CAPE NEDDICK — When Ben Goldman bought the former Arrows restaurant in October 2014, the most frequent question he got from locals was, “Are you going to keep the wisteria?”

He assured them he would not touch the purple-flowering vine that arched thickly over the front entrance and whose blooms made the restaurant’s pampered diners swoon. But over the winter, Goldman discovered snow and rain pouring into the front vestibule. The wisteria was so old that it had eaten its way inside the 18th century farmhouse. It had to be removed.

Sometimes in life it’s necessary to let go of the old to make way for something different. For the past year, Goldman has been trying to let go of Arrows and its well-loved traditions to make room for his new restaurant, The Velveteen Habit. It hasn’t always been easy. Customers were scarce at first. Longtime fans missed the old wine list, the formality of Arrows and that wisteria.

In the 25 years Arrows occupied the four-acre property, it had grown into a destination dining spot. Its owners, chefs Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, were James Beard Award winners and competitors on the reality show “Top Chef Masters.” Gourmet magazine, more than once, included it in its annual list of America’s Top 50 Restaurants. Its 25th anniversary was a food star-studded affair.

Goldman, who worked on Wall Street before he bought Arrows, has joined a club he may wish he didn’t belong to – restaurateurs who remake beloved local landmarks.

Do you keep the restaurant’s name, or a familiar aspect of its operation, hoping its reputation will rub off? Or will that encourage the inevitable comparisons? Should the decor and the menu undergo gentle tinkering, a complete overhaul or something in between?


In these circumstances, several things are key, according to a national restaurant consultant and Maine restaurateurs who have faced similar transitions: location, an understanding of the customer and a strong sense of identity.

As Arlin Smith, one of three partners who purchased Hugo’s in Portland from James Beard Award winner Rob Evans in 2012, put it: Be confident and “clearly define yourself out of the gate.”


When Goldman opened The Velveteen Habit in April, he wasn’t expecting customers to be lined up outside the door. But he did think Arrows’ national reputation would give his new business momentum. Instead, business was slow, and the diners who came kept comparing the place to its storied predecessor.

Line cook John Ritchie smokes meat over a wood-flamed grill in preparation for the dinner rush. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Line cook John Ritchie smokes meat over a wood-flamed grill in preparation for the dinner rush. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The situation improved substantially over the summer, Goldman said, after tourists arrived and word spread. But the ghost of Arrows still haunts, “and that has been a real challenge for us.”

“A lot of people who have been coming here for years and years and years expect that we are the same restaurant that was Arrows, and we are not,” he said, like a man who has had to explain this point too many times. “Our menu is totally different. Our chef is totally different. Our style of serving is totally different. The building is different; we remodeled everything. We have a different wine program. We have a different style of how we greet people. Everything.”


Goldman believes the changes have made for a more casual, accessible (yet still edgy) restaurant. Gone are the white linen tablecloths and the Arrows dress code (jackets suggested, shorts forbidden). Calling it “dusty and heavy,” Goldman pulled the small tree out of the dining room – one of the features that led Bon Appetit to name Arrows one of the 10 Most Romantic Restaurants in America – but kept the butcher block tables. Goldman, a certified sommelier, also passed on the opportunity to buy Arrows’ wine cellar but kept the beautiful lead crystal stemware.

“They had a lot of old vintage Bordeaux,” he said. “It isn’t the kind of food we do here, so the wine wouldn’t have worked particularly well for it.”

There is less wood and more polished nickel and wrought iron, which give the The Velveteen Habit a contemporary farmhouse feel. The renovated restaurant is lighter, brighter – thanks to Edison lights – and less romantic. The music has grown louder and more casual, leaning toward Bob Dylan and Neil Young. A new red door with the restaurant’s logo etched in the glass provides a welcoming entrance – minus the wisteria.

And then there’s the food. Frasier and Gaier’s menu was farm-to-table cuisine, heavily influenced by their travels to Asia each winter, dishes like lobster with lemongrass butter and red curry, or house-cured prosciutto served with papaya.

At The Velveteen Habit, Goldman describes the menu as “metropolitan style” blended with “California sensibility,” meaning fresh, seasonal ingredients. The staff does a lot of canning, pickling and fermenting. Goldman selected his executive chef, Chris Wilcox, because “his food spoke so clearly to the style of farmhouse cuisine, which is very much about preservation techniques, utilizing what it is on property, mitigating waste.”



