Fifteen minutes before its scheduled start, I logged into the planning committee’s Zoom room and discovered several mirthful early birds nearly in tears. Instead of an agenda or links to documents, everyone was cackling at a scanned image of a piece of paper labeled “Alex’s birthday 2021.”

In pencil and marker, the moderator’s soon-to-be-nine-year-old son had laid out his parental demands for this year’s mid-July festivities. Among them: puppies, Popsicles, a ride around town with the Portland Fire Truck Co. sightseeing tour and “50 friends in the backyard. No adults!”

I suspect the Zoomers were chuckling because we’re all a little like Alex. Without much thought, each of us can unspool our own ever-expanding roster of things we can’t wait to do once we’re on the other side of the pandemic.

It should come as no surprise that my personal list is dominated by dearly missed food and beverage experiences: nibbling my way through a Miyake bento box lunch, lingering over an amaro-fueled nightcap at The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, or watching the gulls over Rockport Harbor as I twirl crabmeat pasta con limone on my fork at Nina June.

This month, I asked eight fellow food-and-drink-focused Mainers to share their own expectations of what’s to come. We might not all frequent the same neighborhood bars and restaurants, but we’ve got remarkably similar plans for the post-pandemic future.

Freeport resident Barbara Shinn is eager to return to Flux in Lisbon. She’s craving their steak with poutine on the side, a dish she used to order every three weeks or so. “I need to get back there.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Beyond the white tablecloth

I started this project thinking that people would be quick to shout out the most popular fine-dining restaurants in the state. And they did. But among the requisite nods to Fore Street, Primo, The Lost Kitchen and Back Bay Grill, were the places whose names sparked true unalloyed joy and excitement.

Cape Elizabeth-based food stylist and recipe developer Lorie Dorrance said that what she really couldn’t wait for was a return to “fish shacks, places that have great fried haddock or a good fish stew. The typical Maine summer things like fried clams, or really good barbecue from the food truck near Bethel outside of Newry (Smokin’ Good BBQ).”

Anne Bahr, co-owner and proprietor of three bed-and-breakfasts in Bar Harbor, looks forward to dinners at the Bar Harbor Inn “where my husband (Robert) plays piano in the dining room three times a week.” Equally, she can’t wait to taste a simple scoop of sea salt caramel ice cream from nearby Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium. “Oh, it’s so, so good,” she raved.

Ask Freeport’s Barbara Shinn, co-coordinator for the Maine chapter of the Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Association, and she’ll describe the gravy-ladled French fries that await her: “I love to go to Lisbon Falls, to Flux. I used to sit down and have their sirloin with poutine on the side,” she said. “It would be maybe every three weeks, and I’d get a fix of their beautiful steak and poutine. I need to get back there.”

Hot stuff

Shinn, who was also the co-owner of Shinn Estate Vineyards and the celebrated Home restaurant in New York, is an excellent cook (and home cheesemaker) in her own right, but when it comes to spice, she leaves the hottest dishes to the experts. “Another dish I really miss that I am going to go get when all of this is over is the wide rice noodles with the super, blow-your-head-off red sauce (hu tieu xao) at Cong Tu Bot,” she said. “I can’t stand not having it. I’d order it and the waiter would say ‘You know it’s really hot, right?’ and we’d laugh when I tell them I want my eyes to explode out of my head!”

Although they’re more than two hours and a ferry-ride apart, Shinn and Vinalhaven fisherman Steve Rosen are on the same page when it comes to their fieriest cravings. “I think I miss spicy foods, like Thai food, the most,” he said.

Until things stabilize, it’s catch as catch can when it comes to spicy foods for Mainers who live far from urban centers. Rosen lucked out recently when he “stayed overnight for two nights in New Harbor and ate some really great tacos from the VIP Maine Mobile food truck. Really strange to have it in New Harbor. It’s not known as a food town,” he laughed.

And even in larger towns, sometimes it can be difficult to predict when or where your next hit of tongue-tingling capsaicin will come, as Lewiston resident Muhidin Libah, Program Director for the Somali Bantu Liberation Farms, can attest. “What I really miss is sambusa from the Heritage Restaurant here, on Lisbon Street,” he said. “Their chicken is what I like most, followed by fish and beef. Very good. I am looking forward to that again soon.”

