Editor’s note: This is Melissa Coleman’s first review for the Maine Sunday Telegram. She will be writing reviews through the summer.

“Do you have a reservation?” the young but welcoming hostess at the Royal River Grillhouse asks, and this being my first review, I consider saying, just for fun, “Yes, under Ruth Reichl,” but resist the reference to the former New York Times restaurant critic who famously disguised herself in wigs for reviews. We’re thus seated with a friendly flourish at the edge of the Royal River, afternoon light making orange velvet of water abundant with sailboats, lobster rigs and picnic yachts in the boatyards of Yarmouth’s Lower Falls Landing.

Who is this new reviewer? you’re wondering, shoulders hunched grumpily at the prospect of change. I’ll tell it straight, I am a writer who simply loves to eat good food. Please forgive that I’m the child of vegetarian back-to-the-land organic hippies (as detailed in my memoirs), I’m also mom to picky 9-year-old twin girls, Emily and Heidi, and wife to an outdoorsy Midwestern man, Eric, each of whom has worn down my genetic tendencies toward food totalitarianism – though they may beg to differ.

If, as Reichl wrote that A.J. Liebling wrote, “The primary prerequisite for writing well about food is a good appetite,” then I’m all set. However, Reichl also says, “Appetite is not enough. And knowledge is not sufficient. You can be a decadent critic if you know about food, but to be a really good one you need to know about life.”

So, to supplement my lack of qualification in many categories, I’m bringing to each meal a new and interesting guest (or guests) to provide validity to my reports, or at least absorbing conversation – starting here with my husband and children, the people I break bread with the most. My guests will henceforth be writers and food people, or when possible, food writers, and this column will be your chance to listen in at my table, but rest assured that I’m only filling in until they find a real Ruth Reichl by fall.

As we take our seats among a Tuesday night crowd of boaters in madras and business people in ties, families with silver-haired grandparents and couples on dress-up dates, I’m imagining how my children might describe our family in their own painfully honest memoirs. There’s my husband slightly ill at ease, as he often is in New England buttoned-up settings, pining for surf trunks and flip-flops. He won’t order what he wants, because he’s deferring to me as the reviewer I apparently now am. The girls, of course, won’t defer to me, so I have to force them, with that public steely voice through clenched teeth, to order what I want, and my husband to order what he wants. One of the girls is bugging me about something, but since this is from her perspective, she’s in fact being injuriously ignored by her mother when she needs her most.


While the Grillhouse is known for its eponymous grill and the steak, duck and addictive truffle fries (which we order for a starter), its view of the water begs for fruits of the sea. Eric lands on the catch of the day, pan-roasted swordfish with bacon-roasted fingerling potatoes, and the girls, amazingly, acquiesce to my selections from the kids menu.

I’m asking Eric, who is a saltwater fly fishing guide on Casco Bay, why there’s no striped bass on the menu, the very fish he catches and releases just minutes from here. He’s always been militant about catch and release, which means he never brings home fish for dinner, except on the occasional deep-water tuna outing. “Why would I eat my paycheck?” he is fond of saying. In the case of stripers (as they are also known), it’s actually a law. “Striped bass have game-fish status in Maine, which means there’s no commercial fishery for wild striped bass or commercial sale in this state,” he explains, “so restaurants cannot legally serve it.”

In the absence of bass, I decide to see what the new executive chef Charles Smith (former chef Tony Merrill is now general manager) can do with pan-seared diver scallops and local wild mushroom and baby spinach risotto for $32. The waitress patiently indulges my questions about what’s local (a lot), and laughs familiarly when I tell her that I’m not that Portlandia lady and won’t ask to see the farm.

It must be the truffle oil on the fries, and the delicious sherry cream base in the lobster stew (which is more of a bisque, just with generous chunks of lobster), but I’m reminded that Eric and I normally have the duck confit salad ($14) or Caesar topped with grilled chicken ($15) for lunch and leave perfectly satiated. Tonight, however, I find it’s easy to make room for the diver scallops, perfectly browned in the pan, and well-matched with tender roasted cherry tomatoes and a decadent truffle-spiked mushroom risotto. The sprinkling of raw pea shoots adds a light taste of spring to a filling dish.

Eric’s swordfish is a lighter dish, topped as it is with slivered asparagus and red peppers over a green herb broth that when we asked, turned out to be oregano, thyme, tarragon and mint. Had I any room left, I’d happily finish off Heidi’s salmon, which although farmed-raised, is grilled just right, and Emily’s fish and “carrot” chips. If I could, I’d order either for myself next time for only $9.

My dad says the best way to judge a restaurant is by the crème brûlée ($7), and we find that yes, we can fit in a brûlée with a nicely torched crust and a crème with that delightful hint of real vanilla bean – a good excuse to return for an official verdict from my dad next time he’s in town.


Despite the earlier tension, my husband and kids give the evening a thumb’s up. “I’ve never walked out of here and felt like it was a waste of money or time,” Eric says. “The ingredients always taste fresh and are prepared with care.”

Tucked away as it is in the harbor, it may not be the next new hip thing, or land on all the “best of” Maine lists. But in my internal index, the Royal River Grillhouse is our family go-to when we want a great view, comfortable setting for kids, friendly service and reliably pleasing menu. And no matter how honest your kids’ memoirs are – at the Royal River Grillhouse, you find that somehow you come out all right.

Up Next: In search of a Blue Plate Special with author Kate Christensen.

Melissa Coleman is a Maine writer whose work includes “This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres and a Family Undone,” her memoir about coming of age during the 1970s back-to-the-land movement.

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