How do you know when a restaurant has really made it? Is it when that restaurant is recognized by national publications as one of the very best diners in the country? Or when celebrities go out of their way to dine at its tables? Is it when more than five-million people have been warmly welcomed at its doors? When neither rain, nor sleet nor the most stern and frigid of Maine winters can dissuade visitors?
The Maine Diner has achieved all of this and so much more. Richly deserving of all the accolades bestowed upon it, the telltale sign that it’s made it–at least from a pop culture perspective–is when it’s recognized as the restaurant after which Flo’s Offshore Diner is patterned. If you’ve never heard of Flo’s Offshore Diner, it might be because the Albuquerque Journal isn’t one of the 700 newspapers across America in which Non Sequitur is syndicated.
Non Sequitur is simply one of the most creative and honored comic strips in syndication today, winner of four National Cartoonists Society divisional awards, the most prestigious accolade in cartooning. It is creator Wiley Miller’s vehicle for sharing his wry observations about the absurdities of everyday life. There are no sacred cows in this comic strip which tackles cultural and societal issues such as politics, celebrities, male-female relationships, society’s obsession with weight and more.
His visits to Maine so impressed Miller that he created a series of characters that capture the essence of the citizenry of Maine, people who are genuine, down-to-earth and good-natured. Offshore Flo’s is set in Whatchacallit, Maine, a coastal town which also has a Clam Hut run by (New Mexicans will love this name) Brenda Santa Fe.
The fact that the Maine Diner was the inspiration for Flo’s Offshore Diner was entirely lost on me until a twenty-something explained it to me while we were in line for dinner at what may be the most popular and best known of all the famous restaurants on Maine’s Route 1. To him, it didn’t matter that the Maine Diner was perhaps the most honored restaurant in the book 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late, a celebration of the best dishes that are unique to this country.
Authored by Michael and Jane Stern who have been focusing on quirky All-American food haunts since 1977, the book describe in delicious detail, the best dishes proffered at roadside stands, cafes, street carts throughout the fruited plain. The Sterns also rank what they consider the “best of the best” among the foods described. Prominent among New England restaurants was the Maine Diner which achieved acclaim in several categories: America’s second best clam chowder, Indian pudding and “lobster blow-out” and third best lobster roll.
Long lines of hungry patrons waiting to eat at the Maine Diner are a norm, but if you think getting there early is a good strategy for getting a seat, think back on the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry visited his elderly parents at the retirement community of Del Boca Vista. Come four to six p.m., every retiree would descend upon the restaurant for the early bird special, their Wizard tip calculators on hand to compute the fifteen percent gratuity to the penny.
Wells not being a retirement community, most of the geriatric set are visiting tourists like us. That makes it only appropriate that the restaurant’s five millionth customers were locals who were welcomed by the governor of Maine. Governor John Baldacci echoed some of the sentiment that made the Maine Diner the restaurant after which a famous cartoon restaurant is patterned, saying “The Maine Diner is a good representation of the spirit of Maine.”
Launched in 1983, the Maine Diner looks much like any other roadside diner on a bustling well-traveled scenic route. A blue and white awning and battleship gray ramp and porch are the main waiting area for long queues. A long counter complete with stools, formica counters, and friendly waitresses who treat you like a regular may typify the look and feel of the classic roadside diner. Don’t let that fool you. This is a special place!
The Maine Diner is a favorite of people from all walks of life as well as media types and some celebrity glitterati. CBS sports anchor Jim Nantz even has a plate named for him–the award-winning seafood chowder with the diner’s famous lobster roll. One of the priciest menu items, the “Phantom” Platter is named for Boston’s famous restaurant critic, the Phantom Gourmet. Comprised of some of the Gourmet’s favorite items, this platter includes a cup of seafood chowder, an eight-ounce sirloin steak, two baked stuffed shrimp, five ounces of baked scallops and homemade onion rings.
Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, the Maine Diner has an amazing menu, combining all the traditional diner comfort food favorites with seafood dishes, the specialties of Maine’s cold coastal waters. Even the salad section is replete with the bounties of the sea: lobster salad, crabmeat salad, homemade marinated shrimp salad, tuna salad and shrimp salad. The only menu section in which you won’t find seafood is the dessert section, but that’s a good thing.
