The End Of Eating Out

In Stonington, Maine, the Harbor Cafe is a bedrock of the downtown business area. During the winter, it’s typically the only restaurant open on Deer Isle. It serves a great menu of classic diner fare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with many chowders, stews, fish dishes, lobster rolls, and other classic New England favorites mixed in. It’s a great place to go for a glass of Allagash White and a bowl of haddock chowder (with extra oyster crackers and hot sauce, of course) and, if you’re up to it, a piece of one of their great, homemade pies.

But now the local newspaper is reporting that the Harbor Cafe is in danger of closing. Thanks to the coronavirus, its revenue have been cut by a third this year, and it still has to pay rent, and water, and the other costs of running a restaurant business. As a result, the Cafe is in danger of closing, which would cost the downtown area an iconic business and eliminate 12 jobs on Deer Isle. A former employee has started a Facebook fundraising campaign to try to help the Cafe stay in business.

The Harbor Cafe is not alone in its struggles to survive a business-crushing global pandemic. CNN reported this week that 17 percent of America’s restaurants have closed — about 110,000 restaurants in all. We’ve seen closures on the restaurant row on Gay Street and elsewhere in Columbus, and the CNN story reports that the news for those of us who like to dine out from time to time may get even worse: a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association found that 37% of respondents say it is “unlikely” they will be in business in six months unless things change.

In short, an economic disaster is happening right in front of our eyes — although many of us, keeping to our snug coronavirus cocoons in our houses, haven’t really noticed it yet. The shutdown orders, the changing instructions from health officials, and the fear that has been generated is decimating an important small business sector and causing a loss of jobs that won’t come springing back if and when a vaccine gets here. 100,000 restaurants aren’t going to magically reopen when the “all clear” is finally sounded.

I don’t like the idea of Stonington, Maine, without the Harbor Cafe, and I don’t like the idea of an America without a rich smorgasbord of restaurant options. If you agree with me, I urge you to get out to your local restaurant of choice, have a hearty meal, and maybe splurge on that piece of pie, too. Stimulus packages are nice, but what restaurants really need right now are full dining rooms.

Edited to Add: Just to make it clear, I’m not suggesting that people disregard governmental orders or flout social distancing norms. Most of the restaurants I know of (including the Harbor Cafe) have implemented social distancing in entrance and egress rules, creating distance and/or putting up barriers between tables, masked staff, and other measures to make dining out as safe as possible. And if, notwithstanding the safety measures, you just don’t feel comfortable dining in, carryout is always an option to help support your local restaurants.

One Last Lobster Roll

Our time in Stonington is rapidly drawing to a close. After more than four months of working remotely from the salty shores of the Penobscot Bay, we’ll soon be heading back to the Midwest.

When a very pleasant sojourn is ending, it’s important to lock in those memories about things that make a place special. That means large gulps of salty air on morning walks, and feeling foggy mist on your arms and face, and touching rough granite rocks, and hearing a few more locals talk with those unique Maine accents. And of course it means a lobster roll, too, because lobster is one of the flavors of Maine.

Fortunately, the Harbor Cafe in Stonington makes an exceptional lobster roll: a split-top bun, toasted and lightly buttered, loaded with fresh lobster in a light sauce. You get heaping amounts of lobster with every crunchy bite. We headed there for one last lobster roll yesterday, and got something to savor.

Eating Out (Again)

Last night, to celebrate the end of our 14-day quarantine, we went out to eat at the Harbor Cafe. It was our first dinner out in three months.

It was a little weird, being served by masked wait staff, but the restaurant had erected plexiglass barriers between booths and had implemented procedures to address social distancing, including having a designated “in” door and “out” door to ensure that people don’t bump into each other. And patrons are required to wear their masks until they are seated.

The masks and procedures made it a different experience, but it was a great pleasure to be served a hot meal and an ice-cold beer again. I got the fish and chips, and can honestly report that french fries truly are a revelation after a three-month respite.

We enjoyed our meal and gave our server a hefty tip. Working in a mask can’t be fun, and waiters and waitresses still have to make up for their shutdown period. We all should be generous with the people whose jobs were closed down due to the coronavirus.

Pie De Resistance

In French, the piece de resistance is the most important or exceptional feature of something. At the Harbor Cafe in Stonington, Maine, it’s really the pie de resistance — because no meal is complete without a piece of homemade pie for dessert. Our favorite is the coconut cream pie, which is light as a feather and filled with crunchy coconut. It’s the perfect end to dinner.

Trying To Read The Table

The tabletops at the Harbor Cafe in Stonington make for intriguing lunchtime reads.  They’re laminated navigational maps of the peninsulas, islands, and inlets in the surrounding area.

Looking at the tabletop map, upside down, I get a dim sense of what it must feel like to be unable to read — knowing that the lines and dots and swirls and numbers must mean something important, but not having the slightest idea exactly what is being communicated.  I get that the numbers must indicate depths of the water — am I right on that? — but do all of the little dots indicate outcroppings of some kind?  Does the use of shading have some significance?  And what about the squiggles and lines that appear at seemingly random points?

One of these days, Kish and I hope to take a class that will allow us to rent and then pilot a small boat in the waters off Stonington.  When that happens, I’m going to have to pay special attention during the map reading segment.

Truly Homemade

We stopped for lunch today at the Harbor Cafe in Stonington. Everything on the menu is homemade, from the chowders to the burgers to cole slaw to the fish dinners. We ended our meal with this piece of devil’s food chocolate cake with raspberry icing that made both a bold culinary and a bold artistic statement. The cake was dark and moist, the icing was tart and chock full of fresh raspberry bits . . . and who could resist the color combination?