By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
[H]ow does a new chef put his own stamp on a beloved small-town institution?
Very carefully, says Brian Beggarly, who with his wife, Molly Eddy, purchased Camden’s popular breakfast and lunch spot, Boynton-McKay Food Co., a year-and-a-half ago.
“I came in with a notepad full of ideas to change the menu, and then I realized that would be insane — I would literally go out of business,” says Beggarly, whose credentials include stints at Primo, Natalie’s, and Hugo’s, three of Maine’s finest restaurants.
Beggarly has introduced his own creations so stealthily that many regulars didn’t even notice that the place had changed hands until it was modestly (and dare we say courageously, given the fierce affection for the joint) renovated last fall. Many of those dishes — like the breakfast salad with a poached duck egg, bacon, avocado, and hot-sauce vinaigrette — have since caught on so well that Beggarly dares not change them any more than he’d mess with longtime customer favorites like the Skillet Breakfasts (eggs atop veggies or chorizo, and served with home fries in a skillet).
Beggarly and Eddy are actually benefitting from (and being challenged by) locals’ fondness for two prior Boynton-McKays. The Boynton-McKay Drug Company occupied the little Main Street storefront for 104 years. Its soda fountain was a gathering place for residents and tourists alike until it closed in 1997.
The restaurant was opened in 1999 by Phil McElhaney and Susan Penner, who furnished it whimsically with arching, high-backed bead-board booths and checkerboard-tile tables, retaining the original pressed tin ceilings, Minton tile floor, and bird’s-eye-maple shelves, on which vintage apothecary bottles and other curiosities were displayed. The doughnuts and scones were baked in-house, and the familiar dishes, such as the Egg McKay (like an Egg McMuffin, but way better), had just enough flair to please both traditionalists and adventurers. In summer, customers crowded the sidewalk waiting for tables, and in 2010, the buttermilk pancakes made Food Network’s ultimate breakfasts list.
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To take over a restaurant with such a loyal following is good fortune indeed, but Beggarly, 33, admits it can be difficult to slow-track his creative urges. He was a beach bum waiting tables in the Florida Panhandle when he met his first mentor, Lawrence Klang, the sous chef at Criolla’s in Santa Rosa Beach, renowned for its Creole-influenced seafood. “One day, I realized I was serving $45 plates, but I was eating peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches,” Beggarly says. “So I asked [Klang] if I could learn how to cook fish. He was such a good teacher. I would do one day a week in the kitchen, and I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ Then I would do two days in the kitchen, and I was like, ‘This is really awesome.’ One night, the chef came out of the kitchen and said, ‘Man, that was a burner today, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I hate waiting tables.’” He asked, ‘Why do you keep doing something you hate?’”
Beggarly enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and, after externships in New Orleans and London, a friend lured him to Camden, where he got a job working at Natalie’s with none other than his old mentor, Klang. Next came stretches at Hugo’s in Portland and Primo in Rockland. In the meantime, he’d met and married Eddy, a Camden native. After their son, Avery, was born, Beggarly began looking for a gig with more parent-friendly hours. Boynton-McKay fit the bill.
Boynton-McKay’s easy-going routine has changed little. Guests still step up to the open kitchen to order from the blackboard, and they pour their own coffee before grabbing a table to await their meals. Sometimes Molly will come out from behind the counter to help a newcomer navigate the offerings, or one of the cooks may pipe up with a suggestion (“Get the tacos! Don’t even think about it — just do it!”). Gone, to the disappointment of some regulars, is the antique apothecary display, which was on loan to McElhaney and Penner. Beggarly uses the shelves to display provisions, like bags of Rock City coffee and bottles of locally made Chip’s Sweet Heat, the key ingredient in the breakfast salad’s fiery vinaigrette.
Breakfast, served all day, includes mainstays like scrambled eggs, bacon, home fries, as well as seasonal specials like this spring’s cheesy polenta with fiddleheads, pancetta, and duck egg. Beggarly runs a flexible kitchen. “The Wavos Rancheros is a good example,” he says. “Some people ask for chorizo or bacon, and others are super insistent on wanting it dairy-free and vegetarian.”
Some of Beggarly’s innovations, like the chicken tikka masala and the addictive spicy tofu fried rice, are inspired by the ethnic foods he’s been missing since he moved to the midcoast. Tacos, with fillings like slow-cooked pork with shredded cabbage and tomatillo salsa and smoked bluefish with cilantro aioli, are a recurring special.
“I would love to do a Sunday brunch — change the entire menu and do crazy brunch food,” Beggarly says, “but we’ve got to go slowly. We’re not changing everything. We’re letting people know we care.”