Down East 2013 ©
After we’d been living in Maine for two years, my husband and I became friends with another couple who, like us, had recently moved here. Our friends liked to find new things to do each weekend, activities they couldn’t do back in New York City where they’d grown up — attend a Lebanese church supper, for example, or a Franco-American dance.
One Saturday morning they suggested we meet them for breakfast at a small place in Oakland, a town so untraveled that, at the time, there wasn’t a single traffic light within its borders. For our friends, this was a one-time experience, but for my husband and me it was a revelation. After that, eating breakfast out on Saturdays became an essential part of our married life.
We liked the drive, which took us from Waterville, where we still live, along Messalonskee Stream, a landscape that shifts evocatively with the seasons: red maples in the fall, snowmobile tracks across winter fields, fog creeping off the river in the spring. The Coffee Pot, which stood on Main Street, was small and unpretentious. From the outside, it resembled a converted railroad car. Inside were about eight stools at the counter, three or four tables, and three booths. Even when the restaurant was redecorated with new red-and-white-checked curtains and plastic plants hanging on the walls, it remained stubbornly itself: a diner that catered mainly to local residents, to policemen on their breaks, electrical repairmen, housewives, and the occasional college professor.
While the Coffee Pot had a proper menu, most customers ordered one of the specials that were listed each week on a chalkboard. My husband and I always ordered the “No. 1,” which consisted of two eggs, toast, and, depending on the week, ham, sausage, or bacon. Al, the cook and owner, was a wonderful baker, and once we discovered his cinnamon rolls we asked for them instead of toast. After we had been coming and ordering the same thing for a while, we became known in the Coffee Pot, and the waitress, Jane, would give our order to Al when she saw us getting out of our car.
When our son, Greg, was born, there was no question but that Saturday mornings at the Coffee Pot were to be part of his life. We set his infant seat on our table and fed him baby cereal that we brought from home. He became a regular, too, and if Jane wasn’t too busy, she would whisk him off to greet the other customers.
The Coffee Pot was the sort of place where you saw the same people week after week. Rarely did we learn names, but we knew where people worked, exchanged comments on the weather, and worried about one older couple when they didn’t show up for a couple of weeks. (Jane didn’t know their names either, and confessed that she and Al referred to them by their standard order, “Blueberry Muffin and Bacon.”)
One summer we came back from our vacation to find that the Coffee Pot had been sold. Al had become tired of finding a crowd waiting at the door when he arrived at 5 a.m.; he wanted to golf on the weekends. Under the new ownership, the cinnamon rolls were burned. The Coffee Pot was sold yet again, and reopened under a new name.
A couple of years later we heard that Al had bought the Open Hearth Café in Waterville, down the road from one of the paper mills. It was what we had been looking for during the previous months of Saturdays. As at the Coffee Pot, there was a bulletin board by the entrance where customers advertised their trades (carpentry, accounting, snowplowing). Here, too, the menu hung on a nail next to the table, and the specials were listed on a chalkboard near the kitchen. Sometimes there were more elaborate offerings. The weekend San Francisco played in the Super Bowl the Open Hearth offered a “49ers Special” — four eggs and nine strips of bacon. Again, we fell into conversations with people whose names we didn’t know, exchanged friendly greetings, bits of advice.
The Open Hearth has closed. But my husband and I still continue our tradition, having discovered the Early Bird Restaurant in Oakland. Once again we travel the road that follows Messalonskee Stream, and here, too, the waitresses know our order (French toast and bacon) and bring us our coffee black. Even though a crowd is often waiting, we’re soon seated at a booth. This is Maine, after all, where people work hard, and even for a breakfast ritual, no one lingers long.