Cook’s Lobster and Ale House

An anchor for the Bailey Island community.

I’m visiting with Nick and Jennifer Charboneau two days before Memorial Day weekend. It’s quiet at Cook’s Lobster and Ale House this afternoon. A few parties of older couples sit along the edge of the dining room in one of the wooden booths. They’re laughing and relaxed, enjoying a leisurely, waterfront lunch on a weekday. “We’re excited for crazy-town to kick in,” says Nick, referring to the insanely busy season ahead.

The Charboneaus and I are tucked into one of those vintage booths as well, also relishing the momentary peace and quiet. The view includes the Bailey Island Bridge, reportedly the world’s only cribstone bridge, connecting Bailey and Orr’s Islands, and the occasional passing boat, cruising into Garrison Cove. There are tall piles of lobster traps that will soon be claimed by local lobstermen and dropped into the waters of Casco Bay. This is the couple’s third summer as owners of Cook’s, which stays open year-round. Before that, they and their two daughters had been living in northern Vermont, where Nick owned and cooked at a Mexican restaurant. Jennifer is a Lewiston native and was looking for a way to get back to Maine. Nick told her, “If you can find a restaurant for us to buy in Maine, we’ll make the move.” Her parents, Paul and Rita Dube, wanted them back in the area, too. They found the listing for what was then just Cook’s Lobster House and sent it to Jennifer, as a joke. But Nick looked it at and wasn’t laughing. “This could be a gold mine,” he told Jennifer. When they came to see the restaurant, they realized the potential immediately. They saw an opportunity for the bar area, which was previously little more than a glorified waiting area. Using Jennifer’s background in event management and catering, they discussed the opportunity to host more events, including concerts, clam bakes, and even weddings. And most of all, they wanted the opportunity to rebuild the reputation of an island institution for the people who work there and the local community. “For so many years, Cook’s has been the anchor in the community,” says Jennifer. “It provided jobs and a meeting place.”

It was a year and a half before they took possession, in the early summer of 2015. And they were smart enough to do nothing more than paint the exterior that first season. “We just sat back and watched that first summer,” says Jennifer. “We had no idea what we were walking into.” The kitchen was rundown and dysfunctional. The menu and food quality was stuck in the past, and the dining room needed to be refreshed. But they also saw a dedicated staff, which had kept Cook’s up and running the past several years. General manager Mary Coombs, born and raised on Bailey Island, has been working at Cook’s on and off for about 17 years. Her mother, Jan Coombs, has been with Cook’s for 30 years. She started as a hostess, and now bakes all the desserts, including the beloved blueberry pie and carrot cake. “Mary is really the backbone of the community,” Jennifer says. “She introduced us to everyone in town.”

During that first summer, the Charboneaus spent time talking with locals and longtime patrons. “Don’t take out those booths,” was a common refrain. “Don’t mess with the coleslaw,” was another request. While the couple understood the importance of tradition, they were also eager to put their own stamp on the place. Signaling a new chapter, they changed the name slightly, to Cook’s Lobster and Ale House. “At the end of  that first summer, our heads were spinning,” Nick says. “We knew the off-season would be busy making the changes that were needed.” When the last Casco Bay ferry left the wharf and headed back to Portland that October, renovations began.

Keeping the vintage charm and character of the place was key to keeping the community happy, but updating was necessary. Those knotty pine booths would stay, as would the big ship’s wheel chandelier hanging in the dining room. The Charboneaus did some decluttering and replaced the floors, but the dining room retains its classic Maine lobster house feel, with wood paneling and colorful lobster buoys on the wall. But the kitchen had to go. “Honestly, we were surprised it was still standing,” says Nick. “It’s hard to manage and run a kitchen when the equipment doesn’t work. We knew we had to invest in making this a safe place for people to work.”

