Big on local sourcing, the "values-based" restaurant splits the difference between folksy and frilly.
The River House patty melt, double-stacked patties and Hahn’s End Eleanor Buttercup cheese on a grilled bun.
By Brian Kevin Photographed by Cara Dolan
So the season for Maine restaurants is not off to a good start. But before long, we hope, the summer will be here in earnest and we will be making reservations and gathering around tables and raising toasts with the same fervor as during any other Maine summer. When we do, it will be a boon not only to restaurateurs and their staffs, but also to the long, linked chain of Maine farmers, fishermen, and purveyors who supply them. At River House, in Damariscotta, that chain is as long and linked as at any restaurant in New England.
When I first visited, with my wife and in-laws, it was still scarf weather, and the phrase “social distancing” had yet to enter common parlance. When we stepped inside from Damariscotta’s sleepy (in the evenings) Main Street, the snug post-and-beam dining room seemed surprisingly pubby. With its barnwood and clapboard walls, cherrywood tables and booths, and tiny open kitchen just inside the front door, the place comes off more rustic and homey than you might expect from a restaurant where, last summer and fall, you couldn’t get a table without a reservation.
Next to the bar, at the center of the room, is a mural showing the Damariscotta River, which is literally out the back door, lapping around the stilts that keep half the building from getting wet at high tide. It’s a colorful pastoral right off a Common Ground Country Fair poster — with a goat and a chicken, lupines and dragonflies — and it adds to the room’s unexpected approachability.
Why unexpected? I thought River House would be more froufrou largely because I’d seen Instagram pics of plated entrées that looked, well, really nice: Monkfish on a skewer with a shamrock confetti of beans and fennel and a Jackson Pollock squiggle of squid-ink anchovy sauce. A glistening bone-in pork chop atop a cute ceramic plate and a perfect smudge of carrot-ginger puree.
And then there’s how River House promotes itself, as a “values-based eatery,” which I read as bougie code for fancy-pants farm-to-table. Turns out it is very much the latter and not so much the former. Elegant as the plates are, they don’t run much north of a fish-and-chips platter at one of the neighboring pubs. They’re delivered by servers wearing black T-shirts. River House is a date-night kind of place, but one you can wear jeans to.
“We’ve tried to cut through the impression of, ‘Oh, it’s really fine dining,’” chef Jon Merry explained on a follow-up visit. “Well, it’s not. You can come in here and get a really good burger.”
I’ll vouch for the mouthwatering patty melt, with two thin, crispy-seared beef patties from Chase Family Farm, in Whitefield, and slices of smooth Eleanor Buttercup cheese from Phippsburg creamery Hahn’s End. The menu, which changes weekly to biweekly, is long on credits for farms and purveyors and short on entrées. There are just three or four most weeks, plus a nightly special, a few minimally adorned plates of local veggies, and some starters (standbys include Glidden Point oysters, rustic bread from Damariscotta’s Hootenanny Bread, and plates of Maine cheeses). Simplicity is the name of the game.
Price Range Starters and veggies $7–$16, entrées $16–$26.
Meat Cute Owner Eleanor Kinney met chef Jon Merry, her neighbor in Bremen, when she hired him to come over and castrate a lamb.
Big-Box Buster Kinney helped lead the successful opposition to Walmart’s bid for a Supercenter in Damariscotta in the mid-’00s. Now, she buys from Morning Dew Farm, which grows produce on the 60 acres that Walmart once eyed.
Merry prepares everything on a wood-fired grill and oven, sharing that little kitchen (40 inches between stove and counter) with a single line cook. For meat dishes, he buys and uses whole animals, and just which parts you might get varies night to night. I ordered an entrée that simply said “Chicken — horseradish & parsnip,” which turned out to be a breast and a wing from a bird raised at Tide Mill Organic Farm, in Edmunds, seasoned in salt, pepper, and thyme, then smoked atop the grill before being oven baked. It was wonderfully straightforward and succulent, as was a plate of seared scallops adorned only with mustard seed and cilantro.
“The farmers, they’re doing all the work,” Merry says. “They’re putting all this energy into providing me with amazing products. Why the heck would I want to overcomplicate it? You look at people who open a fancy restaurant, and they do all these cutting-edge, 17-step plates. It’s fabulous, and I’ve eaten like that. It’s just not what we wanted to do here.”
Owner Eleanor Kinney is a former Maine Farmland Trust board member and a founding investor in Slow Money Maine, which helps facilitate funding for farms, aquaculture projects, and other small-scale food producers. Being a “values-based eatery,” she says, means sourcing everything from the local farms and fishermen she’s long supported. (“Nothing here comes off a Sysco truck except for cleaning products,” she says.) It also means minimizing waste (two nightly buckets of food waste become compost and pig slop), offsetting the restaurant’s energy footprint with solar panels on her Bremen farm, and sustainably harvesting wood to fuel the stove (also from her farm, as well as from the nearby Hidden Valley Nature Center).
When River House opened, last July, they didn’t even source beers outside Lincoln County. They’ve since branched out a little (all cans and bottles, no draughts), and the cocktails rely mostly on Maine spirits, though the wine list is global. Out with my in-laws, I ended the night with a dark farmhouse ale, brewed 5 miles up the road at Oxbow Brewing Company, and we lingered a while over a shared dessert of chocolate pot de crème in a cozy room full of contented strangers. It was a simple pleasure, and I hope to do it again very soon.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, River House is offering curbside dinner pickup Thursdays through Saturdays. For more information, visit riverhouseme.com.