Once again, we asked Down East readers to cast their votes for Maine’s best everything: burgers to bookstores, museums to marinas, art galleries to architects. plus, we’ve sprinkled in picks of our own. How’d your favorites do?
I start out skeptical of any dining institution that promises to satisfy my finicky appetite, but the Totally Awesome Vegan Food Truck totally lives up to its awesome name (and ’80s-yearbook design motif), accomplishing what I’ve never been able to in my own kitchen: a hearty, tasty black-bean burger you don’t need to be a vegan to enjoy. The three-year-old eatery’s regular haunts include the Eastern and Western promenades, in Portland. The rest of the short menu includes a yummy pastramied-jackfruit sammy and jalapeño fries in a smoky faux-cheese sauce, a reminder that vegan can still be indulgent. — Jennifer Van Allen
Moving right along the culinary spectrum: Never mind the rolling farm fields and picturesque barns, the most welcome sight an Aroostook County visitor can see is John and Mary Freeman’s minivan and mobile smoker pulled up in front of a motel or supermarket in Fort Kent, Madawaska, Caribou, or Presque Isle. The Freemans celebrated 25 years this summer serving tender and spicy-sweet baby back ribs, pulled pork, and barbecued chicken from their Rib Truck. A County institution and always worth stopping for. — Brian Kevin
Producing apples sans pesticides is tricky work, so when Bob Sewall started Maine’s first certified organic orchard, in Lincolnville, in 1979, he blazed a trail, but he didn’t exactly open any floodgates. Lately, Eden Acres Farm has joined the state’s still-tiny cadre of organic-apple growers. In 2015, Bryan and Ali Quicannon bought an old heirloom orchard in Waterboro, and they got hooked up with Sewall through a Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association mentorship program. Today, they represent the next generation of organic orchardists, and they make some darn good cider and cider vinegar. — Will Grunewald
Anyone first exposed to Oyster River Winegrowers via the vintner’s popular bimonthly pizza parties on its organic farm, in Warren, will feel right at home at the new tasting room, on Camden’s main drag: the sparsely decorated former antiques shop feels like someone plopped a little barn next to the opera house. Inside (and in a pleasant courtyard, with Camden’s best people-watching), patrons enjoy bottles and glasses of Oyster River’s still and sparkling wines (and ciders). The Morphos pétillant naturel (naturally sparkling) is particularly highly rated among wine buffs, a white wine left to ferment in the bottle, so it’s cloudy and fizzy, with notes of green apple and yeast. I was a hit at a party recently after showing up with a bottle of Justice, a cabernet franc fermented with wild yeasts in concrete vats, which, unlike oak barrels, impart no flavors of their own. — B.K.
You can’t walk into Kennebunkport’s Rococo without exiting your ice-cream-flavor comfort zone. Rotating flavors include concoctions like goat-cheese blackberry chambord, olive oil and rosemary caramel, and salty sweet cream — all inspired by owner Lauren Guptill’s world travels. The ice cream is made down the street at Rococo’s test kitchen, in Wells, where folks can stop during the summer to try new flavors before they’re sold elsewhere. My fave: earl grey, rose-hip jam, and pistachio. Try it in a dark-chocolate cone. — Adrienne Perron
The same family has raised dairy cows at Turner’s Brigeen Farms for ten generations, since 1777. But it was only two years ago they started turning their milk into silky-smooth frozen custard, served on-site at Canty Cow Creamery. The lineup is a paradox of choice — how to pick between zingy lemon, crunchy s’mores, mellow mango? Ice-cream sandwiches further complicate matters — mint-chip custard between chocolate cookies, vanilla between chocolate chip, maple between snickerdoodles. If my head starts spinning, I order a couple of scoops of vanilla, and I never regret it. — W.G.
Every time I stop by Odd Alewives Farm Brewery (oddalewives.com), I marvel at how secluded the place feels despite being all of 60 seconds off Waldoboro’s congested stretch of Route 1. The snug taproom is in an 1820s barn with wide-plank floors, rough-hewn walls, and, sometimes, herbs drying from the ceiling. Many such ingredients for the brewery’s Belgian-style ales grow in gardens just outside, and seating had to move outside too during the pandemic. Now, the beer garden is a year-round venue, with fire pits for cool summer nights and cold winter days, ample pastoral scenery, a couple of sheltered outbuildings, and not a hint of Route 1 hubbub. — W.G.
