Loads of people want to retire to quaint coastal hamlets like Harpswell, but Dawn and John Bernier had the idea to retire away from it. In 2017, they’d taken over a seaside restaurant in Harpswell, Estes Lobster House, which Dawn had managed for six years before that. A summer standby, Estes served lobster half a dozen different ways; haddock baked, broiled, or fried; and scallops, clams, and shrimp. The place kept the Berniers working like mad through the spring and summer, then closed for the off-season, giving the couple some needed respite in the fall and winter. In recent years, they started using that downtime to go snowmobiling. More and more, they found themselves headed north, where the sledding season is long.
In 2020, they bought a house up north, in the Aroostook County village of Portage. They were still a ways from actually retiring — both 50 years old at the time — but they could already picture spending their golden years there. Soon, they saw a chance to more quickly transition their lives to Portage: Up for sale was Dean’s Motor Lodge, an inn and tavern known for its hearty landlubber fare, from chicken wings to chili dogs to open-face hamburger-and-gravy sandwiches. At the same time, the lease on the Estes building was about to expire. After the Berniers bought Dean’s, they closed Estes, which had been open since 1947. Local headlines marked the loss of an “iconic” and “legendary” restaurant.
Dean’s is on Route 11, a major north-south artery, and on Maine’s statewide snowmobile trail system. Last winter was the Berniers’ first with Dean’s, and they immediately learned that snowmobile season is to Aroostook County what boat season is to the midcoast. On the first good sledding day, some 60 riders were pulled up in the parking lot 15 minutes before opening. Although she and John were caught off guard, Dawn says, they muddled through. Then, just after the busy season wound down, John died unexpectedly, of a heart attack.
“This was our happy place that we found,” Dawn says. She calls John her best friend, her partner in business and in life. Suddenly, visions of using Dean’s to transition into retirement together were gone. She took some time away over the spring, but by summer, she felt ready to jump back in. Now, she does the work of two people, running the kitchen as well as doing the bookkeeping, scheduling, and ordering. She’s driven by wanting to continue the work she and John started — she wants to make him proud. And she’s bolstered by the connection she feels with the customers and staff. “We have a little family here, and that I love,” she says.
While Dean’s still offers food familiar to longtime regulars, Dawn has changed things up and likes to mix in some specials, like chicken cacciatore with local zucchini, summer squash, and cherry tomatoes and pork tenderloin with roasted potatoes and balsamic glaze. She makes a point of finding fresh ingredients, especially when it comes to seafood — some old Estes recipes have migrated north with her. Crab rolls made a recent appearance on the menu, as did mussels sautéed with wine, garlic, red peppers, and onions.
Unlike Estes, Dean’s is a nearly year-round endeavor, even in a town of fewer than 400 full-time residents. Hunting season brings its own wave of customers, Portage Lake is a summer draw, and Dean’s is a way station for truckers hauling up and down Route 11. Mud season is the only stretch when Dawn closes the doors, in April and May. Her approach, she says, is the same all the time: “I treat people the way that I want to be treated. I make food that I would want to eat. It’s really that simple.” Recently, a friend of hers hosted a fundraiser to help pay for the covered, outdoor dining area Dawn has planned. Once it’s built, she says, it’ll be christened the Johnny B. Deck.