Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part retrospective looking back on the previous few decades of Maine dining.

The Past (2016-20)

I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I was no longer “the new guy.” About a year into my time as the restaurant critic, a reader e-mailed me a terse message that seemed to incorporate both a Seinfeldian observation and an indirect rebuke: “You sure like to talk about pork, don’t you?”

I believe my mysterious new pal (possibly a rabbi?) wrote in response to my February 2017 review of Schulte & Herr, a piece where I dedicated an entire paragraph to Steffi and Brian Davin’s transcendent schnitzel. Or perhaps it was the thyme-infused, slow-braised pork shanks I mentioned in my trial-balloon review of Woodford Food & Beverage; or Foulmouthed Brewing’s fiery, Korean BBQ pork nachos; or Tempo Dulu’s sambal-kissed pork belly. No matter. The truth had been unearthed: I do enjoy writing about pork.

If my preferences peek through occasionally, that’s to be expected. Even food writers have favorites, and over more than five years on the job, it’s inevitable that a few would reach escape velocity and land on the page. I’m OK with that. Those culinary passions are an undeniable part of me. Some traveled with me with me from away, from the UK, New York and Denmark, and some flourished after I adopted Maine as my home, and it adopted me in return.

Part of what I’ve always loved about the food scene here is its capacity to embrace novelty, while still maintaining a healthy wariness of trends. Many big cities have lost that ability – especially New York. There, in the mid-aughts, I wrote about people queuing up for nearly a half-mile for a new gelato spot that would close within 90 days. The next summer, one building over, a Japanese cream-puff bakery lured enormous crowds, then promptly shut its doors soon after. That sort of staccato, novelty-driven life cycle simply isn’t sustainable.

It’s also heartbreaking. As a diner, you are being intentionally, explicitly tempted by a restaurant’s staff, urged to fall in love at every turn: wooed first by fizzy cocktails and smart service, then by sublime food. But in a place like New York, to succumb is to gamble. Because when the debts for expensive renovations and astronomical rent payments come due, your newest love interest might vanish without saying goodbye, replaced overnight by a drugstore or a bank.

On the other hand, even during the most feverish of the past five years, such as when Bon Appetit magazine lauded Portland as Restaurant City of the Year 2018, Mainers could still count on our favorite businesses sticking around long enough for us to grow attached.

Collectively, we fell hard — both for nationally celebrated restaurants that opened during this stretch: Drifters Wife, Chaval, The Garrison, Elda, Cong Tu Bot, The Purple House, Nina June, as well as secret spots we kept (mostly) to ourselves, places like Vessel and Vine, Northern Union, Flux, and Festina Lente. But we were just as smitten by a cluster of new Asian restaurants with strong regional points of view: Sichuan Kitchen, Yobo, Thai Esaan and Banh Appetit.

When I started my tenure as Dine Out critic, a former neighbor from Manhattan sent me a playfully envious note of congratulations, referring to Maine as “the closest this country has to a meritocracy of food.” Things certainly looked like they were moving in that direction by the end of 2019.

And then, another inescapable truth: Even meritocracies can be toppled by biology.

Yobo, a restaurant with a strong regional point of view, in this case Korean. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Present (2020-21)

Within a few months, 2020 became the year of the pivot. (I used to love that word, but now it just makes me anxious.) Restaurants shuttered, some for good, others for weeks or months, some began offering takeout-only menus, and everyone started exploring backup plans.

I’m no exception. I made the tough call to stop writing critically about restaurants within a few weeks of the state’s stay-at-home guidance. I count that as the best decision I made last year. In lieu of critique, I retrofitted Dine Out Maine into Dine In Maine and tried to diffuse my own lockdown nostalgia by sharing it with readers.

I never expected to be creating Spotify playlists, proposing a Maine-themed literary contest, or composing premature obituaries for beloved restaurants, but writing – even about the hard stuff – has kept me tethered to the state’s tenacious, struggling food scene. For that, I’m grateful.

Still, I hope never to interview another chef who breaks down in the middle of a conversation about spring greens, sobbing, “I fight to keep this going every day. It’s just so hard, man.”

The dining room at the old Elda in Biddeford. The restaurant is slated to open in its new location in the Pepperell Mill in June. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Future

There are signs everywhere that Maine’s long-slumbering food scene is beginning to awaken. But for better or worse, much has changed, from interrupted supply chains and staffing shortages, to hygiene regulations and expectations, to diners’ willingness to lever themselves into crowded spaces where they frolicked, sardine-like just a few years ago.

I’ve been thinking about the back-nine of this year as a Great Reset. Names on buildings and dishes on menus might remain the same, just like the (still-masked) faces of chefs and servers, but scratch the surface and you’ll discover that everything’s different now.

For me, a clean break from the past poses a few tough questions. One is obvious: When should we begin reviewing restaurants again? The answer isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.

Since at least 2014, the Maine Sunday Telegram has upheld a strict policy of giving new restaurants three months to get their bearings before reviewing them. When major changes occur – like a change of venue, chef or culinary focus – we still wait at least one month before visiting a restaurant.

But what about a global pandemic? Does a Great Reset count as an event worth three months or one, even if there hasn’t been a change of chef or menu? And when does the clock start: When the state allows 100% outdoor occupancy? When it allows unrestricted indoor dining? What about the seasonal restaurants that could benefit from a review before they stop serving for an entire year?

It’s a Gordian knot, and the best solution may simply be to cut.

For the moment then, I’m planning a return to writing critically about restaurants toward the end of the summer. I’ll begin outdoors and then, if vaccination rates and waning cases hold, move indoors as the leaf-peepers arrive.

A related question is embedded in the first: What places should be eligible for a review?

In normal times, the paper’s policy has been to wait four, preferably five years before returning to a restaurant for another review, barring a major change. By and large, this has been an excellent guiding principle — new restaurants generally receive priority (and much-needed column inches), while more established restaurants have time to tweak and reinvent.

But soon, we’ll be on the other side of that Great Reset. And if it’s true that nearly everything has been disrupted by the pandemic, shouldn’t we begin everyone’s clock again? I believe we should. In Maine’s post-pandemic food scene, it will be worthwhile to know how newcomers and stalwarts alike are navigating a world we can’t yet map.

Soon enough, and with a little luck, we’ll all become “the new guy.”

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 four recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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