As with many Boston restaurants, the first thing on your table is cornbread. The deep South has nothing on New England when it comes to cornbread although we didn’t see any cracklin’ cornbread (which includes pork cracklings) at any restaurant in Massachusetts or Maine. The cornbread at the Maine Diner is excellent. It is sweet and delicious. Best of all, it doesn’t crumble when you cut it in half to slather on the butter.
Though it’s the Maine Diner’s clam chowder that was mentioned in the 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late tome, perhaps a better soup is the seafood chowder, the starring attraction of which is Maine lobster. This shimmering soup also includes steamed clams, shrimp, scallops and baby clams as well as potatoes, salt pork, butter, light cream, milk and more.
The seafood chowder is of a golden hue and has a rich, creamy and buttery flavor. The blue ribbons earned by this seafood chowder are proudly displayed behind the counter. Frankly it is better than any of the clam chowders we had during our September, 2009 eating tour of New England. It’s the type of soup you want served to you in a brimming bowl, not a little cup.
Now, the clam chowder at the Maine Diner is outstanding in its own right, but given my druthers, I’d have to go with that seafood chowder. It’s hard to consider one of the best clam chowders in New England a “Miss Congeniality,” but it really is. We might otherwise have considered the clam chowder the best we had during our week-long visit to New England.
The entree for which the Maine Diner is best known is the lobster pie, made from a secret recipe the family has passed along. Tender, jumbo-sized chunks of fresh, buttery lobster meat are mixed together with a delicious Ritz cracker based stuffing then baked to perfection in a casserole dish. What helps bind the ingredients in this scrumptious award-winning dish is tomalley, the soft, green substance found in the body cavity of lobsters. Though completely edible and thoroughly delicious, it has somewhat of a “yuck” quality to it that turns off queasy eaters.
500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late calls the Maine Diner’s lobster pie a “novel opportunity to indulge” in lobster. After having partaken of divinely inspired lobster pie, it may now be our favorite way. It isn’t quite as rich as Lobster Thermidor (a creamy cheese mixture of cooked lobster meat, brandy or sherry and egg yolks stuffed into a lobster shell), but it’s got that French dish beat. It’s the Maine Diner’s specialty.
Another specialty is the aforementioned Jim Nantz plate–the award-winning seafood chowder with the diner’s famous lobster roll served with a pickle and your choice of potato salad, coleslaw or potato chips. The lobster roll, served on a lightly toasted, ephemerally soft and delicate split top roll is absolutely delicious. It’s stuffed with oversized chunks of meat from the lobster’s tail, claws and knuckles. A small cup of warm, drawn butter is served with the lobster roll in the even you want to pick off pieces of lobster and dip it into the butter.
The Maine Diner actually offers two ways to have your lobster roll: hot or cold. Served cold, it includes a thin sheen of mayonnaise, but only enough to bind together the lobster pieces that threaten to spill out from the bun with every bite. Served warm makes the lobster the perfect vehicle for the warm drawn butter. That’s my preference and recommendation.
The dessert menu is nearly as splendiferous as the rest of the menu. Accolades galore are bestowed upon the blueberry pie made, of course, with Maine blueberries which, perhaps due to their diminutive size, pack more berry flavor than larger blueberries. The apple crisp is also reputed to be quite wonderful, but there are two desserts that qualify as “must try.”
One is the Indian Pudding, a New England dessert tradition for generations. Indian pudding is made with cornmeal, molasses, light cream, butter, brown sugar and more. It’s topped with vanilla ice cream and is served warm. Sounds simple, but the flavor is deep and delicious, though Indian pudding can be a bit of an acquired taste.
Another special dessert is the Grapenut Custard Pudding, a light, frothy and only mildly sweet pudding with a bottom crust fashioned from Grapenuts cereal. On the pudding the Grapenuts lose their characteristic crunchiness and are perhaps a bit on the soggy side, but that distinctive taste is ever so prevalent.
There are more elegant and expensive restaurants up and down the Maine coast, so the Maine Diner certainly qualifies as a value restaurant. That doesn’t mean it takes a backseat to any restaurant in terms of quality and deliciousness. It is simply one of the best diners in which we’ve ever dined, a true Maine classic now part of pop culture.
2265 Post Road (Route One)
LATEST VISIT: 23 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Lobster Roll, Lobster Pie, Seafood Chowder, Clam Chowder, Apple Crisp A La Mode, Grape Nuts Pudding