My ideal southern Maine winter morning involves warming up with an espresso and a blueberry scone from Boulangerie after skating at Kennebunk’s Waterhouse Pavilion. In the summer, I love sitting on the patio outside the bakery, housed in a beautiful converted 1901 farmhouse, sipping an iced latte and eating caprese on a fresh baguette. In any season, really, a stop at Boulangerie is a highlight of passing through Kennebunk, and I’m as apt to grab a kale salad as a loaf of honey-oatmeal bread as a double-chocolate muffin (maybe even all three). — A.P.
Almost a decade ago, Gene Cartwright left a desk job in architecture to find his calling on eight acres of farmland in midcoast Maine. As the orchardist, forager, and zymologist behind Lincolnville’s Whaleback Farm Cider, he’s turning out some of the most interesting and quaffable ciders in a state with an increasingly deep bench of hard-cider producers. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed the Northern Rosé, a lightly tart blend made with elderberry and aronia that Cartwright grows in Lincolnville, and the terrific Hop Shadow, a dry, earthy, bubbly cider that’s blended with four hop varieties (which Cartwright also grew) and that goes down like a summer pilsner. A recent rebrand by Brooklin’s Frank Design Co. conferred some extra shelf appeal. — B.K.
What Soul Food Paradise lacks in square footage it more than makes up for in flavor. The tiny takeout operation, out of Portland’s Fork Food Lab incubator, serves up heaps of tender meats — jerk chicken and braised oxtail are standouts. Side dishes too, from smoky collard greens to the uber-gooey mac and cheese, tend to stick in the memory (and the gut) long after a meal. Plus, the belly-warming chow comes with a heartwarming backstory: the menu is inspired by the comforting food that owner Martin Beavers’s mother cooked when he was growing up in the Bronx. — W.G.
Eleda Towle, enthusiastic founder of Hiram’s Triple Mountain Model Horses, offers unbridled hospitality to everyone who canters in, whether they’re travelers dropping by on the hoof or hardcore hobbyists chomping at the bit to buy one of the shop’s hundreds of models of equine figurines. Since opening in 2015, Triple Mountain has sold some 11,000 models, in person and online, some to meticulous collectors, others to horse-loving children. There’s a stigma attached to her hobby, Towle says, and she’s all too happy to push back against it. Rein in your skepticism — Triple Mountain is a dark horse for Maine’s most unique and welcoming shop. — A.P.
You can’t beat the finds at the Freeport Community Services Thrift Shop, a two-story shop a stone’s throw from the town’s swish outlets. Shelves and racks of men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing, accessories, shoes, books, homewares, and more are carefully organized and regularly restocked. I’ve scored so many bargains there: a $15 cashmere sweater, $5 beach chairs, like-new hardcovers, a brand-new Hydro Flask water bottle that retails for $35 and that my daughter scored for $3 (even the cashier complimented that one). What’s more, all the proceeds support Freeport Community Services programs like food banks and heating-assistance funds. — JENNIFER HAZARD
For an indie bookstore, simply being open since 1987 is an achievement, but Briar Patch Books won me over last winter when proprietor Gibran Graham looked at the comic my son had picked out, looked at the stuffed alligator tucked under his arm, then recommended an alligator-themed graphic novel that’s now one of our household favorites. The venerable Bangor shop carries books for adults too (it expanded to include them a few years back, after long specializing in kids’ titles), and the staff offers the kind of personal, attentive recommendations that only the best community bookstores can — because the algorithms can’t see your stuffed alligator. — B.K.
