Sometimes when a restaurant is hyped for so long, so repeatedly, and so energetically, I confess to wondering if the reputation is a product of this hype. Why, I question, would a person continue to battle Route 1 summer tourist crowds for simple diner fare?
“Because of the Maine Diner’s Lobster Pie.” Repeated again and again, this signature item took on a mythical status, and friends recalled its consumption with nostalgia usually reserved for first loves and antique automobiles. “And the Lobster Mac and Cheese,” they noted, yummy noises accompanying the words.
Although the Maine Diner does serve Maine standards like Red Flannel Hash (Saturday, until it’s gone) and New England Boiled Dinner (every Thursday), Dick Henry was named Restaurateur of the Year in 2010. While offering a range of diner favorites, the Maine Diner also combines higher-end ingredients with a down-home sensibility. Henry, who opened the classic blue and white establishment with brother Myles in 1983, employs a staff of 75 and by the time this review prints, will have served his 6 millionth customer. For a space that seats just 93, these numbers signify reputation and loyalty.
Framed awards, accolades and celebrity photos line the clean white walls, and the effect feels like viewing a proud parent’s refrigerator. Or in this case, a proud brother’s. Myles Henry died unexpectedly in 2010, but his spirit remains — feted in the menus, the website, newsletter and the Myles Henry Scholarship fund at Wells High School. This sense of family and neighborhood pride and participation permeates the Maine Diner.
For instance, longtime (18 years) waitress Pat Wildes appears in a recent diner newsletter. “My life changed incredibly at that moment coming to work here, and I never turned back.” After a meal at the Maine Diner, I got the sense that most of the staff feels the same way.
So this famous Lobster Pie? It is served in an oblong ceramic casserole dish, and I tried to piece together exactly how many lobsters were represented. The answer? A lot. “Pie” is a bit of a misnomer though, as the dish lacks a crust in the traditional sense. Imagine approximately two lobsters’ worth of tender, identifiable meat (full claws and big tail pieces) piled into a casserole dish and topped with a thick layer of buttery cracker crumbs. If Dickie’s Diner Special is on the menu (market price $29.95), order this without question. In addition to the Lobster Pie, the Dickie’s Diner Special includes a cup of the richest, creamiest imaginable seafood chowder (usually $5.50 per cup), choice of two side dishes, gargantuan house-made corn muffin, pie or pudding, and a nonalcoholic beverage. It’s easily one of the best lobster deals in Maine.
If the Dickie is not available, another lobster choice is the Lobster Macaroni and Cheese. Silky, mild cheese sauce covers the same oblong-style casserole dish, but this time overflowing with equal parts tender elbow macaroni and lobster meat — again topped with buttery cracker crumbs. As with all entrees, this one is served with corn muffin and choice of sides. (One of the side dish options is coleslaw, chopped, not shredded, with vinegar-based dressing, not mayonnaise. To coleslaw enthusiasts, this detail matters. )
Very often, seafood for soups and stews is reduced to blends of leftovers, so I appreciated the Maine Diner’s top-level approach. Nothing felt like leftovers, and the kitchen’s care and attention to detail was evident. The She-Crab Soup ($4.95 cup) was so thick, it could very nearly support the upright weight of the spoon, and as with the Clam and Seafood Chowders, each spoonful contained impressive, identifiable pieces of meat — large, whole clams in the Clam Chowder were especially appreciated. It is no surprise that the Maine Diner receives chowder awards year after year.
If seafood is off-limits, the Pork Roast Dinner (Sunday, $10.95) special provides three thick slices of lean and tender roasted pork and mashed potatoes smothered with gravy — all homemade, delicious and massively portioned. If you prefer a traditional diner favorite, the Maine Diner kitchen serves up a burger with 6 ounces of char-grilled sirloin for $5.95. For a dollar extra, top the burger with homemade chili — medium spicy, maximum tasty.
Breakfast fans need not feel slighted, as the Maine Diner menu takes care to offer new twists on old standards. Raise a toast to the late Myles Henry with the Myles Henry Down East Benedict ($8.95) and enjoy two poached eggs on two lightly fried, crisp codfish cakes covered with hollandaise sauce. Served with a substantial portion of hearty home fries, the menu notes this as one of Myles’ favorite creations.
For those worried about the crowds because the establishment serves more than 300,000 people each year, the Maine Diner has perfected the waiting process. Tables are first come, first served, but the staff issues you a pager and points you in the direction of the gift shop filled with all manner of trinkets and souvenirs. On a nice day in Maine, with the promise of hearty food, the wait is no problem at all. The service, too, rivals many high-end establishments — drinks are replenished, special orders accommodated, food arrives quickly — all from smiling staff who seem to honestly enjoy the process.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”