Dine Around the Kennebunks
With its craggy coastline and stunning views, the Kennebunks embody the feeling of New England and its classic, natural beauty. It’s also a community teeming with creativity and culinary appeal. Each spring, the Kennebunkport Festival kicks off the summer season by celebrating the chefs, winemakers, brewers, artists, and musicians who make this area special.
Like the Kennebunks, the festival is ever-evolving; it recreates itself as the talent grows and excitement builds around the event.
“It’s such a great opportunity to have this gathering in June when the town is waking up and that spring feeling starts to come around,” says Tina Hewitt-Gordon, past chair of the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce and member of the Kennebunkport Business Association. “It gives us the ability to show what this area has to offer. It’s a kick-off to all of the fun that happens in a coastal town.”
On the Friday of festival week—June 7th—many local restaurants are taking part in Dine Around the Kennebunks, and will be offering three-course tasting menus to give guests a sample of their cuisine. I’m intrigued by all the options, and before the Kennebunks gear up for the season, I make a visit to the area.
My journey starts south of the Kennebunks in Ogunquit at the renowned Arrows restaurant. For the past 25 years James Beard Award-winning chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier have remained fresh and new by creating exciting dishes using ingredients from their own land and local purveyors. This season opens with a new dining room and bar and a trolley service for cocktails and small plates.
Making my way along Route 1 toward Kennebunk I pass antique shops and roadside seafood restaurants. Since it’s not quite the busy season, the drive is quick, and I realize all the places I plan to visit are within a 17-mile radius. I begin with 50 Local in Kennebunk, a small but vibrant restaurant owned by Merrilee Paul and her husband, David Ross. Their commitment to local ingredients drives their menu, and the farms they work with and featured specials are listed on a large chalkboard column in the middle of the dining room. Directly across the street is Academe at the Kennebunk Inn, owned by husband and wife co-chefs Brian and Shanna O’Hea.
“We’re always learning in the food industry,” Shanna says. “What we love about food is there’s always something new happening.” Academe is known for the lobster pot pie, a reinvented classic that’s won them national accolades. The dish is a collaboration: Shanna makes the pastry and Brian creates the stock. The result is a comforting dish using fresh Maine lobster.
A few miles away on Port Road I stop by Old Vines Wine Bar where the wine list is spectacular, the cocktails are assertive, and the beer on tap is local. Items on the tapas menu are made with quality ingredients and executed with simplicity, like the buratta—mozzarella with a gooey, creamy center served with reduced balsamic vinegar, greens, and toasted hazelnuts. The space is friendly and warm and, like the locals, seasonal visitors return year after year. Within walking distance is Pedro’s Mexican restaurant, its large deck a gathering spot to enjoy happy hour tacos and drink specials with friends. Inside, the walls are brightly painted, sombreros hang from the ceiling, and the pescado a la veracruzana—fresh fish with tomatoes, capers, olives, and green rice—is not to be missed.
My next stop is the White Barn Inn, a five-star restaurant known for impeccable service, attention to detail, and masterful four-course menus highlighting Maine’s finest ingredients. The restaurant isn’t the only reason to visit the inn; with a number of signature treatments, the spa is a beautiful place to relax and rejuvenate. But for today, I continue with my tour and drive along Beach Avenue toward the ocean. I round the bend and am stunned by the view. People are surfing in the waves, others are walking along the road, and construction workers are busy preparing for the summer. I’m not the only car that’s stopped to gaze out over the ocean. To my left is the historic Colony Hotel. Inside the grand hotel, both the poolside Marine Room restaurant and the enclosed Porch Dining Room overlook the property’s gardens and the ocean. Guests who stay here are lucky enough to take in spectacular views over a casual lunch of crab cakes and white wine, or an exquisite lobster dinner.
This brief detour takes me a few minutes off track and in no time I’m on Western Avenue between Kennebunk’s Lower Village and Dock Square in Kennebunkport. Tia’s Topside is perched on a hill overlooking the village, a great place to eat outside and take in the sights and sounds of the area.
