Hotel restaurants usually depend on hotel guests. That’s pretty much baked into the business plan. But what happens when there are no hotel guests? That was the question at Front & Main, in the new Lockwood Hotel, in Waterville. Colby College owns the hotel and the restaurant — they’re part of the school’s tens-of-millions-of-dollars investment in revitalizing the city’s downtown — and needed the extra rooms for students this year, after pandemic-canceled study-abroad programs left dorms overfull. Management installed a temporary wall between the dining room and the lobby, to keep the sleekly rustic-mod Front & Main from picking up cafeteria vibes.
For executive chef Jesse Souza, there’s been an upside to the unusual arrangement: instead of hosting an ever-changing cast of customers just passing through, he’s getting to know local patrons. On a recent evening, a couple of guys in Carhartt jackets were ordering beers at the end of the marble bar, two weary parents out for a date night were sunk into the couch by the fireplace, and a group of friends celebrated a birthday at a communal table.
Front & Main
9 Main St., Waterville. 207-660-0130.
Starters $9–$18, entrées $17–$42.
In Front & Main’s lounge, a more casual menu includes options like poutine, pork-belly lettuce wraps, and honey-maple chicken wings.
Among brunch offerings, ployes — the Acadian relatives of pancakes — stand out. They’re accompanied by caramelized apples, whipped sweet ricotta, and maple syrup.
Opening Front & Main represented something of a homecoming for Souza. He grew up an hour away, in Orrington, and began cooking at the Asticou Inn, on Mount Desert Island, during summers off in college. Later, he boarded a bus for California, where he started working his way up through kitchens. His cooking picked up Latin American influences, evident in the rich mole on tender short ribs, and Southeast Asian influences, as in the sea scallops caramelized in a miso-ginger reduction.
International flair notwithstanding, Souza keeps the menu feeling local, and he relishes the process — building a relationship with his cheesemonger at Skowhegan’s Crooked Face Creamery or calling up his nearby pig farmer to ask about slaughter dates, things he didn’t have time for when he was cooking in big cities. Pappardelle noodles, made by Nomad Pasta, in Belfast, are tossed with mushrooms, foraged and grown just down the road at 3 Level Farm, and Maine lobster. The chicken that gets fried and served with spicy maple-honey sauce comes from Commonwealth Poultry, in Gardiner. The kids’ menu includes the classic Maine red-snapper hot dog.
The appetizer of pork and beans may best demonstrate Souza’s acumen for looking anew at Maine food traditions. His version uses pork belly from Broad Arrow Farm, in Bristol, and creamy yet hardy Maine Grains marfax beans. Bourbon applesauce adds a sweet punch, and German-style braised purple cabbage cuts through the richness, while a slice of New England–style brown bread soaks up all the flavors.
Any of the above dishes go well with a cocktail from food-and-beverage director John Phillips-Sandy, another Mainer recently returned home after a long stint away. His drink list is studded with highlights, like the Sunset Smoke, a mix of tequila, mezcal, and blood orange, accented with smoked sea salt. For dessert, the spiced apple cake, warm and spongy (and indiscernibly gluten-free), comes topped with a walnut crumble, Gifford’s vanilla ice cream, and a drizzle of salted caramel. It leaves a lasting sense of enveloping warmth.
Sometime this summer, after the Colby students have finished their school year and moved out, the hotel is slated to open to the public. The temporary wall separating the restaurant from the lobby will come down, and overnight guests will start stopping by Front & Main for bites and drinks. Souza says he’s looking forward to seeing the place in fully realized form. It was only a matter of time before out-of-towners discovered it anyway.