As a home editor, I am always intrigued by artists’ spaces. So when an artist curates her own home-goods and gift shop, I’m prepared to be smitten. Jennifer Judd-McGee’s Swallowfield, in Northeast Harbor, doesn’t disappoint. From its seafoam-painted wood floors to shelving tucked beneath whitewashed rafters, the tiny space is packed with Judd-McGee’s intricate papercut works — on prints, notecards, trays, and linens — and pieces from the mostly women-owned businesses she selects. Among my favorites: layered mixed-media works by Southwest Harbor’s Keri Kimura and hand-thrown “superstar” mugs emblazoned with luminaries like climate activist Greta Thunberg. — SARAH STEBBINS
OUR PICKS: ECLECTIC RETAIL
Portland-headquartered Sea Bags has established a national footprint selling handbags made from upcycled sailcloth (plus clutches, totes, and luggage). But the brand’s other 38 locations pale in comparison to the new flagship on Portland’s Commercial Street, two blocks from the workshop where the products are stitched up. The 2,500-square-foot store is just plain fun to shop, decked out with recycled shingles, buoys, and lobster traps from all over Maine, and it’s big enough to hold every last piece from the maker’s collections, along with new pieces and collaborations — for example, handcrafted furnishings made with South Portland designer Maine Casual. — ALEXANDRA HALL
Maine’s best new vinyl store is Bangor’s Vinyl Cantee, which has listening stations among the crates of classic and progressive rock, world music, jazz, funk, and hip-hop. Owner Chris Tierney is an experienced electronic technician and drummer, so the sound at the stations is impeccable. Shoppers can also find new and refurbished turntables for sale, and Tierney offers repair services. Coming soon: an on-site café serving coffee drinks, ice cream, paninis, and crepes. — J.H.
With its 2002 move from Orono to Bangor, the UMaine Museum of Art established a cultural anchor in a downtown building that once housed a Sears-Roebuck. Thanks to a $1.3 million gift from former UMaine educators Donald and Linda Zillman, the freshly renamed Zillman Art Museum is growing again, with five new galleries opening this month to further showcase the collection of more than 4,000 largely contemporary works by Hopper, Picasso, Warhol, and others. Rotating exhibits also push boundaries, sometimes literally: Sidney Russell’s huge canvas hiking boot, on view this month, sticks out more than a foot from the wall. — S.S.
The perfect social-media celebrity for 2021, Quincy Shah combines what is historically the least-bad thing about the internet — cute animal pics — with two of its few redeeming contributions from the past year: public-health updates and pro-vaccine campaigning. Quincy is Maine CDC director Nirav Shah’s beautiful, 12-year-old golden-retriever mix (or so the Shahs suppose — in a 20-minute podcast interview with Brunswick’s public library, all about Quincy, the voice and face of Maine’s pandemic response admitted, “We don’t know what he is at all.”). Since Quincy made his first Twitter appearance in February (on the occasion of the Puppy Bowl), the CDC director’s 20,000 followers have seen the curly-haired rescue snuggling with his plush lobsters, hanging out with the Portland Sea Dogs’ mascot, Slugger, sitting on a dock in front of a perfect Maine summer sunset, and more. The 38,300 members of the Fans of Dr. Nirav Shah Facebook group are admirers, posting pics of chance encounters, as Quincy accompanied his owner on visits to vaccination sites throughout the spring and summer. Seems no one is immune to his charms.
Media observers dubbed 2020 the “year of the newsletter,” when concise daily or weekly email dispatches became the info conduit of choice for readers “who don’t want to learn about the events of the day through the panicked channels of cable news and Twitter.” That quote is from a New York Times profile of Boston College history prof and part-time Bristol resident Heather Cox Richardson. Her Letters from an Americannewsletter reaches more than half a million subscribers, offering a summation of the day’s news (particularly in DC) often steeped in historical context. Less acclaimed but similarly indispensable is the weekly Maine’s Political Pulse, written and reported by Maine Public chief political correspondent Steve Mistler. Launched last August, as election season reached a fever pitch, it has remained, post-election, a must-read overview of goings-on at the Maine State House (and at the local level) and a digestible explainer of what the state’s Washington delegation is up to. For anyone with even passing interest in the political forces shaping life in the Pine Tree State, Mistler’s newsletter does what good media does, becoming a reflexive part of one’s routine. — B.K.
