Bethel Is Experiencing a Restaurant Renaissance

And Mountain Social is case in point: creative cooking, cozy vibes, and bracing cocktails for the chilled and windburned après-ski crowd.

Halibut with potatoes and carrots at Mountain Social in Bethel
Halibut with potatoes and carrots
By Will Grunewald
Photos by Brandon Pullen
From our December 2023 issue

There have always been at least a few good spots around Bethel to warm up with a meal and a drink after a day on Sunday River’s ski slopes. For anyone who hasn’t spent time in town the past few years, though, the present culinary lineup will come as a surprise, like catching an edge while carving perfect corduroy. But instead of eating snow, you get to eat delicious food. 

The list of relative newcomers is long. The upscale Modern Barn has twice won a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Le Mu Eats moved its fusion of American comfort and Southeast Asian flavor — Reuben fried rice, for instance — from a food trailer into what used to be DiCocoa’s cafe. A couple of former DiCocoa’s employees opened Gemini Cafe & Bakery, which makes everything from delicate croissants to decadent breakfast sandwiches. Watershed Wood-Fired Kitchen serves up homemade pastas and beautifully freckled pizzas in a snug space. Michael Boland, whose nationally acclaimed Havana pushed the Mount Desert Island food scene in new directions a quarter century ago, took over the Elizabeth Guest House and Restaurant and introduced a classic menu comprising the likes of filet mignon, lamb shanks, and scallops. 

43 Main St., Bethel.
Price Range
Small plates $6–$23. Entrées $21–$38.
No Reservations
Although Mountain Social doesn’t take reservations, it does give the option of joining a waitlist via its website.
Happy Hours
Every day the restaurant is open, cocktails and draft beers are $2 off from 3 to 6 p.m.

If one restaurant typifies Bethel’s new dining scene — splits it right down the middle, with food, drinks, and ambience that mix fun and refined — it’s Mountain Social. Cody and Pavlina Gordon, opened Mountain Social last winter as a spinoff of Project Social, one of their two Bar Harbor establishments (the other is the locally beloved Leary’s Landing Irish Pub). Putting 180 miles between kitchens seems like a risk, in terms of quality control, but the cooking doesn’t suffer even the slightest. Chef Brian Weber oversees the menu at all three of the Gordons’ restaurants, and guests familiar with Project Social will recognize some of what’s offered at Mountain Social, like the smoked-trout dip or the duck tacos. Those duck tacos, especially, are a standout: tortillas griddled to the inflection point between chewy and crisp, and the sweetness and acidity of green-apple salsa verde and pickled red onion balancing against the richness of the braised and shredded duck.

Another holdover from Project Social is the salad of kale and brussels sprouts, which sounds mundane and probably a little too healthy but would in fact be a shame to skip. The kale and brussels are so finely shaved that, tossed in an earthy-sweet miso vinaigrette, the raw, fibrous greens turn remarkably tender, and sesame seeds and toasted cashews lend a nutty undertone. Some of the other best dishes, though, are unique to Bethel. Take, for instance, the beef sliders, that staple of mediocre sports bars everywhere, usually undersized and overcooked. At Mountain Social, the patties are cooked to an ideal point right between medium and medium-well, and they’re topped with crispy pancetta, smoked ricotta, tomato jam, and caramelized onions for a melding of salty, smoky, and sweet notes. The towering buns, from the local Gamut Goods bakery, look like too much bread, but they’re exquisitely airy — carbohydrate clouds, basically.

Then, there’s the halibut, a dish that would be right at home at expressly fancier restaurants, where sliders — no matter how good — wouldn’t make the menu. The fish is seared in a cast-iron skillet until it develops a lovely exterior crust, but it stays moist and flaky underneath. Schmears of zhoug — a cilantro-based Middle Eastern sauce — and a yogurt-chèvre whip work together to form an herbaceous and creamy base that complements not just the seared fish but the roasted carrots and fingerling potatoes too. 

The setting, much like the food, is relaxed and unstuffy but also decidedly nice. In the warmer months, a table on the covered deck overlooking Main Street is tough to beat. This time of year, as everyone moves indoors, the dining room and bar take on a convivial atmosphere. Walls are painted luxuriously deep shades — navy blue, forest green — and corners and brick support columns break up the space in such a way that creates an intimate feel. You could bring a date or a group of ski buddies.

Rarely does a meal so sate me that I can’t handle dessert, but even as a couple at the next table oohed and aahed their way through brown-butter bread pudding, decked out with poached apples, bourbon-maple caramel, and vanilla ice cream, I had to pass. By that point, though, I had probably drunk my dessert anyway, since the cocktails were varied, interesting, and easy to keep ordering. A particular favorite was the riff on a mai tai, topped with sweet-floral strawberry foam. I enjoyed it on an unseasonably warm fall day. Soon, I think I’ll need to see how it tastes after a day of skiing. Probably pretty good.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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