Best Small-Town Downtowns: Gardiner

Along the Kennebec River, the Water Street scene is vibrant and varied — and a comeback story.

By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Dave Dostie

Main Streets with moxie! In our July 2021 issue, we took a look at six of our favorite downtowns from all across the state — and the businesses, buildings, and boosters that make them great. Read up on more of Maine’s best small-town downtowns and start planning your next road trip.

River Town Revival

A handsome corridor of 19th-century brick buildings along the riverine crook where Cobbossee Stream joins the Kennebec River, Gardiner’s now-vibrant Water Street had a whole different vibe 20 years ago. “At that time, you would have seen some boarded-up windows and vacancies, and it was maybe even kind of dirty,” says Melissa Lindley, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, founded in 2003 to help the downtown bounce back. “I think, at that point, residents knew they needed to work together.”

In the years since, that work has included branding and incentive programs to entice new businesses, promotion of festivals and events, improvements to trails, gardens, and other infrastructure in the lovely Waterfront Park, and street-level improvements that include grant-funded upkeep of historic building facades. In 2019, Gardiner Main Street found buyers to redevelop a block of former mercantile buildings donated by Camden National Bank. For years largely vacant, the block is now filling with businesses, apartments, and gallery space.

Although the pandemic dealt Water Street a blow, it was seemingly temporary. By Lindley’s count, 11 businesses closed or moved last summer, but 11 new ones have opened since, with more on the way. “So in the long run, we’re beyond net zero,” she says. And that resilience is a testament to years of community investment in downtown. “It’s just a whole sense of pride for the community,” Lindley says. “It’s the heart of our city.”

Brunch Crawl

Clockwise from top left: the A1 Diner has been a downtown staple for generations; benedict at A1; Maegan Carves (left) and April Tourtelotte opened Ruby’s Place bakery last year.

For 75 years, locals and commuters have started the day at the counter inside the chrome Worcester lunch car at the edge of downtown. Since 1988, it’s been the A1 Diner (3 Bridge St.; 207-582-4804), serving up griddled bacon and eggs and fruit-topped flapjacks, waffles, and French toast. Good lunches and dinners too. Maegan Carves and April Tourtelotte opened Ruby’s Place (242 Water St.; 207-588-7771) right in the middle of the pandemic but quickly earned a local following for their piled-high breakfast sammies, buttery scones, cinnamon rolls, and bagels (try the rosemary sea salt). Sunday brunch at the Blind Pig Tavern (266 Water St.; 207-592-0776) is all about benedicts, burgers, and bloodies. Not ready for indoor dining? Grab brunch to go and a picnic table at Waterfront Park, then walk off the calories on the half-mile woods trail.

Left: The bar at the Blind Pig. Right: A plate of the Blind big’s bacon Brussels sprouts.

Pint A to Pint B

The beer garden at Bateau Brewing, across the street from Gardiner’s landmark library.

Maine’s continuing craft-brew wave is leaving no downtown unbeered, and Gardiner’s is bookended by two new-ish craft breweries. The western outpost is Jokers & Rogues Brewing (339 Water St.; 207-582-8811), a homey little taproom with a focus on English-style ales and a menu of generously laden charcuterie boards. Some 400 yards to the east, Bateau Brewing (149 Water St.; 207-203-0015) keeps its tap list wide-ranging, pouring Belgian-influenced wheat beers, German lagers, floral New England IPAs, and more (we’re partial to the malt-forward Colburn coffee stout, named for a Continental Army major who helped Benedict Arnold float up the Kennebec). Adirondack chairs on the back deck and picnic tables in the beer garden overlook the river, and the on-site Miller’s Pride food truck serves a tasty Cuban sandwich (and more).

Hall of Fame

Left: Johnson Hall executive and artistic director Michael Miclon. The historic theater’s facade, complete with new windows.

Four-story Johnson Hall has had a wild ride since an ambitious hotelier converted it from a livery stable to a grand ballroom in 1864. Later renovations brought in a roller rink, a third-floor opera house, a movie theater, and more before the place went dark in the mid-20th century. Since the ’90s, a small first-floor performance space has hosted concerts and community theater, but a $5.5 million renovation now underway aims to return the upper stories’ 400-seat performance hall to its former glory. “The quality of the acts we book now is amazing, but the level of artists we can pull in with 400 seats goes up substantially,” executive director Michael Miclon says. “We can do singer-songwriters or small bands downstairs, but upstairs, we can have Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.”

Work on the historic masonry and striking arched windows is already completed, but the nonprofit theater has some $1.4 million left to raise before starting interior renovations. “Its current state is an old, dilapidated movie theater, but go back, and it was beautiful,” Miclon says. “We’re going to see the gold-trimmed proscenium arch brought back. We’ll have a balcony again. It will be an elegant space.” 280 Water St. 207-582-7144.

Eclectic Avenue

Crate diving at Niche, Inc.

The third-ever location of classic Maine retailer Renys (185 Water St.; 207-582-4012) has anchored Water Street since the 1950s, but downtown Gardiner’s retail scene has trended more varied lately. At Monkitree (236 Water St.; 207-512-4679), proprietor Clare Marron curates a wonderful potpourri of pottery, jewelry, and wearables, mostly by Maine artists. A few doors down, vinyl fans flip through the stacks at Niche, Inc. (307 Water St.; 207-588-7725), which also sells instruments and all sorts of esoteric board games. Last year, Paola Buentello and her family opened El Oso (347 Water St.; 207-588-7926), a combination taqueria and gift shop and likely the only place in Maine to pick up handmade Latin American crafts, wall art, and excellent barbacoa tacos in the same visit.

Read up on more of our favorite downtowns from all across Maine.