Since both of us were established in 1978, it’s safe to say I have been driving or riding past The Taste of Maine restaurant for my entire life. Every time I’ve passed, I’ve wanted to stop, for a new reason each time. Sometimes, it’s the promise of a dinner show with master regional comedian Bob Marley (no relation) who, with a time of 40 hours, holds the world record for longest stand-up comedy routine about driving around rotaries and the people who work at Cumby’s. When I was younger, my eye was captured by an installation of an artist from my hometown of St. George, who made sculptures out of the metal from old hot water heaters, who achieved minor celebrity when one of his giant, smiling lobsters was installed on the stretch of grass that divides The Taste of Maine restaurant from Route 1. Other times, I’ve been nearly persuaded through the front door by the sign’s image of a cartoon fisherman, dressed in a yellow rainslicker, gesturing casually and knowingly over his shoulder at the restaurant.
In spite of these enticing come-ons, though, I never quite managed to walk through the front door. The restaurant didn’t ever seem like it was for me, whether it was Summertime, and crowds of tourists were filling the parking lot, waiting for their turn to eat the “World’s Largest Lobster Roll,” a two-foot beauty served on a big wooden plank, or the dead of Winter, when armies of craggy men decked out in blaze orange filled every available booth, stopping by on their way back from a hunt. That all changed this week, though, when we assembled for what we assumed would be brunch, served on Sundays from 11AM – 3PM.
We had hosted a small get-together the night before, and so my head was filled with the light fuzz that only a half-dozen Manhattans can cause, and that only a giant, greasy buffet breakfast can hope to fix. After taking a few moments to take in the chilly scenery outside, we waited for the rest of the group inside the restaurant. I was taken by surprise by the overall kitchiness of the place, which contained an outrageous hodgepodge of dolls made of pantyhose, taxidermied moose, mannequins, antique toys, lobster bouys and, thanks to the time of year, miles and miles of Christmas lights adorning every nook and cranny of the restaurant. We were warmly greeted and brought immediately to our table, set right in the window, with a stunning 180 degree view overlooking Pleasant Cove, and also right smack on top of the promised buffet. A quick cruise revealed that, instead of the breakfast I had imagined, the buffet was comprised of a variety of classic American diner fare, including macaroni and cheese, shiny pot roast swimming in pools of slowly congealing brown gravy, a tray of anemic meatballs, teriyaki chicken bits, some wildly unappealing miniature pizzas, and some sort of crab/stuffing mishmash. Disappointed and discouraged by the sight of the buffet, we decided to order off the restaurant’s menu, instead.
Because I firmly believe in having the most decadent possible post-party recovery periods, we ordered a round of Bloody Marys, a steamed lobster dinner ($19.95), and, figuring that you can never, ever go wrong with fried seafood in Maine, a fried shrimp roll ($11.99) and a fried scallop roll ($14.99). As we waited for our dishes, the room began to fill up with a wonderful assembly of characters. There was the haggard couple busily trying to feed three squirmy red-Kool-Aid-moustached kids, all under five. There was a table of older folks, from the deer musk, Dickies-and-Suspenders set, getting plate after plate of pot roast and opining loudly and in thick Maine accents about the bath salts crisis. And then there were the really old folks, faces cracked with more wrinkles than I had ever seen, buy by god, still finding the energy for round after round of Irish coffee.
Our lunches arrived, and were all outstanding, in their measure, and as they should be. I had one of the best steamed lobsters in recent memory, with a semi-hard shell so packed with meat that it exploded out with each crack of the carapace. The fried seafood rolls were similarly excellent, overflowing from split-top butter-grilled buns with golden, crunchy, freshly-fried seafood. After the somewhat grim appearance of the buffet, we were relieved to have such a satisfying, if basic lunch, and instantly, the overindulgence of the night before began to fade away. The fried seafood and the Bloody Marys did their part, but the food at a place like The Taste of Maine Restaurant is kind of beside the point. This is old, classic Maine; the kind of institution that is becoming harder and harder to find in the endless eruption of low-rent chain restaurants. People don’t come to The Taste of Maine for the food; they come because that’s what they’ve always done. It’s what their friends have always done. If its Sunday, the roads are good, and you’ve got a few bucks in your pocket, you go get a cup of coffee and check out the buffet, just as you have every weekend for the last 34 years. It’s the kind of routine that makes Maine great, that makes Mainers great, and it’s worth taking in the scene at least once.