Lean in a little closer. I want to give you a wonderful tip to help you through the Maine winter.
Cliff House, recently renovated from top to bottom, is fantastic in the cold. I hesitate to use the hospitality label “off-season” because once you spend time at Cliff House in the winter, you may come to think of it as the best time of year. Roaring fire in a double-sided stone fireplace? Check. Cushy sofas and chairs surrounding the fireplace? Check. Jaw-dropping views through enormous windows, perfect for weather-watching? Check. And warming food and drink to feed your winter cravings? Oh yes.
The historic resort on Bald Head Cliff in Cape Neddick first opened in 1872, has undergone a complete transformation. The lobby now opens to a dramatic living room with, at the moment, a 30-foot Christmas tree decked out in silver balls, red flannel ribbon, and birch bark decorations. The stylish décor is subtly nautical, with lots of navy blue and red touches on neutral backdrops, clean lines, and comfortable seating. On a recent Saturday afternoon, there were couples sipping wine by the fire and others reading quietly by the windows. If you can get beyond this inviting space, you’ll find yourself at the Tidemark Terrace bar and the Tiller Restaurant. The bar area is only separated from the dining room by a low wall, so it feels like one large room. It’s a handsome space, with a marble-topped bar, glass-front cabinets, and a communal table by the fireplace. With two walls of windows wrapping the restaurant, there’s an ocean view from every table, showing off the vista of open ocean, cliffs, and rocky shoreline.
Executive chef Rick Shell is out to change the way people think about a hotel restaurant.
He likes the challenge of getting hotel guests to stay on the property by offering food that’s exciting and surprising, on par with the magnificent setting. He was working in Washington state when he was offered the chance to come to Maine and be part of the new Cliff House from the start. The menu he’s developed is imaginative, with a dedication to local ingredients. Broiled local oysters are dressed festively with cranberry-horseradish butter, and a pan-seared Arcadian fish has crispy skin and is tender with a hint of spiciness from chorizo. Both dishes are plated beautifully, but the two chef’s boards that arrive at the table are gorgeous, extravagant in color and texture. The Farmers Picnic board is anchored by a pool of vibrant fuchsia beet hummus, then surrounded by piles of fresh berries and house-pickled vegetables. The meat and cheese board is equally as appealing, artfully arranged with local cheeses and specialty meats, such as spicy tasso ham and speck. The Tiller also offers a weekday Chef’s Tasting Series with three courses and two glasses of wine—an excellent value at $36.
If your style leans more towards lobster rolls and burgers, there’s a special place for you at Cliff House as well. Nubb’s Lobster Shack is at the opposite end of the resort, by the outdoor pool and year-round hot tub, and it’s a “shack” in name only. Just like at the Tiller, no detail is overlooked. Stylized picnic tables welcome larger groups, and lighting is creatively crafted from lobster buoys. There’s a rustically good-looking bar that faces the ocean and garage-type doors that roll up in the summer to let in the breeze. The menu, carefully written on a chalkboard by the counter, is made up of classic Maine favorites, with the focus on the state’s famous seafood. Three kinds of lobster rolls are offered: the traditional with mayonnaise, a brown butter version, and a “daily creation” that allows the cooks to play around with flavors. All are served in red baskets, on perfectly toasted and buttered rolls, overflowing with fresh lobster meat. Lobster hush puppies are a delicious novelty, with a side of honey chili aioli. This is the hang-out-with-your-buddies spot, bring-the-kids-for-foosball-and-clams spot, and your new favorite place to watch the Patriots play. Whenever Brady and the boys play, lobster rolls are half price, and when they score a touchdown, it’s free whoopie pies for everyone. As Shell says, “This is where the fun is.” He tells me that wedding groups will often rent out the whole place for an after party with live music. Nubb’s is only open on weekends during the winter, but it’s perfect for a taste of summer when we’re missing it most.
Cliff House “is about all the senses,” says Shell—looking through the glass at the ocean, hearing good music, feeling the warmth of a real wood fireplace, tasting fine food. Being wrapped in the luxury of all that and more is a happy way to spend a winter day.