First and foremost, the Topsham outpost of the Sea Dog Brewing Company may be one of the most beautiful pubs of its kind that I have ever set foot in. It’s certainly one of the most scenic chain restaurants. Located in the historic Pejepscot Mill building with a seasonal deck overhanging the rushing Androscoggin River, the Sea Dog is so beautiful that when you look up “Topsham” on Wikipedia, you don’t see pictures of the town’s municipal building or founding fathers, signing the fledgling village’s Articles of Incorporation. You see a picture of the Sea Dog. That’s right: the town itself is represented on Wikipedia by a photo of a bar. It’s a gorgeous spot, a “corporate brewpub” done really, really well, owing a great deal to its iconic scenery and the interior beauty of the old mill building.
I’ve eaten at the Sea Dog at least a half dozen times so far this Winter, in part because it’s just so easy. The staff is always unbelievably courteous, friendly, and helpful. The dining room is huge, accommodating hundreds of diners. It’s kid-friendly. There’s a “Mug Club,” offering discount pours for regulars. Sometimes, I don’t want to be challenged by the restaurant I’m eating in; I just want a decent burger, or a fried haddock sandwich, or some mozzarella sticks, and at those times, the Sea Dog is always right there, with their fruit-flavored beers and their big industrial-cool wooden beams and their brick walls and their rainslicker-wearing dog mascot.
I’m not alone. Visit the Sea Dog in Topsham between 5:00 and 7:00 PM, and you might be surprised to find an honest-to-goodness dinner rush, with people waiting to be seated for a round of the Sea Dog’s classic pub fare. By 7:30, the room clears out, and an old-fashioned bar scene develops. There’s no doubt that it’s popular, and doing a brisk business. Why, then, do I end every meal there promising myself that it will be my last visit?
The biggest problem facing the Sea Dog is an issue of consistency. I have had, in almost equal measure, some fantastic, comforting, stick-to-your-ribs meals there, as well as some items that have made me regret ever bringing guests. One night, with a heavy-hearted emptiness that can only be filled by meatloaf, the Sea Dog will deliver with their version of “Meatloaf and Gravy” ($10.99), two thick slabs of Gravy Master-drenched ground beef swimming in a sea of six pounds of mashed potatoes. The next week, I’ll try the same dish again, and it will seem hours old, the gravy too congealed, the meatloaf too salty. One day, Jillian and I will enjoy a superb plate of “Chicken Nachos” ($11.99), corn tortilla chips piled impossibly high with melted cheese, sour cream, salsa, guacamole, and jalapenos. Emboldened, I’ll return with an old friend from out of town a few nights later for an evening of carousing, and will be served a bar-only “Appetizer Sampler” so bad as to be nearly offensive, where the “Soft Pretzel” proved far more edible than the deep-fried seahorse-shaped wing tip we were served in place of an actual chicken wing. The whole plate was bathed in end-of-the-night despair, when the dishroom guys are the only ones left around to sulkily work the fryers.
Our last visit was similarly disappointing. Jillian’s “Volcano Burger,” ($10.99) a cheeseburger topped with cheddar cheese, tomato-habanero relish, bacon and a sunny-side-up egg, has been delicious in the past, a creative plateful of beef and runny egg yolk and crispy bacon, all served on a warm, buttery brioche bun. This version was an anemic shadow of its former self, featuring undercooked beef, unmelted cheese, some fatty, greasy, lazy bacon, and the only habanero salsa in the world that carried no spice.
Jillian: Why do we return again and again to the Sea Dog, when it’s never any better than inconsistent, and at its worst, overpriced and inedible? The latter is seldom the case, rest assured. Mostly it’s mediocre in a really honest fashion. Though the last time I was there, my Volcano Burger was so raw it would not hold its shape, and broke down under the weight of its yolk. Getting the burger is usually a safe bet. Stick to the pub stuff – burgers, nachos, fried fish and chips – and you won’t be disappointed more than five times out of ten. Drink more beer, as that invariably saves the situation. We’re there for a late lunch at least one Saturday a month. We tend to bring out of town friends, when we don’t have much time and everyone has arrived starving. And we always apologize in advance.
I opted for the “Fried Clam Dinner” ($19.99/MP), a large portion of golden-fried clams, a mix of necks and bellies, served atop a pile of crispy french fries. They were okay; fried seafood is almost never bad, though both of our lunches felt like a forgotten order, slap-dashed together after our second round of beer, when the waitress must have reminded the harried kitchen that our order existed. My enthusiasm for my lunch waned when I received the bill, and learned that “Market Price” for my fried clams had clocked in at $19.99. That’s what real food costs, and the cobbled-together nature of my order began to seem a little more aggravating.
The Sea Dog doesn’t have to be great. It’s got a large menu that every single person on the planet will like. It’s set up in one of the most prominent locations in a town with little competition for this type of dining, in a historic building that oozes scenery, without trying too hard. A meal served even only capably, would be more than satisfying enough for any customer choosing to dine there. Why, then, does this seem like such a difficult trick to pull off? Why does the food meet this basic level of quality only about half the time?
Jillian: It is iconic, I think, at least regionally: The rushing Androscoggin under an oxidizing bridge, the painted yellow mill perched over the outcropping of rock. Sitting on the wraparound porch on a sunny day is invigorating. Inside during colder seasons the atmosphere is always bustling and warm under wooden beams. It’s a solid old place built on basic elements.
There is so, so much to love about the Sea Dog. I want to join the Mug Club. I want to be the locally-famous, legendary Trivia Night champion. I want to know the names of all the servers. I want to spend Sunday afternoons there, drinking pint after pint of blueberry-flavored beer. I want to be loyal to the Sea Dog, as loyal as I imagine that godforsaken cartoon rainslicker-wearing dog to be. I don’t want it to be the best food I’ve ever eaten; I just want it to be reliable, like the old trusted friend you’ve had since kindergarten, that will always be there to listen. Unfortunately, the inconsistencies coming out of the kitchen at the Sea Dog will probably prevent our relationship from ever getting that close.