I’m a sucker for a primitive dry sink or pie safe repurposed in a modern home — my mom kept snacks in the former, and I have a kitchen corner reserved for my future Colonial dessert chest turned office-supply cabinet. One favorite hunting spot is Cornish Trading Company. With three floors and 40 vendors in an 1864 former Masonic hall, the shop is filled to its tin ceilings with early American and European furnishings, art, and textiles that aren’t overly precious — or decrepit. Longtime owners Lisa and Michael Fulginiti take pride in unusual finds, like a pair of 19th-century cast-iron doves that would look sweet perched on a pie safe. — S.S.
Once upon a time, a person could walk into F.T. Brown Merchantile & Marine Chandlery (ftbrownco.com) and pick up a fishing license, hunting license, and marriage license in one fell swoop. After more than a century in business, Northeast Harbor’s Main Street hardware store still has one-stop-shop appeal. Run by the fourth generation of the founding family, the sprawling “merchantile” is stocked with anything one can imagine needing during a summer stay: Felco pruners, a Helly Hansen raincoat, a foldable bike, skeins of yarn, children’s toys, cans of house paint — the inventory goes on and on. Quite the display of taxidermic animals too. Alas, you’ll need to go elsewhere for your marriage license. — J.V.A.
I’ve taken guests ages four to 87 on cruises to Eagle Island State Historic Site with Seacoast Tours of Freeport, and all were equally rapt. The trip to the former summer home of polar explorer Robert E. Peary embarks from South Freeport’s town wharf, and during the 45-minute trip to the island, charismatic captain and owner Peter Milholland — who spent more than 20 years as a water steward and researcher for the nonprofit Friends of Casco Bay — gives a fascinating overview of the bay’s history and ecology. On the island, there are docents to school you on Peary and plenty of trails to explore. Seacoast Tours also offers lobster cruises, tours of oyster farms, and other adventures. — J.V.A.
You’ll feel like an expert on Maine’s petite and charming little auks on a 90-minute puffin-watch cruise to Eastern Egg Rock with Hardy Boat Cruises. The tours leave from New Harbor, on the Pemaquid peninsula, the closest port to the island, and they’re narrated by naturalists from the National Audubon Society. Both the puffin and seal-watch cruises are great for kids — if conditions are right on a seal-watching trip, captains will even let young passengers take turns at the helm. — A.P.
My golf skills are, um, subpar, but the scenery at Mount Kineo Golf Course nonetheless makes it one of my favorite places. Accessible only by ferry (or your own boat), the course starts off with stunning views of Kineo’s flint cliffs, winds around toward Pebble Beach, on the mountain’s back side, then finishes on the peninsula bordering Kineo Cove, dotted with cute cottages (extra obstacles for inexpert players like me). The nine-hole course has some challenging terrain, including sections of tall grass and water to play over, but its beauty makes it a worthy destination for pros and noobs alike. — A.P.
OUR PICKS: FAMILY
The new, 30,000-square-foot, $15 million Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, at Portland’s Thompson’s Point, improves upon everything your kids or grandkids loved about the old downtown location. The theater, formerly a modest stage in the basement, is now a state-of-the-art, 89-seat performance space that can welcome professional touring shows. New exhibits include a maker space where staffers guide kids in rudimentary woodworking and a seven-tank Maine watershed aquarium where aquarists introduce visitors to native species, from frogs to trout to sea stars. The real hit of our visit was the interactive Go With the Flow exhibit, part of a whole floor devoted to STEM activities, where Goldbergian spouts and waterwheels demonstrate physics and fluidity by moving water and plastic balls in unexpected ways — and soaking most of the pint-size scientists around the water tables. The pile of rain jackets and towels on hand is typical of the new museum’s attention to detail. — B.K.
Left to right: Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. Photograph by Séan Alonzo Harris. Troll courtesy of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
Environmental-art buffs know Danish sculptor Thomas Dambo as a preeminent recycled-materials artist. Scandophiles know that trolls, in Nordic myth, are links between nature and humans. But you don’t need to know either of those to fall in love with the new Guardians of the Seeds at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Created by Dambo from reclaimed wood, the five newly installed, gargantuan trolls lurk in the wooded trails winding through gardens. They’re a blast for kids and top-notch Instagram fodder. They also have lessons to teach, with accompanying panels encouraging care for Maine’s forests and other ecosystems. — A.H.