. Lobster caught by Vinalhaven fishermen embellished the housemade pappardelle with spring peas. The walls showcased paintings by residents, purchased at the gallery next door. The wooden cubbies from the space’s days as a 19th-century apothecary were still visible.

At the restaurant that used to inhabit the space, called 64 Main Street, “they threw the fishermen out because they were riffraff,” Conway said. “You can’t do that in a community this size.” Feingold welcomed the fishermen, and hosted fundraisers for community causes.

“It was my mission to make every single human being on the planet feel comfortable in this restaurant,” said Caitlin Clapham, 31, a longtime Vinalhaven resident who was Salt’s general manager for four years.

Richie Carlsen, a lobsterman who coaches the high school soccer team, said Salt was unusually bustling and refined. —Sarah Rice / The New York Times

Richie Carlsen, a lobsterman who runs a gym and coaches the high school soccer team, said Salt was unusually bustling and refined. “It felt like a completely different atmosphere, like a getaway,” said Carlsen, 54. “It was almost like a New York place.”

What made the restaurant most appealing to year-round residents was that Feingold kept it open through the winter, mostly on weekends.

“It is hard for us when people close down in the winter and we don’t have a place to go,” Conway said. “It is like you are not good enough, and they are just waiting for summer people to show up.”

The Surfside restaurant is a popular gathering spot for breakfast. —Sarah Rice / The New York Times

Feingold said he preferred Salt in winter. “Ninety percent of the people in the room would know each other, and so there would be a lot of socializing and tables being pushed together, like a real local restaurant,” he said. “In the summer, it would only be 50 percent that.” Salt’s profit margins were also higher in winter, because labor costs were much lower.

“It gave people a space to gather and get out of the house,” Clapham said. “People were way more grateful to be there in the winter than in the summer.”

But operating a restaurant year-round meant that Feingold couldn’t spend as much time with his wife, Seligson, the elected town supervisor of Mamaroneck, New York.

“When Nancy was able to come to Vinalhaven, I was working and she was on vacation,” he said. “I wanted to retire properly,” and spend time with his three grown daughters, who live in Massachusetts, Iceland and Canada. And because of its small size, the restaurant wasn’t making much money.

Lobster traps stacked on the wharf at Carvers Harbor. Salt sold a lot of local seafood. —Sarah Rice / The New York Times

At the end of last summer, Feingold decided to sell Salt. The last night of service was Oct. 7. “I was heartbroken,” Baron said. “I have not rushed up from Boston to hang on the island, knowing there isn’t a place to congregate.”

Not everyone feels that strongly about Salt’s closing. Tara Elliott, who was a drama teacher on Vinalhaven for a year and now lives in Brooklyn, was more nostalgic for 64 Main Street. “I thought Salt was a good replacement, but it just didn’t have as much flavor,” she said.

Feingold is still searching for a restaurant to replace Salt. “If someone is willing to take the restaurant now and be open when the leaves are off the trees and the winds are howling,” he said, “that suggests the kind of love and concern that is attractive to me.” —Sarah Rice / The New York Times

On a recent afternoon, Feingold mournfully walked through the empty restaurant, which looked as if it could spring into action at any moment. There was still wine in the refrigerator and liquor at the bar; a prep list was scribbled on a whiteboard in the kitchen; menus were propped up in a wooden box near the entrance. The early-evening light reflected off the steel shark sculpture that hung from the ceiling, made by a seasonal resident, Kitty Wales.

Feingold, who has listed the space with a broker, has received some inquiries from locals and from restaurateurs elsewhere in Maine. He said he is rooting for the locals, but nothing has been decided.

“If someone is willing to take the restaurant now and be open when the leaves are off the trees and the winds are howling,” Feingold said, “that suggests the kind of love and concern that is attractive to me.”

That night, as the sun set over the harbor, Feingold and Carlsen, the lobsterman, headed to the Sand Bar, where wood-paneled walls are covered in dartboards and beer signs. The specials included a burger topped with Velveeta cheese. Some patrons — many of them former Salt regulars, Feingold said — were doing shots and singing loudly to 1990s pop songs. “There is just nothing else open,” Carlsen muttered.

But Clapham, the former Salt manager, believes in the resiliency of the islanders. Some people have started supper clubs in their houses, she said, and she just created a service that makes and delivers meals. After all, this is a population that has adapted to an unpredictable ferry service, a lone ATM and bitterly cold weather.

Sure, they are sad about Salt, Clapham said. “But I think that Vinalhaven is going to survive.”

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