As I drive across the bridge into Dock Square, the town still sleeps, but in a few months this area will be alive and the streets will be filled with visitors strolling through the center of town, shopping at the boutiques, and eating at the restaurants nestled along the Kennebunk River. Hurricane restaurant, owned by Brooks and LuAnne MacDonald, opens each season when the Red Sox play their first game at Fenway Park. Like their staff that returns every year, the locals come back on opening day. “It’s a rite of spring,” Brooks says. “It’s when the snow disappears and we can look forward to the real season.”
Just up the hill overlooking the town center is One Dock at the Kennebunkport Inn. The recently renovated restaurant has a crisp, clean, nautical vibe with a large photograph of boats in local waters along the back wall. Chef Phil Reid is known for his lobster fettuccini, but locals and visitors return each year for his steamed Maine mussels with bacon, onion, chives, and a blue cheese cream. Bandaloop, located across the street, has a funky atmosphere, friendly service, and a menu filled with bold flavors and local ingredients. The restaurant inspires whimsy, as seen in the quesadilla with cheese on the outside, citrus-rubbed chiffonade kale salad, and the “eggroll” with spinach, blue cheese, and a port wine dipping sauce.
Continuing my tour along the scenic Ocean Avenue, I pass spectacular homes, inns, and resorts. New to the dining scene is David’s KPT, chef David Turin’s most recent venture. Jeff Fightmaster, general manager of David’s KPT says guests can expect an exceptional dining experience similar to David’s other locations, but with beautiful water views and a seafood driven menu. He says guests can dine at the newly renovated space wearing everything from flip flops to suits and can enjoy items from the raw bar, a steak dinner, or a multi-course, prix-fixe menu with wine pairings from David’s Opus Ten, a 20-seat restaurant within David’s KPT. And for those guests with boats, there’s a deep water dock.
“We’re really trying to create an atmosphere that’s welcoming to locals and tourists,” Fightmaster says. And with a mahogany bar, floor-to-ceiling-windows, and a wrap-around deck overlooking the Kennebunk River, guests are in for a treat.
A little further up the road I stop at the sprawling Nonantum Resort where the dining room at 95 Ocean is under construction. This year guests will find a total dining room transformation—the three-season patio is now enclosed in glass, and there’s a stone fireplace and a new bar area. Just a quarter of a mile down the road is Mabel’s Lobster Claw, a cozy family-owned restaurant that’s been around since 1953. Mabel’s is a mile from Dock Square, and a great place for a steamed seafood dinner, haddock sandwich, or piece of blueberry pie. Other attractions nearby include Stripers Waterside Restaurant at the Breakwater Inn and Spa, perhaps the most relaxing spot to lounge in an Adirondack chair with a cold beer and plate of ceviche. Ocean at the Cape Arundel Inn has a new look and a new chef—executive chef Pierre Gignac, formerly of Ogunquit’s 98 Provence, joins the inn this year offering guests a simple yet elegant French-inspired menu. Each resort boasts beautiful views and offers a unique yet distinctly Kennebunkport experience.
For a prime location to enjoy a sunset cocktail or dinner overlooking the ocean, Pier 77 and The Ramp are only four miles away at Cape Porpoise. As at their other restaurant, Pedro’s in Kennebunk, chef Peter Morency and his wife Kate are offering the Dine Around the Kennebunks menu at Pier 77.
The last section of my tour brings me a few miles outside Kennebunkport along Route 9 to Earth at Hidden Pond and the Tides Beach Club. Like Arrows in Ogunquit, these gems are not within walking distance of the downtown area, but they are certainly on my radar. Earth at Hidden Pond is a wooded paradise with a farm-to-fork menu and elegant atmosphere. And just a few miles away, the Tides Beach Club has a totally different vibe, with magnificent ocean views, beachside dining, and a seafood-driven menu. Live music and happy hour specials make this destination a perfect place for fun and relaxation.
This trip has given me a sense of the area, and a nice contrast to the vibe of the height of the season. While each restaurant, inn, and resort offers a different dining or lodging experience, they are all warm and welcoming. This summer, for six fun-filled days, the Kennebunkport Festival will tap into and feed off of that feeling of warmth and hospitality. It’s an opportunity for visitors to become a part of this community and a chance for locals to share their food, their creativity, their homes, and their way of life with others. The Kennebunks are here year-round, but the festival is a time to experience these communities in a special way. I hope to see you there.
For more information about Dine Around the Kennebunks, visit our Festival web site here.