Nick Charboneau is a hands-on guy, and he, along with a team of contractors, got to work quickly. They gutted the kitchen and replaced equipment. Then they went to work on the bar. Nick chose a 16-foot raw edge slab of pine as the centerpiece, sanded smooth and shiny. They repurposed wood from the old bar into shiplap on the walls. Large windows now open to the breeze and salty air of Harpswell Sound. A door at the far end leads to an outdoor deck, the most popular and inviting spot on a summer day. There’s live music by local artists every weekend, adding to the festive atmosphere. They reworked the bar program as well, with the help of bar manager Kevin O’Kelley. There are now 15 taps of local craft beer (and one dedicated to those who prefer Bud Light) and a cocktail menu that’s fun and creative. The Bloody Mary, with a splash of Allagash White, an Old Bay seasoning and salt rim, and a whole lobster tail garnish, is the stuff of legends. “It’s your drink and appetizer in one,” O’Kelley says.

This year, the Charboneaus have made perhaps the most significant change: a new chef. Jean Paul (JP) Dubois has taken charge of the kitchen. He brings previous experience from the Frog and Turtle in Westbrook, along with skills and technique he picked up from a stint at Le Bernardin, New York’s most celebrated seafood restaurant. “Jen and Nick gave me free rein,” he says, “but I knew not to mess with certain things.” Dubois has elevated old favorites, like the best-selling fried haddock sandwich. The crispy fish is now served on a buttery brioche roll, and a swipe of housemade horseradish sauce brightens the mild favor. The scallops, perfectly seared, with herb butter and lemon beurre blanc, illustrate Dubois’s expertise. “He’s really become a culinary mentor,” says Jennifer. “There are a lot of young people in the kitchen who are looking to improve their skills.” New dishes, like a seared tuna cooked so that’s it’s still rare inside, have joined the menu under Dubois’s leadership. The tuna is served with a fresh tomato salsa, slightly spicy with the addition of banana peppers. “It’s been night and day how the kitchen is  run from last year,” Jennifer says. “There’s a new level of confidence in the staff. JP has brought much-needed structure and guidance. He’s done so much in such a short period of time.”

But chances are, you’re here for the lobster. Every lobster steamed, baked, broiled, and picked at Cook’s comes from the lobster boats that use the adjacent wharf as their home base. You can watch the boats as they come in and unload their catch. There’s a big tank by the kitchen, and lobstermen will stop in to check what’s needed. Start your meal with lobster wontons with sweet chili sauce, or hot, creamy lobster dip. Whether you prefer to go with a simple boiled lobster, lobster mac and cheese, or lobster stew, you’ll find all the options and more on Cook’s menu. The classic lobster roll is of course a favorite: traditional, lightly dressed with mayo; or hot, sautéed in butter. If you need even more lobster, go for the jumbo roll—any style, just bigger. The lobster BLT makes a fine and delicious alternative, should you need one. And fresh-cut fries with any sandwich are always the way to go. Some locals have their own traps and can easily dine on lobster at home, so they prefer to order non-seafood items. There are several options, including burgers, salads, and cheddar-ale meatloaf. Recently, I learned about a secret, off-menu item for customers in the know: Mary’s fried chicken sandwich, named for Mary Coombs. Tell them you heard about it here.

Time and time again, each person I spoke to sung the praises of the Charboneaus and their efforts and attitudes toward the community. “When I first met with Nick and Jen,” says Mary Coombs, “they were more concerned about how people would take to them. Cook’s has always been like a family, and the Charboneaus truly care about people. It’s family first, business second for them.” The restaurant frequently hosts fundraising events, and for many years, Coombs has organized a benefit for Harpswell’s heating assistance program, ensuring that every family in need of assistance gets its oil tank filled. The Charboneaus stepped in to help, just as they have also done for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association Relief Fund. “We’re a working waterfront,” Jennifer explains, “and we want to support the community that’s been so supportive of us.” There’s a calendar full of events just for fun, too. The point of land just beyond the restaurant has become a concert venue on several occasions, sometimes with fireworks, always with a rollicking crowd in search of a good time. Jennifer looks forward to expanding those events.

The couple’s thoughtful commitment to maintaining tradition, paired with their eye for potential and possibilities, helps assure the continued success of this Bailey Island institution. The energy and ideas that the Charboneaus have brought to Cook’s is like a cool summer breeze: refreshing, uplifting, and welcome.