Chris Tripoli, president of A La Carte Foodservice Consulting Group in Houston, has consulted on many similar transformations. In a big city, he explains, people are more transient and either don’t remember the original restaurant or can find another one they like as well. But in a smaller market, like Maine, he said the new restaurant is playing to the same crowd, so “it is harder to be dramatically different and have people immediately accept you.”

When Smith and his partners took over Hugo’s, they briefly considered changing the restaurant’s name, but quickly decided against it, Smith said: “Rob put a lot of awards on that name and has a really good reputation nationally, or even internationally, so we wanted to make sure people were still thinking of us.”

Goldman is staring down 25 years of Arrows tradition. Leslie Harlow faced more than double that when, in 2014, she and a business partner purchased Le Domaine, a French restaurant that had been on the same spot on Route 1 in Hancock for 60 years. They turned it into Ironbound.

Like Arrows, Le Domaine was a destination restaurant popular with tourists and a little out of the way. Le Domaine was expensive; even the trees that surrounded it spoke of exclusivity. One of the first things Harlow did was cut them down.

“That era of real formal dining and that kind of atmosphere had really come to an end, I believe,” she said.

She held onto the bones of the building, including a stunning brick fireplace surrounded by copper pots and pans, and she added a bar. She saved the dishware and silverware but pitched the country French decor. She preserved one private corner bench as an homage to the old place. Now the spot is prized for its intimacy. “Olympia Snowe comes in, and she loves to sit there,” Harlow said.


Tripoli would approve. It’s a good idea to pay tribute, he said. Maybe relate the original restaurant’s history on the menu, or get permission to include a favorite menu item from the old days. The bottom line: Tell your story.

Harlow also says it’s important when taking over a well-loved, established restaurant to understand who the customers are. “I live in this community,” she said. “I felt like I understood whose needs were not being met.”

Ironbound has been packed ever since it opened.

Goldman believes his restaurant has “a tremendous story” to tell, too. So in September, he hired a Boston PR firm to tell it.

Chef Chris Wilcox goes through the cold frame to gather fresh vegetables prior to making dinner at The Velveteen Habit. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Chef Chris Wilcox goes through the cold frame to gather fresh vegetables prior to making dinner at The Velveteen Habit. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


One of the first things chef Wilcox did at The Velveteen Habit was to sit down with lead grower Garrett Bent and a seed catalog.


In the subsequent months, the Arrows gardens, which helped launch the farm-to-table movement in Maine, have been entirely transformed – tilled and relaid out of all recognition. Neither the architecture nor the plants are the same. But Wilcox doesn’t see what once was. He sees “a big space with lots of potential.”

“Everything that Arrows did was awesome,” Wilcox said, repeating The Velveteen Habit refrain. “It was great. But we are not Arrows. We are our own place.”

This summer, the gardens provided 80-plus percent of the produce served at The Velveteen Habit. Meat and poultry were sourced from local farms. Wilcox and Bent hope to add chickens, mushroom logs, more fruit trees and pigs. They already have a couple of beehives for honey, and they plan to tap maple trees.

Wilcox, 29, said he wasn’t intimidated by taking over such a celebrated kitchen – more like excited, and eager to find his own voice.

With its small plates and trendy cocktails, The Velveteen Habit can be, in some ways, every bit as formal as Arrows was, but it is also very 2015. A superb shrub cocktail made with crabapples harvested from the restaurant’s property warms the bones. Diners can choose between 3-ounce or 6-ounce wine pours, which encourages sampling. Half-portions of desserts are $5. Lobster is gone; Wilcox prefers to highlight lesser-known seafood like uni. During a visit one October night – a Wednesday when the only other guests in the dining room were a woman and her 3-year-old daughter (in all of its 25 years, was there ever a toddler spotted in Arrows?) – five of the seven entrees cost $30 or $31, prices that would be considered high even in Portland.

Goldman said the prices are “dramatically less” than those Arrows charged, and given the expenses of running the property, about as low as possible.

Goldman has plotted a careful campaign to attract more locals, noting that most restaurants in the area close after October, leaving locals with nowhere to go. The Velveteen Habit will stay open weekends until just before Christmas, and prices will drop during the slower fall and spring seasons. (By November, the highest-priced entree had dropped to $23.) The dining room menu will be pared down and the bar menu extended, with frequent wine deals and drink specials. Goldman has plans for Sunday suppers, wine tastings, cocktail-making classes and cooking classes with the chef.

When the restaurant reopens next spring, he hopes there will be lots of new growth, and not just in the garden.


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