This Saco pub mixes historic digs with tasty, unpretentious food.
By Michaela Cavallaro
Photographed by Mark Fleming
The Run of the Mill
100 Main St., Saco
The pub is one of the great achievements of modern civilization — a place to see friends, meet people from walks of life that don’t normally intersect with yours, and enjoy unpretentious, tasty food and beer. That’s the view of Geoff Houghton, who has made it his life’s work to create pubs that are cozy, inviting, and full of good people. “If you’re a jerk, you’re not going to last long in a good pub,” says Houghton, the 44-year-old proprietor of Hallowell’s Liberal Cup and, more recently, The Run of the Mill in Saco.
Judging by the number of cars in the vast parking lot on Saco Island on a recent Monday night, an inordinate number of York County residents and visitors find Houghton’s vision appealing (though their personal character is unknown). And it’s easy to see why: The Run of the Mill is nearly irresistible. Though the space it occupies is vast, Houghton has created several smaller areas, including multiple casual dining rooms that are just secluded enough to feel intimate but not so separate as to be disconnected, plus a long bar area. Housed in one of Saco’s former textile mills, The Run of the Mill has the character that only comes from history, including enormous wooden beams and weathered brick. “It was a really raw space when we started,” Houghton says. “It didn’t have a single pipe or outlet or wire, and it hardly had any windows. It was a vast, blank space, but it was really cool.”
Houghton was enticed to create The Run of the Mill by his friend Kevin Mattson, the Augusta developer who in 2007 purchased the Saco Island mill complex and planned to redevelop it. Mattson was looking for an anchor tenant for the complex, located on a small island in the Saco River. “I was intrigued,” Houghton says. “I was curious to see if I just got lucky on the first pub or if I really knew what I was doing.”
Given his background, and the success of the Liberal Cup, The Run of the Mill seemed like a pretty solid bet. A Philadelphia native, Houghton had spent some formative years in England, where he learned to brew classic English ales. Upon his return, he worked at Gritty McDuff’s, as one of the Portland brewpub’s first brewers, and then at D.L. Geary Brewing Co. In 2000, he opened the Liberal Cup, which has become a mainstay on Hallowell’s Water Street. Eight years later, the time was right to expand into a second venture, and Saco seemed like the right place to do it. “I like York County a lot, and the Saco-Biddeford area is a relatively underappreciated part of southern Maine,” he says. “For that size community, it didn’t seem to have too many dining and drinking options.”
Thus The Run of the Mill, which over the last five years has become just as much a fixture of its community as the Liberal Cup is in Hallowell. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Saco brewpub’s vast deck overlooking the rushing Saco River is perpetually full of locals and vacationing visitors alike. The attraction? An unpretentious and welcome atmosphere — and lots of delicious beer. Houghton and head brewer Nate Dustin have a menu of about twenty-five possibilities, from which seven or so are on tap at any one time. As the only commercial brewer in Maine who brews lagers as well as the more popular ales, Houghton particularly recommends his Oktoberfest: “It’s a true Oktoberfest, rather than a beer that just happens to come out in October,” he says. “It’s a smooth, well-rounded Munich lager.”
As fall rolls on, The Run of the Mill will bring on its more substantial beers, like Tented Kilt Scottish Ale and Old Tannery Brown Ale, a rich, dark brown ale that’s low on carbonation and high on flavor. And while the menu, cooked by chef Chris Loftus, stays constant year-round, cool-weather favorites like “drunken” pot roast — simmered in beer, naturally — and an herb-heavy shepherd’s pie become more popular. The ploughman’s lunch — a plate of meats, cheeses, pickles, pumpernickel bread, and an addictive pepper jelly — makes an excellent choice as an afternoon snack, or perhaps a hearty appetizer for two. “We wanted to take some basic English items and jazz them up a bit,” Houghton explains.
But it’s not all meat and potatoes at The Run of the Mill. The Cobb salad wins raves, especially when accompanied by a tasty Asian-style vinaigrette. Another surprising hit: the house-made veggie burger (think potatoes, lentils, and black beans topped with roasted red peppers and onion), which is worth ordering no matter how messy it may be. The menu is large enough that just about everyone in your party will find something to like — especially if they order a side of sweet potato fries — but not so extensive as to be overwhelming. And that’s just how Geoff Houghton likes it. “I build places I like to go to,” he says simply. “And then I hope there are enough people out there who think like I do and would come out once or twice a week.”
Get a glimpse at that parking lot in Saco, and you’ll know he’s on to something.
Michaela Cavallaro is a Down East contributing editor and lives in South Portland.