When Old Vines was put up for sale a year and a half ago patrons panicked. The future of this favorite spot in the heart of Lower Village looked uncertain until Rick Taranto and Jon Ellms stepped in. “When the restaurant was going to close, it was like a death watch,” says Taranto. “Then there was a lot of excitement when we announced we were taking over.” Neither are restaurateurs but that didn’t stop them. This will be their second season of ownership and they seem like naturals. Assistant manager Janai Schafer, who stayed on during the transition, says, “Rick and Jon were the only people I would continue to work here for. I knew when they took the restaurant over it would be at a more elevated level.”
Schafer is right about that. Changes have been made that bring Old Vines from primarily a wine bar to a full-service restaurant. The size of the kitchen has doubled with food prep now downstairs instead of by the bar. “This really gave us an opportunity to expand the menu,” Taranto explains. They’ve kept some of the perennial favorites with a few tweaks and added some new wine-friendly dishes. The emphasis is on small plates that can be ordered for the table, such as the roasted chicken meatballs in a light and fragrant pomodoro sauce with a sprinkling of pecorino and fresh basil. The tender meatballs, served with crunchy garlic toast, have quickly become a favorite with diners. “Simplicity is our main focus,” says chef Joel Souza. “We just want to make sure everything on the plate is a rock star.” A broiled hangar steak is already sliced, which makes sharing easy, and it is accented with chili oil and orange gremolata and accompanied by an outstanding slice of potato rösti. There’s a varied list of snacks and starters, too, including a beautiful plate of marinated mushrooms with pickled onions and crumbled goat cheese.
Even though the restaurant has wine bar in its name, Taranto says, “People know us around town for our craft cocktails.” Tonight’s special is the Far East created by bartender Charley Zimmerman. She mixes Tito’s vodka with Domaine de Canton, a ginger-flavored liqueur, jasmine green tea, and lemon simple syrup for a smooth and subtly spicy drink. The bar also offers whiskey and scotch flights. The by-the-glass wine list was chosen after Taranto and the staff participated in a blind taste test of 85 wines. They favor small batch, family-owned vineyards and seasonal changes are made to the list. A different wine is featured every day at happy hour for just $3.50 a glass.
Taranto has made some cosmetic changes to the 1850s barn as well. Slate blue paint now complements all the worn wood, and inviting pillows line the long bench against one wall. New lighting over the curved bar adds a nautical element with rustic knotted rope and Edison-type bulbs. The second floor is currently under construction; the owners are creating a new space that will have a separate bar, prep kitchen, and entrance. It will be used for overflow from the restaurant and private events (the latter being an industry Taranto is intensely familiar with as he is also the owner of Details Event Staging). Taranto and Ellms plan to have the space finished by the end of May, in time for the Kennebunkport Festival’s opening event. “It will be a great chance to show off our town to new people and it’s really the season kick-off,” he says. Taranto is designing with Nicki Bongiorno of Spaces Kennebunkport and the loft will represent a modern interpretation of an historic barn with rustic elegance.
Taranto and Ellms are looking forward to their second season as restaurant owners. They opened up a little earlier than usual this year, “because I wanted a place to eat and drink,” Taranto says. Warmer weather will bring a lively patio scene with regulars from the area and plenty of guests from away, too. “This is definitely our passion and joy,” says Taranto.
Old Vines Wine Bar | 173 Port Rd. | Kennebunkport | 207.967.2310 | oldvineswinebar.com