The small brick building in the heart of Lewiston’s mill district is easy to miss if you’re not watching for it. But listen for the music and look for the sunny patio, where there might be a barbecue in full swing or a local musician playing guitar. It’s come a long way since the day the Grand Trunk Rail Station was bustling with newly arrived Canadian immigrants, giving it the nickname of the Ellis Island of Maine.
Ileshea Stowe’s great-grandparents arrived in Lewiston on one of those trains. They left Thetford Mines in Quebec, and the threat of black lung disease, to make a better life for themselves in Maine. Generations later, Stowe and her family have turned the little brick building into Rails, a restaurant serving up French-Canadian specialties, in a fun, casual atmosphere.
Stowe and her parents, Claire and Steve Dick, completely renovated the defunct building. They stayed true to its heritage, maintaining the railroad theme, in a comfortable and stylish manner. Local carpenters and artists played a part, building benches you might find in a train waiting area. The hostess station is actually an antique organ, salvaged from St. Mary’s Church, now the Franco Center, just down the street. And pews from the former St. Patrick’s Church provide additional benches for a cozy corner table. Antique accessories, such as piles of worn leather steamer trunks, accent the room. “Everything was replaced or renovated,” Stowe tells me, “except the doors and windows, because it’s an historic building.”
Stowe and her parents have lived all over the world, returning each summer to nearby Poland. Four years ago, she settled into Maine, with her own children, full time. She’s worked as a farmer and a teacher and readily admits to having no previous restaurant experience. “It’s been all on-the-job training. I’ve done everything from washing dishes and prep work to bartending, if necessary,” she says. With input from her parents, Stowe has created a menu that pays homage to Lewiston’s French-Canadian population, with dishes such as poutine and creamy creton, a traditional pork pâté served with spicy, house-made mustard. “My mother and grandmother ate creton on toast for breakfast. I didn’t come to appreciate it until I was a little older,” says Stowe. Large plates include smoked ribs and baked haddock served atop roasted potatoes and green beans. The generous portion of fish was cooked perfectly with lots of lemon, butter, and capers, making for a dish far above the ordinary, and one that I would gladly order again. A new fall menu will include tourtiere, a French-Canadian meat pie that’s a local favorite. A selection of crepes will also be added, with savory fillings such as pulled pork and chicken cordon bleu. Dessert is a must, especially the Fluffernutter Mousse, a decadent treat that tastes just like your favorite childhood sandwich, but without the squishy white bread.
Everything on the menu is “made from scratch and thoughtfully sourced,” says Stowe. “Local Motive Dining” is printed on the servers’ shirts, creatively summing up Rails’ philosophy. “We’re trying to preserve history,” she says, “but make it a little more upscale, giving each dish a little twist on tradition.”
Stowe has also come up with weekly calendar of events that keeps things fresh at Rails. There’s a barbecue out on the patio every Thursday and Friday, with a different theme and live music with local performers. Patio parties celebrate local events, such as the recent Great Falls Balloon Festival. “And every now and then we do something fun for no good reason,” says Stowe. Thursdays bring Ladies’ Night, with half-price drinks, and on Friday men are treated to half-price beer. There are six taps at Rails, all featuring local and hard-to-find brews, including beers from Norway Brewing Company, Lively Brewing and Allagash Brewing Company. “We’ve developed quite a following of beer enthusiasts,” says Stowe.
Stowe firmly believes that Lewiston is on the verge of a revitalization. Rails sits at the entrance to the Simard-Payne Park Memorial Park, a destination for recreation and events. A few blocks away, a “health hub” is being planned in one of the old mills, attracting a new YMCA and healthcare organizations. “This is such a great community,” she says. “There’s so much camaraderie, with everyone helping each other out.” Stowe and her family have created a place that’s a perfect fit for Lewiston, and visitors to the city. “It’s just a fun little spot, where people like to come and have a good time,” she says.
Rails | 103 Lincoln St. | Lewiston | 207.333.3070 | railsmaine.com