Other missing ingredients

Kent Good, owner of The Thirsty Dawg, a Houlton beer-and-wine-focused bottle shop, hasn’t missed any particular dish or flavor over the past year, despite being a regular patron of several Aroostook County restaurants and breweries. His goal, when the coronavirus restrictions end, is to get back to culinary exploration. “I like to try new things when I go out,” he said. “If I go to a restaurant, I’m always looking for something I haven’t tried before. That’s what I used to do before the pandemic. It’s what I’m going to do afterwards. I really want to go on that quest again.”

“I just want to go everywhere and try everything,” says Kathy Gunst, pictured here in 2016 in her South Berwick kitchen. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and food journalist Kathy Gunst agrees: “I just want to go everywhere and try everything,” she said. But for Gunst, a South Berwick resident, novelty is only part of her motivation to return to dining out. “The flavor I miss the most is the flavor of humanity. For me, it’s more about camaraderie and being around people than about a certain flavor…plus it depends on what day it is! I’m also really looking forward to overhearing conversations; it’s something I really love about restaurants: getting there early and sitting at the bar, hearing other people’s stories. It sounds so sentimental now, but it is about being part of the larger world.”

No tables for one

Until restrictions on dining capacity are lifted entirely, Shinn doesn’t anticipate being able to rejoin that larger world of restaurant dining and drinking. “Before, I’d love to treat myself to dinner and let other people cook for me. But I can be a little shy, and I’m a single person, so I would make myself go out, sometimes a couple times a week. I’d go to a proper restaurant with bar I could sit at and would say to myself, ‘I’m going to have a lovely dinner, wine, two courses, maybe dessert, and damn it, I’m going to talk to people sitting next to me!’” she said.

“But these days, through no fault of any restaurant, they’re not single-friendly anymore. The last thing I want to do is sit at a table alone, far from everyone else. That’s no fun. And when restaurants have special events going on, especially ticketed dining, they would be exclusively for two, three, or four people. You literally couldn’t reserve a space for one even if you wanted to. It’s completely understandable. No whining about it here. I’ll be back when this all ends.”

Three’s company, eight’s even better

Regardless of whether we venture out to make new friends or to spend time with the ones we already have, it’s clear that many Mainers are antsy to return to larger group gatherings.

“We are having some people from our small pod over tonight and we’re just going to play Rummikub and drink beer. I guess you could call that socializing,” Steve Rosen said. “We do miss going out to eat. We have some great meals at home, but you get a little tired of having a really good meal and just two people come for it.”

Bahr has been even more restrictive, largely because nearly all her friends in Bar Harbor also operate B&Bs. “We didn’t want to take any chances of getting infected and having to shut down or worse, making guests sick, so we didn’t see our friends once this summer. We have really good friends we only saw by Zoom,” Bahr told me. “But this year it’ll be different. I can’t wait to get together with all my friends again, going out and having drinks — maybe inside, maybe outside — we have such wonderful restaurants and bars here.”

Muhidin Libah, shown in September, 2020, harvesting carrots. Post-pandemic, Libah is eager to eat sambusa from the Heritage Restaurant in Lewiston and simply to be able to gather with others and socialize. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Libah also feels both constricted by the scope of this past year’s social opportunities and eager for what’s to come. “Our community is a very social community. We have events and gatherings that happen frequently, almost every weekend or every other weekend. For us, the dinners and dancing, the socializing, it’s similar to going out to restaurants. That piece is something we have all been lacking since the start of the pandemic,” he said. “I’m very much looking forward to huge celebrations like our annual harvest festival, which we could not do. I would like to see that happen most of all.”

One sardine at a time

As excited as we are to see one another again, some of us envision a more cautious, incremental return to crowds.

“I definitely think restaurateurs will have to know that some of their clients are going to be freaked out for quite a while and are going to have to be sensitive to that,” Dorrance said. “It’s really sad, because it’s not something they should necessarily have to do, but especially this summer, they’re going to have to make people confident coming in. They’re going to have to win back people’s trust.”

Erica Berman, co-founder of Newcastle’s Veggies to Table — a charitable farm garden that donates its harvests to food-insecure Mainers — agrees. “It’s really hard to imagine when it might go back to something vaguely normal. I think that’s very far away. Personally, I can’t really imagine hanging out in a crowded restaurant full of people or getting on a plane. Then again, it would be really great to go back to the Common Ground Fair or the Brunswick farmers market without wearing a mask,” she said.

“But when we can, it’ll be special. Think about the simple things in life that right now are impossible: eating with your friends or having a drink or a cup of coffee with them. I know for sure I won’t take those for granted.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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