As I took the first few sips of my Underwood Riesling Radler ($11) – a light, hoppy, hard-to-characterize beverage that tastes like a shandy infused with orange-blossom water – I noticed something remarkable along the periphery of the dining room at The Central Restaurant & Bar. Parties clearly not seated together were chatting with one another. And not just one or two groups of them, but every single table sharing the low, overstuffed banquette seating that runs the length of the wall.

A middle-aged couple passed a phone displaying photos of their son’s recent wedding to a nearby four-top, two family groups stopped eating to kibitz with one another about the upcoming holiday, and close to the entrance to the open kitchen, a woman dining solo was offered a bite of the next table’s coconut mocha cheesecake ($7).

It didn’t end there. As the night went on, I witnessed people all over the dark-toned, wood-and-metal space get up from their seats and wander over to nearby booths to shoot the breeze. At one stage, I stood up myself and walked to the front door to make sure I hadn’t accidentally crashed someone’s private event. It turns out, I was just catching The Central on a typical Saturday night.

“It’s kind of like the ‘Cheers’ of York,” chef/owner John Ernst told me. “Honestly, it gives me the chills when I see people bouncing around from table to table so they can talk with everybody, and from the kitchen, I get to watch it happen.”

The Central Restaurant’s locals-only vibe stems in part from its location: neither on the town of York’s waterfront, nor along busy Route 1. Instead, the restaurant and its sister business, an adjoining coffee shop and bakery, occupies a double-wide storefront in a slightly off-the-beaten-path strip mall. On a first visit to York, you would be very unlikely to stumble upon it.

For some diners, that’s enough of a reason to visit. Who doesn’t like discovering an under-the-radar spot that, since it opened in 2014, has been written about in few publications? In southern Maine, such restaurants are as rare as blue lobsters. What’s more, Ernst and general manager/owner Kiersten Mayes keep their eclectic, 64-seater off the map by spending no money whatsoever on marketing. “When we started four years ago, we literally just opened the doors one night for a friends-and-family meal, and it grew from there,” Ernst said. “But tourists are catching on. Year after year, there are more of them.”

They may be drawn in by The Central Restaurant’s smoked Texas-style brisket, the star of an overstuffed sandwich ($14) as well as a soft taco appetizer ($9), perhaps the best single dish I ate on my recent visit. To make the tacos, Ernst mounds cubes of tender brisket, pickled onions and guacamole onto two corn tortillas, then tops the colorful tumbles with crumbles of cotija cheese and a squirt of his sweet-and-fiery, house-made Fresno chili hot sauce.

On the slow-smoked ribs with panko-breaded onion rings ($20), Ernst deploys a sweeter, stickier sauce fortified with molasses and adobo-preserved chipotle peppers. It does its job – coating not only the slightly bitter ribs as well as every square inch of your exposed skin and clothing – but could have used a bit more vinegar to tilt the balance of flavors away from ketchup and toward onion and smoked paprika.

The Central’s smoked brisket is the star of its soft taco appetizer.

Unfortunately, off-kilter combinations aren’t uncommon at The Central Restaurant. In some dishes, there’s a single element out of alignment with the rest, like hand-cut truffle fries ($8) with plenty of parmesan, but not even a rumor of white truffle flavor. Or the tacky, doughy wrapper on the chubby, gyoza-style pork dumplings ($9). Stuffed with ground pork shoulder, ginger and cabbage and topped with a perky pickled salad of carrot and daikon radish, they nevertheless pair nicely with a glass of astringent Badenhorst “Secateurs” Rosé ($10).

In the ice-cold soba noodle salad ($10), the misfire comes from the star ingredient: dark buckwheat soba, which are undercooked and tricky to eat. Just a minute or two more in boiling water would have given them the supple, springy texture they need to create perfect savory tangles of sweet red pepper, crispy fried wonton wrappers, and shredded cabbage.

A packed bar at The Central Restaurant & Bar in York. The convivial eatery is “kind of like the ‘Cheers’ of York,” says chef/owner John Ernst. Staff photos by Brianna Soukup

I may never understand the thinking behind the Italian roasted haddock ($21), a dish Ernst told me was invented because he and his team “get bored in the kitchen and wanted to change things up.” Here, a haddock fillet is cooked skin-side up so that the flesh sticks, unbudging, to the bottom of a shallow, cast-iron skillet. To make matters worse, the fish is drowned in basil pesto and marinara sauce before it goes into the deck oven, so that all you taste is tomato, herbs and a few shreds of unmelted pecorino romano cheese. A head-scratcher.

Imbalanced dishes aside, The Central benefits enormously from its sibling bakery’s location just a few feet away. As a result, you’ll almost always find homemade chocolate chip cookies ($5) on the dessert menu, along with more seasonal treats like strawberry-rhubarb crisp ($8), served a la mode with Gifford’s ice cream. My dinner guest and I both loved its vigorous tartness, mitigated less by sugar (which tends to blunt rhubarb’s pleasures) than by the natural sweetness of recently picked berries. As much as I enjoyed the cinnamon-scented, buttery oat streusel, I could have eaten several bowls of the summery baked fruit on its own.

I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it. As I waited for my check, I overheard two nearby tables discussing the dish with one another (naturally) and making plans to ask Hayes, who oversees the front-of-house staff, for the recipe. “She’ll definitely give it to you if you ask,” one woman said to another. “I already have their flourless chocolate cake ($8) recipe. I should ask Kiersten and John over to try it sometime.”

By that point in the evening, such familiarity at The Central Restaurant & Bar came as no surprise to me. If you are part of its target demographic of York-area residents, you probably already know it exists. Chances are good that you may even be one of the owners’ friends by now. If you’re not a local? Well, the food is fine – probably not worth a special trip, but decent enough. At the same time, if you’re looking for a new place to become a regular – a spot where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came – this might well be it.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME