The summer tourists have departed, and Rangeley-area locals have The Red Onion to themselves again, except for the occasional leaf peeper, hiker or fly fisherman. Come winter, the place will bustle with snow sport enthusiasts.
Above our table is a mirrored map of the snowmobile trails ranging miles in most directions, no doubt a conversation aid for customers who travel here by the off-road vehicles.
Saddleback Mountain resort is nearby. A couple of skiers told me that The Red Onion is the go-to place in town apres slopes. After a vigorous day outside, people visit to refuel with family-friendly meals: Pizza, burgers, homemade chili, meatloaf, Italian-American standards in red sauce.
The restaurant has been a mainstay on Main Street since 1970. I ate here a decade ago, and the place was jammed with rosy-cheeked revelers. Some things hardly change. On a Friday night in late September, The Red Onion filled right up. The menu could have been the same, with only a small bump in prices.
Suspenders, fleece vests and ball caps were everywhere. No need to dress up for The Red Onion. Come as you are from the homestead or camp. It’s hearty food, friendly and welcoming service, a good-time outing without pretension. Deck seating is available in the nice weather. On the night we visited, three large parties of at least 10 each were ably accommodated by young servers, and a few staff greeted the customers like long-lost friends.
The Red Onion touts the best pizza in western Maine. This may be, but theirs doesn’t stack up to the quality of the pies found in a few celebrated spots in southern Maine, namely Otto’s and Flatbread in Portland and Flipside in Brunswick.
Still, you won’t be unhappy with this homemade pizza dough of medium body and the opportunity to create your own pie from an array of ingredients that include the familiar meat and vegetable stand-bys to things like pastrami, artichoke hearts or shrimp. What you won’t find for toppings are items to make an ardent locovore happy: Sausage from Maine-raised pork, artisan goat cheese or roasted squash from the farm down the road.
We had the Mediterranean pizza of chopped tomatoes (that were not just off the vine), spinach (frozen then thawed) and garlic. But with homemade sauce and ample cheese, it was more than acceptable ($10.99). Lasagna ($12.99), piping hot and cheesy with scant meat, would not have been served at the Soprano household.
Two dishes among those we sampled were real finds. The homemade Kennebec bean soup ($2.99 cup; $3.99 bowl) included at least five kinds of beans, softened but intact, in a perfectly textured, tawny and smoky soup. I regretted not bringing home a takeout container.
A delicious pan-fried trout, one of the night’s specials (and a bargain at $12.99; it came with a soup or salad) was moist and coated with a lightly breaded crust. The whole fish minus tip and tail were well-filleted and fanned out to take up three-quarters of the plate. It tasted subtly sweet, and was thoroughly enjoyable with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon.
Side choices included fries, rice, onion rings or cole slaw — a reminder that the kitchen does not aspire to haute cuisine. The peeled, machine-cut sweet potato fries were typical fare. Broccoli crowns, steamed to retain some bite, rounded out the plate.
If you’re looking for a place that serves a luscious and innovative melange of items from a late summer garden, The Red Onion is not your best bet. Caesar salad greens came from a bag, the croutons from a box ($5.99).
Homemade apple crisp was the classic brown sugar, butter and oatmeal crumble over baked but not-too-mushy chopped apples, served warm (ours was not quite heated through) with a scoop of Gifford’s vanilla ($5.99).
The staff at The Red Onion was particularly welcoming and friendly. A shout-out to Liz, our crackerjack waitress, who served the throngs with aplomb.
The philosophy here is to give the customers ample hot food (poutine lovers, take note: You can get a plate full of gravy and cheese fries to fill you right up for just under a five-spot), crowd-pleasing choices and the feeling you can drop in when you’re hungry or want to say hello to your neighbors. And with the right choices, you can eat very well here.
Before or after a meal, walk across the street to the public park on the shore of scenic Rangeley Lake to take in the view as the sun descends. Or bring a canine care package to your pet in the car for $2.50 — kibble, gravy, and a Milkbone for dessert. We did not sample.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer. She can be reached at: