Cut Above the Rest
With an expansive pub menu and a butcher shop, Backstrap Bar and Grill has something for everyone
Heidi Donovan and Tony Rossi had been running the Coplin Dinner House in an old farmhouse on Route 27 in Stratton for five years when they decided to try something new, just down the road. With a third partner, Virgil Brown, they converted a vacant former diner on the town’s Main Street into a pub with a retail operation selling meat and seafood.
The menu at Backstrap Bar and Grill, which opened in December 2018, is more democratic than the fine-dining fare at the Coplin Dinner House. From smash burgers and pizzas to falafel pitas and ramen, Backstrap’s offerings cover enough ground to satisfy anyone looking for an affordable, well-executed meal. With Backstrap’s large bar and booth seating, the vibe is more lively than at Coplin. “I wanted to do something different, someplace where you can turn up the music a little bit,” says Rossi.
The restaurant attracts visitors from Sugarloaf, which is less than 15 minutes away, and Appalachian Trail hikers stopping at the trail crossing on Route 27, along with others drawn to the region’s outdoor recreation options. “Stratton has become more of a destination on its own,” says Rossi. “We’ve got a lot to offer up here, with all the boating and hiking and snowmobiling.” But he says the bulk of the customer base is made up of year-round locals.
On a Friday summer evening, my wife and I sit at one of the handful of outdoor tables along the southwestern edge of Flagstaff Lake, near where Stratton Brook feeds into the lake. Our sangria, made with rosé, brandy, and triple sec, is faint pink in color, slightly tart, and dry—a refreshing early-evening drink. We split the buffalo fried cauliflower at the recommendation of our server, who says it’s the appetizer we shouldn’t miss. The crispy-yettender cauliflower covered in a rich buffalo sauce and topped with blue cheese dressing and crumbles confirms the server’s assessment.
We each order a sandwich and are planning to order more, until we see the size of dishes (we should have been tipped off by the menu category: “Big Sandwiches!!”). My wife’s chicken Parmesan sub is cut in two halves, either of which could be a meal on its own, and the breaded chicken is smothered in a flavorful red sauce and cheese, all atop a wide parchment-lined basket piled with fries. My Nashville hot chicken sandwich is served on a deli roll with tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and—crucially— bread-and-butter pickles. The chicken, which was soaked in buttermilk before being breaded, fried, and tossed with a fiery spice mix, has a perfectly crispy outer layer that crunches with each bite.
Next time I visit I plan on ordering the ramen, an unexpected menu addition for a western Maine pub. The broth—the foundation of any bowl of ramen—is based the one David Chang makes at Momofuku in New York City, Rossi says. Unlike some broths that use bonito flakes (dried, smoked fish) to provide the umami flavor, Backstrap’s ramen broth uses bacon to get a smoky taste. Rossi says he starts by making a broth using whole chicken, to which he later adds mushrooms, seaweed, bacon, and chunks of pork then cooks “low and slow.”
Rossi says another popular menu item is the pizza, which has a crispy crust and is cooked until it’s almost burnt. “I tell the guys, Burnt is no good; almost burnt is perfect.” On Mondays, along with its regular dishes, the restaurant serves a barbecue menu: smoked and pulled chicken and pork, smoked brisket, baby back ribs, and smoked beef sausage plus sides of coleslaw, potato salad, and macaroni and cheese.
The next day we stop in at the butcher shop to grab a couple of rib-eye steaks for dinner and a few frozen packages of the shop’s unusual sausage varieties: venison, boar, and rabbit. (The retail space has since been replaced with more seating, but all of the products are still available for purchase.) While there are many of the classic butcher shop offerings, there’s also a live lobster tank—a rarity in the region—and fresh and frozen fish like bluefin tuna. It’s clear that the retail side follows the restaurant’s approach. Backstrap is the kind of place that has something for everyone—and a few surprises.