Bethel welcomes Brian's to an expanding culinary scene.
When the opportunity arose for Jessica and Brian Nichols to move their restaurant from Rumford to Bethel, the decision was an easy one. Jessica’s family has a ski house at Sunday River when she was a child and they have lived in Newry for over 30 years. Brian’s parents had owned a bed-and-breakfast in nearby Rumford Point; he returned from working in the West to help out when they bought it. The bed-and-breakfast is gone, but his family still lives nearby in the winter. Besides being close to their families, the couple saw great potential for growth in Bethel. “Of course Sunday River is a huge draw,” says Jessica, “but the summer has been even busier then the winter. Both the town and the mountain put on a lot of events that bring people in from away.” Popular events include MollyOckett Day in July, the Bethel Harvestfest and Chowdah Cook-off in September, and the Sunday River Fall Festival on Columbus Day weekend, which features the North American Wife- Carrying Championship, a competition that receives international attention and draws thousands of spectators. “Then there’s the huge amount of golf groups and weddings,” adds Jessica. “At first we thought Bethel might be too seasonal, but that’s not the case at all.” In their first year, the Nicholses have established Brian’s as a restaurant that’s popular with locals and visitors. “In the winter, we see the same faces every weekend. This is their regular stop,” Jessica says. “In the summer, it’s different all the time, with people passing through for the special events.”
We’re sitting on the deck of the restaurant on Bethel’s Main Street. The day has the first whisper of fall, with some colorful foliage starting to make an appearance, and it’s delightful here in the sun. The Nicholses added the deck, lined with big containers of purple petunias and shaded with a pergola, last spring, a few months after the restaurant opened in December of 2016. The couple purchased the distinctive, 150-year-old Gothic Revival building with its gingerbread trim in August of last year, thinking it might need some minor cosmetic changes. “It was a little more than we anticipated,” says Jessica. They ripped out carpet, leveled the floor, and gutted the kitchen. When they took down the old tin ceiling, a packet of letters from the 1870s tumbled out. Jessica shows them to us, the cursive handwriting faded with age and the paper thin and fragile. She lent them to the Museums of the Bethel Historical Society for copying, and plans to do something special with them to preserve a piece of the building’s heritage. The thorough renovation has made Brian’s a warm and inviting spot, with a small bar, two cozy dining areas, and a bright, enclosed porch, along with the outdoor deck. Jessica made curtains that frame each area, softening the edges and adding an intimate touch. The couple brought some of the furnishings and much of the staff from the previous location in Rumford. What didn’t come along, though, was the menu.
“This menu is a little different, a little more upscale,” says Brian, who is also the chef. “There was more pub-type food in Rumford. There’s none of that here. There are a lot of places in town that do pub food.” Jessica chimes in, “We wanted to do our own thing.” That means elevated comfort food and attentive service. “It’s important to have those two pillars,” she says. “Everything is made from scratch, using local ingredients whenever possible.” An updated meatloaf with whiskey peppercorn sauce and garlic mashed potatoes is a favorite. “We can barely keep up with all the orders,” says Brian. “It’s all food that people love.” Chicken carbonara features a tender, roasted, garlic-glazed Statler chicken breast over smoked gouda linguine, studded with peas and bacon. It’s an unusual twist on the classic carbonara preparation, decadent and rich. The chef ’s seafood vongole is more traditional, a big bowl of linguine in roasted garlic butter and white sauce with tiny clams, shrimp, and scallops. “It’s a quick sauté,” he says, “that lets the seafood be the star.” The Italian influence found in most dishes comes from his parents, who owned an Italian restaurant in Massachusetts, where Brian started as a dishwasher many years ago.
The beautifully arranged charcuterie board includes prosciutto, capicola, and delicious house-made crackers dusted with parmesan. There’s also smoked gouda, blue cheese, fig jam, and grainy mustard, all rounded out with tangy house-pickled cauliflower and carrots. But some offerings veer from that path, such as sesame-encrusted, quick- seared tuna with Thai chili cabbage slaw. “I try to stay up on trends,” says Brian. “I read all the food magazines and follow a lot of chefs on social media.” The menu at Brian’s adjusts with the seasons, and the chef anticipates significant changes as winter sets in. “Last year we had a lamb chop dish that was very popular, and I’ll add more steaks and chops. But Maine seafood will always continue, too,” he says. “Local oysters are a big hit.” Sous chef Ryan Blaisdell also handles the baking at Brian’s, turning out tender focaccia for summer sandwiches, along with desserts, such as seasonal fruit crostata, chocolate lava cake, and a decadent cheesecake.
Behind the bar is a small wooden plaque that reads “Too Sassy for You.” It turns out that “Sassy” is Jessica’s nickname, and a conversation with her reveals that side of her personality. She’s funny and a little irreverent, warm, and easygoing with the staff. She and Kelly Glover, the dining room manager, have created a fine cocktail list and enjoy “doing research” for new cocktails. “We even use Pinterest for new ideas,” she says. The Maine Mule is a take on the classic, using blueberry vodka, fresh lime, and ginger beer, with plenty of fresh berries bobbing on the surface. Served in a traditional copper cup, it’s a light and revitalizing quaff after golf or a day on the slopes. There’s a pineapple-basil rum fizz and jalapeno-basil margarita, too, both tempting. “We try to use fresh fruits and herbs for muddling,” says Jessica. “Cocktails will change with the seasons, but the Maine Mule will always have a place on the menu.” An array of ceramic mugs hung on a wall by the bar prompts me to ask about a beer mug club. “Oh yes, and we have a wine club, too,” she says, pulling out a goblet, similar to the blue-glazed mugs. There are nine rotating taps, featuring many of Maine’s favorite microbreweries such as Funky Bow Beer Company, Foundation Brewing Company, and Geaghan Brothers Brewing. The list of wines by the glass is varied, with mostly familiar favorites but also a few surprises, all reasonably priced.
Last winter the Nicholses were so busy, there was no time to enjoy the slopes of Sunday River. “This winter we’ll know what we’re in for a little better,” Brian says. “It hasn’t even been a full year yet, so we’re still discovering how best to handle the season.” Brian’s has been welcomed warmly to Bethel’s growing dining scene. “People are eager for something new,” Jessica says. “We’re not a special-occasion place. Brian’s is good for any night of the week.” The restaurant fits in well with Sunday River’s move toward bigger and better culinary options. “The skiing culture in the U.S. is getting more interested in food as part of it,” the resort’s president, Dana Bullen, told me last year. The scene is growing, and Jessica and Brian Nichols are thrilled to be a part of it.