There’s no one right way to experience Riverside Lodge & Sauna. You can go for a shvitz. You can go for a pizza. Or you can go for both. Maybe schedule a massage for earlier in the day. For the most part, owner Jennifer McMahon says, people seem to agree that it makes sense to hit the sauna before eating, not the other way around. Otherwise, there’s no playbook for how best to mash up two distinct Finnish and Italian traditions.
It took decades for this cross-cultural concept to evolve. The Oxford County landmark opened in 1976 as Dave’s Sauna, after Dave Graiver, who ran it until he passed away in 2008. His obit made note of “divorces, audits, and visits from the FBI” and described how his “freewheeling spirit attracted everyone from yahoos to yuppies.” So naturally, his sauna lodge became a local hub for hanging out, swapping stories, and BYO drinking.
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Above: When Jennifer McMahon took over Riverside in 2014, she updated the menu of frozen pizzas to feature housemade pies for the sun-dried tomato and baby arugula crowd. Bottom right: “Pickers’ circle” on Sunday afternoons welcomes anyone with an instrument (and an appetite).
After he died, his children took over, and they had the idea to start selling pizzas (albeit of the frozen, grocery-store variety) and cold beers. In 2011, McMahon stopped in for the first time to take a quick sauna and she kept coming back. An avid cook and licensed massage therapist, she was recently divorced and fresh off a 23-year run as a stay-at-home mom. Looking to strike out in a new direction, she took a chance in 2014 and bought the business.
Since then, she’s elevated the vibe from divey to cozy and the food from afterthought to thoughtful. Sprucing up the saunas, she put in two new stoves, redid flooring, and added a chimney and beautiful cedar benches. Guests can’t eat in the saunas (even though it seems like a great way to keep pizza warm), but they can bring in drinks, so my first stop is the bar for a generously poured goblet of prosecco — just to help cut the dry heat.
Inside the sauna, pouring a bit of water on the hot stones kicks up a soothing steam. After 20 minutes or so, a bracingly cold shower and a quick break in the entrance room is enough of a reset to get me back in the heat for another 20 minutes before dinner.
In the dining room, McMahon wanted to create a welcoming, homey feel, so she took out the TVs and swapped the pool table for antique wooden dining sets, which are arranged around a large, roaring fireplace. The small bar top is always busy. The china and flatware are vintage and mismatched — all secondhand finds she describes as “comforting, and not too important if they happen to break.”
Most everything on the menu is made from scratch, whether soups or potpies or pizzas. “I like to think of it as comfort food that’s a touch more glamorous,” McMahon says. “It isn’t rocket science,” she adds, when I tell her the cream of broccoli soup is one of the best I’ve ever tasted. “You just use a hell of a lot of butter and cream!”
Every meal comes with rustic French table bread, perfect for sopping up soups and sauces, but pizza anchors any meal. The dough is crispy, chewy, and reminiscent of good sourdough, while toppings run the gamut from classic (pepperoni and cheese) to creative (roasted-garlic butter, spinach, artichoke, and goat cheese).
The pizza oven can only turn out two pies at a time, but the atmosphere is so relaxing that, McMahon observes, “No one seems to mind if they have to wait for a bit.” Besides, there are stacks of board games — Candy Land, anyone? Cribbage? — if you need a diversion.
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Pastry-wrapped meatballs and chicken potpies are typical of the ever-changing comfort food menu; The dessert tray also evolves night to night, week to week, but giant slabs of cake are a constant; Massage treatments complement Riverside’s four private saunas.
Large salads arrive family-style in wooden bowls, with dressing to pass around in heavy crystal sauceboats. The spaghetti, with “Grandma Nettie’s” meatballs (Nettie is McMahon’s ex-grandmother-in-law), is perfectly executed — al dente noodles and rich, well-seasoned meatballs — and perfectly typical of the enveloping, warm feel of the place. As for dessert, there’s a tray that comes around with irresistible options: cream puffs, Guinness chocolate cake, tiramisu.
The dining crowd is all over the board, from young families to middle-aged professional types to folks McMahon describes as “living in the woods,” all enjoying the peculiar union of Nordic and Mediterranean culture. And really, it makes sense. Saunas and pizzas are, each in their own way, all about comfort. On a cold night in western Maine, there’s no place more comfortable than here.