A chainlink fence separate diners from the tarmac at Pilots Cove Cafe in Sanford. Staff photo by Bob Keyes

SANFORD — One does not need an expensive ticket or to jostle with crowds to enjoy the airshow that unfolds in the sky overhead Pilots Cove Cafe in Sanford on a daily basis.

Staff photo by Bob Keyes

The cafe occupies a building adjacent to the Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport at 199 Airport Road, giving those who choose to sit outside a clear view of the airfield from behind a weedy, black chain link fence. Granted, the mostly small planes that come and go from the airstrip here are in a different league than their high-performance counterparts that delighted crowds (and irritated neighbors) during airshows that filled the skies over Brunswick and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, recently, but there is a low-key appeal to enjoying a cold beverage and a good sandwich while watching small planes come and go at community airport on a waning-summer day.

My wife and I had come to the Pilots Cove Cafe on the recommendation of a co-worker, who suggested it might provide an interesting alternative to our usual weekend search for a new place with a decent, affordable meal in York County. The airport cafe is housed in a nondescript metal building that is set back in a large parking lot on the airport grounds. Despite its drab appearance, airport cafe pleased me with its menu, the quality of most of the food, and the overall experience – although we got off to a turbulent start when I misinterpreted the flight plan from the control tower.

Upon entering the airspace, there was no one to greet us, so I moved into the dining room and engaged a member of the staff who was seated at table doing cafe-related busy work.

“Can we grab a table outside?” I asked, motioning to the many open tables on a patio area just outside the cafe doors and bordering the airstrip.

“Yes,” he replied, “Your waiter will be right with you.”

I interpreted that to mean, proceed to a table and someone will be right out – and so we did. But apparently it meant, “You’re in a holding pattern – await further instructions.” The waiter was slightly perturbed we landed at our table without proper clearance, but got over it quickly enough. We ordered a couple of margaritas and everything worked out great.

The Pilots Cove Cafe and Runway bar operate at the Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport. Staff photo by Bob Keyes

Over 75 minutes or so, we saw many small private planes take off and land a few hundred yards from our table. The runway and the skies overhead were busy and buzzing throughout our meal. And my co-worker was right. The coming-and-going of the planes, as well as the pilots and passengers, made for a dining experience that was just different enough to be memorable. It gave us something to talk about other than our usual banter about politics and the sorry state of our world.

The food was good, too.

The outdoor seating area at Pilots Cove Cafe. Staff photo by Bob Keyes

I was slightly sorry we did not make it in time for breakfast, which is served until noon. I had my eyes on the keto scramble bowl – four eggs, two slices of bacon, two sausage links and cheese. Or the biscuit breakfast with house-made sausage gravy and homefries or beans. Yum, yum, yum. Instead, we agreed to split two sandwiches, because so many appealed to us.

I ordered the cheesesteak panini with provolone and griddled onions ($12), and Vicki chose the po’boy ($14) – a nod to family in Louisiana, whom we plan to visit soon. Both came with a choice of fries or slaw. I loved the panini and did not want to share. The steak was seasoned just so and cooked crisp, the cheese gooey and stringy and the onions nicely proportioned, all packed in a compact panini and served with crisp, salty fries. The po’boy was served on an over-crisp bun with four shrimp, spicy New Orleans slaw and pickled onion and cucumber, and was problematic in that the roll was crisp and dry and the sandwich didn’t have enough spicy slaw to soften the bun. The shrimp were tender and juicy, but the po’boy lacked the pizazz of the panini. We picked it apart, leaving much of the bread on the plate.

Right next to the Pilots Cove Cafe is the Runway, an entertainment area with a covered outdoor structure for DJs, comedians and bands, and with plenty of room for large crowds. The cocktail bar/beer garden also has a late-night menu (9 p.m. to 1 a.m.) with wings, quesadillas and sandwiches that carry over from the cafe menu, including burgers and a steak-and-cheese panini with chips, which costs $3 more than the cafe version of the sandwich, which comes with fries.

Our drinks were fine, other than being served in plastic cups – perhaps a concession to being outdoors – and coming without salt on the rim as ordered – perhaps a concession to being served in plastic cups. And while the service was slow – definitely a concession to the labor shuffle of 2021 – our overall experience was positive and left us wanting to plan our return trip.

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