The crowd waiting for a table at the Black Birch restaurant in Kittery, Maine, spills out onto the street on a warm summer evening. Men in plaid shirts — the kind worn by hipsters, not lumberjacks — and artfully tattooed women mix with folks in more conventional garb, including khakis, polo shirts and pastel skirts. Inside, those lucky enough to snag a table dine on deviled eggs, beer-batter-dipped fish and chips, and chicken liver pâté topped with rhubarb gelee.
At the long, hand-hewn wooden bar, drinks are made with a variety of house-made bitters. Every half-hour or so, Al the bartender stops stirring and shaking to throw another vinyl LP on the turntable.
The Birch, as it’s known, is at the center of a culinary renaissance in this seaside community. Kittery, Maine’s southernmost town, which is best known for its outlet malls and the nation’s oldest continuously operating naval shipyard, has a new identity. With a recently opened ramen bar, an artisanal butcher shop, a soon-to-open microbrewery, as well as art galleries and a renovated dance hall that offers evenings of African dance, this formerly working-class community is suddenly the hippest place to dine, shop and party north of Boston and south of Portland, Maine.
The downtown area, known as Kittery Foreside, “has been going through a revitalization as creative small businesses pop up,” explains Michael Landgarten, who owns two successful seafood restaurants — Bob’s Clam Hut and Robert’s on Route 1 in Kittery — as well as Lil’s Cafe, a pasty and sandwich shop in the heart of the “new” Kittery. “And the local community has supported these places with gusto.”
“It’s easy to feel the excitement,” Landgarten says. “There’s a sense of validation — something like, ‘We always knew there was something really special about this town, and now it’s clear as others discover it, too.’”
To many old-timers, the town center is virtually unrecognizable. When I moved to the area nearly 30 years ago, Kittery Foreside was a gritty neighborhood that catered to shipyard workers and commercial fishermen. Today, it invites comparisons to Brooklyn. It’s a vibrant outpost full of good things to eat and drink, along with a lively art and music scene.
Landgarten and his partners bought and renovated an old building in the center of Kittery Foreside that now houses six new businesses, including Lil’s cafe (where you can find what may be the world’s best cruller) as well as a fresh juice bar called the Maine Squeeze, housed in a repurposed drive-through bank kiosk; Folk, a craft and lifestyle shop curated by a local artist; and Anju, a trendy noodle bar (featuring excellent ramen and pork buns) owned by a chef and a wine geek with a side business making kimchi.
Also new on the block is MEat, an artisanal butcher shop offering local sustainably raised chicken, beef, pork and lamb, as well as local produce, cheeses, salamis and more. (Full disclosure: I was so excited about having a new butcher shop in the area that I contributed to MEat’s Kickstarter campaign.) This is a great spot to shop for a picnic on the nearby beaches.
Speaking of beaches, grab a new, used or locally authored book from RiverRun Bookstore and head to Fort Foster, on nearby Gerrish Island in Kittery Point. The town-owned park offers extensive walking trails that hug the shoreline, as well as three small beaches, picnic areas and old military fortifications to explore.
When you get back from a day at the beach, you’ll want to check out Tributary Brewing, a small-production brewery with a tasting room that opens late this month. The look is industrial, a nod to the shipyard. The tasting room is large, and the brewery is bright and airy, with stainless steel tanks that you can see from the tasting room and from an overhead door that will eventually lead to a deck.
Brewmaster Tod Mott makes one-of-a-kind beers, like American Mild, a 4 percent pale ale, and Robust Porter, a full-flavored black ale. The Summer Saison is light, crisp and peppery in a French farmhouse style, and Gose is a German-style wheat beer brewed with a touch of coriander and a little salt to pay homage to Leipzig, Germany, where the style originated.
Kittery is also home to several new galleries. Moira Walsh Gallery, an intimate space, exhibits artists from all over the world. Basil Gorrill, a talented local painter, has a small gallery open by appointment only.
Before dinner, check out Byrne and Carlson Chocolatier for a midafternoon pick-me-up. This is a great place if you’re looking for locally made treats to bring to friends at home. Be warned: the dark chocolate and sea-salt-dusted caramels are habit-forming. And don’t miss Beach Pea Baking for crusty baguettes and ciabatta, rosemary and olive oil-flavored fougasse, amazing cookies and cakes, and a terrific selection of summer salads and sandwiches.
Where to eat dinner? Just a few years ago there wouldn’t have been much to choose from besides lobster rolls and fried clams. These days, in addition to the Black Birch and Anju, there are restaurants specializing in Indian, Mexican and creative American cuisine. Anneke Jans offers a bistro-style menu, with chef Lee Frank excelling at souffles, house-made pâtés, duck confit and local seafood.
Around the corner is Tulsi, the area’s best Indian food. Indian street foods such as spinach and onion pakora are served alongside excellent vegetable dishes, Indian breads and tandoori-roasted meats and curries. Chef Raj Mandekar has a light, fresh touch with Indian classics.
After dinner, take a walk across the street and check out the Kittery Dance Hall. African drumming, jazz, rock and dance parties are scheduled throughout the summer and into early fall. It’s a great way to work off the day’s eating and check out some serious local (and not so local) talent.
Gunst is a cookbook author whose latest book is “Notes From a Maine Kitchen” and the resident chef for the NPR show “Here and Now.”