Best Small-Town Downtowns: South Berwick

In Sarah Orne Jewett's old hood, some slick new hangouts and plenty of mom-and-pop appeal.

By Adrienne Perron
Photographed by Elle Darcy

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.

Inn Focus

The State House Inn, one of several restored landmarks in downtown South Berwick.

Unexpected historic details are part of downtown SoBo’s appeal. Consider the wallpaper at Dufour, the restaurant at the handsome new Stage House Inn (224 Main St.; 207-704-0516). Nearly 200 years old and restored before the inn opened last November, the panoramic wallpaper depicts Italian street scenes and is the work of French designer Joseph Dufour. The bones of the 20-room inn date to 1798, when it was a private residence, then a tavern once visited by President James Monroe. The Second Empire–style building is a landmark as well as a needed piece of infrastructure, says Jim Flynn, who handles business development for both the inn and the nearby Links at Outlook Golf Course (310 Portland St.; 207-384-4653), which is owned by the same developer. “We have a strong wedding business at the golf course, but there’s no place for 100 guests to stay in town,” Flynn says. “This property was an opportunity for us to lodge folks and also fix up a run-down building downtown.”

The Stage House Inn’s bar and restaurant, Dufour, includes original details like the ornate tin ceilings. Brunch items include a vanilla-bean French toast served with raspberry compote and amaretto syrup. In addition to its indoor dining room, bar, and parlor room, Dufour offers outdoor seating.

Small Pharma

Mom-and-pop drugstores were once Rockwellian Main Street staples, but fewer than a quarter of the country’s pharmacies are independently owned these days. South Berwick Pharmacy is one of them, anchoring downtown since the 1970s, filling prescriptions and offering a small selection of gifts. Owner Kate Hansen says Berwickian loyalty has helped the downtown buck the trend of chain drugstores. “I think people feel a sense of pride,” she says. “Our older customers reminisce, as they’ve been coming here for many years. We’ve been supported in a way that we can maintain our presence here — people here are proud to keep that downtown feel that’s dwindling in Maine.” 289 Main St. 207-384-2772.

Odd and Eaten

Odd Fellows Tavern, housed in an 1845 building originally built for Maine’s first chapter of the fraternal organization.

“It seemed only natural to go with the name,” says Gregg Sessler, chef-owner of Odd Fellows Tavern (18 Portland St.; 207-704-0382), housed in an 1845 building originally built for Maine’s first chapter of the fraternal organization. Bold letters on the building’s weathered brick facade still declare “Odd Fellows Block.” “The Odd Fellows fraternity encourages community, which seemed like a good fit for us,” says Sessler, who also owns the Portsmouth tapas bar Cava. “We wanted to create a meeting place.” When he opened the pizza-and-pub-food eatery last year, Sessler was surprised by how busy a hub South Berwick could be, with its downtown straddling the intersection of busy Routes 4 and 236. “It makes the town so vibrant,” he says.

Around the corner, Engrain (279 Main St.; 207-704-0624) is a counter-service spot for salads and grain and protein bowls. Until last year, owner Jennifer Fecteau had run the farm-to-table Thistle Pig gastropub in the same spot. She was planning the Engrain concept as a second eatery before the pandemic, then pivoted. When it opened in 2014, Thistle Pig marked the first time South Berwick made the map for many Maine and New Hampshire foodies, and Fecteau says new dining options still help lift the downtown. “South Berwick business owners are in it together,” she says. “Everybody does better when we all do better. It’s not about competition — it’s about creating more reasons to come here.”

Art and Soul

Jennifer Parker, author and owner of A Little Something, holds up a copy of Think But a Thought!, her new children’s book.

When she opened A Little Something in 2017, Jennifer Parker knew she’d have no problem stocking it with locally made crafts, gifts, and art. The shop’s shelves are filled with jewelry, ceramics, artists’ prints, paper goods, and more, and Parker says her warm relationships with regular shoppers are a sort of throwback. “We know our customers by name. We have wish lists for husbands and wives during the holidays,” she says. “It harkens back to the good old days, when shopkeepers really knew their customers. It brings back human connection to the shopping experience and provides a reason to linger — and to stop in the first place.” 11 Paul St. 207-704-0589.

Writer’s Retreat

A constant in the midst of decades of downtown metamorphosis, Sarah Orne Jewett House is where South Berwick’s favorite daughter was born, in 1849, and where she died, in 1909. The house that inspired her novel Deephaven was built in the 1700s and is now a museum, smack in the middle of downtown. As an adult, Jewett inherited the place and added wall coverings and carpeting, but she and her sister chose to preserve much of its history, particularly the Georgian architecture. “There are so many reasons to preserve a historic house, and the layers of history in a home provide us with insight into the past and our own lives,” site manager Marilyn Keith Daly says. Jewett loved South Berwick, and Daly believes that, for all the changes, the townspeople Jewett wrote about well over a century ago still seem like people you’ll meet downtown today. 5 Portland St. 207-384-2454.

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