The Coplin Dinner House

Putting down roots in the Sugarloaf area.

On a sweltering day in August, Sadie, a Portuguese water dog, greets me as I pull off Carrabassett Road in Coplin Plantation. Her enthusiastic welcome is matched by that of her owners, Heidi Donovan and Tony Rossi. They are waiting for me by the barn at the farm adjacent to their restaurant, the Coplin Dinner House. Donovan and Rossi purchased the six acres next to the restaurant property in December 2016, and have now become animal farmers as well as restaurateurs. While Sadie rolls in the grass, the couple give me a tour. Just outside the small barn, there are six Boer kids, a breed of goat used for meat. Nearby five black guinea hogs, a heritage breed, are cooling off in the mud. “The goats are a little afraid of the pigs,” says Donovan. “The pigs can be very vocal.” Today, though, they seem more interested in the visitors than intimidating the goats. “I’ve never used them before,” Rossi says, “but I understand they have very tasty meat.” Another group of happy, hungry pigs in a different pen, gathered around a feeder and water tank, runs to meet the couple when they’re called. “We bring them restaurant scraps like corn husks and broccoli stalks every day,” explains Rossi. Just beyond the pigs are portable chicken coops filled with small white broilers, feasting on grass. “This will be some of the tastiest chicken you’ve ever had,” Rossi says. The couple had little farming experience before this summer, picking up most of their knowledge from books and websites. “I was in 4H as a child and showed cows, but this is very different,” says Donovan. They have a caring but business-like approach to the farm and its animals, seeing it as a natural extension of the restaurant.

Along the edge of the property, several peach trees are just starting to bear fruit. And next to the restaurant, a large vegetable garden offers up several types of squash, tomatoes, carrots, and loads of herbs. “Having this saves a lot of money,” Rossi says. “And people bring us things from their own gardens, too.” Today, Sue Donovan, Heidi’s mother, has come from Portland to work in the garden and take care of the couple’s two children. Sporting a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a big bucket, she tells me, “It’s much more fun to do someone else’s garden.” Behind us, a wooden coop houses a small flock of bantam chickens, providing eggs for the restaurant. You might find a few of the hens wandering in the yard and parking lot as well.

Fittingly, the Coplin Dinner House was originally a farmhouse, built in 1896 as part of the largest dairy farm in the area. Rossi and Donovan had been looking to open their own restaurant, on or off the mountain, when they found the house, not far from their own home. The back door was open, and as they wandered through the abandoned building, they envisioned their dream, pointing out where the bar might go and how the porch could hold dining tables. They purchased the place in 2012 out of foreclosure. Financing was hard to come by, as banks didn’t believe diners would venture to the tiny town. “In the summer, most of our business comes from Rangeley,” says Rossi. “And in the winter, it’s skiers from Sugarloaf and lots of snowmobilers. There are trails right behind the restaurant.” There was plenty of hard work before the couple could open the restaurant. Before they could even begin renovating, they had to have the building rezoned for commercial use, an excruciating, red-tape-laden process. A thorough renovation brought new life to the old farmhouse, while maintaining its charm, character, and old-house feel. Historic shades of yellow, gray, and lavender cover the walls in the two dining areas and a separate “pantry” room that seats six for private dining. The host area was previously a kitchen, and the new kitchen used to be the garage. The porch, now enclosed and winterized, has a casual feel, with oversized photographs of fresh produce by local photographer John Orcutt. The old wood storeroom has become a snug barroom, known as the Tigerlily Pub, with an L-shaped bar and a few copper-topped tables. An enormous dark wood-framed mirror nearly covers one wall, a piece that once belonged to Rossi’s mother. Behind the bar, her mantel has been repurposed as a shelf for liquor bottles. “People like to eat in here, too. It’s more diners than drinkers,” says Rossi. “The sunset is gorgeous from these windows.” The couple has been resourceful in furnishing the restaurant, buying secondhand Windsor chairs and reupholstering bar stools. The effect is comfortable and appealingly informal, making one feel right at home. There’s even a screen door that slams shut, just like it would at any farmhouse.

Donovan welcomes diners as they enter the Coplin Dinner House, but she also tends bar, waits tables, and handles restaurant operations. Rossi is the chef, a role he’s played in restaurants all over the state, including in Boothbay, Gardiner, and Portland, where he worked at the acclaimed Back Bay Grill. He and Donovan met when they were both working at Gepetto’s, a longtime Sugarloaf institution. They moved on to the Shipyard Brew Haus where, in the off-season, they ran a series of locavore dinners. “We’d have 30 to 40 people come for a six-course dinner,” says Rossi. “Everything was grown or sourced locally, and we had Maine wines. The dinners were a big hit.”

The chef uses that experience as a basis for the menu at Coplin Dinner House. “I’ve never been able to define my food,” he says. “The menu changes every day, due to what’s growing or what’s in the market. I’m always trying something new, fooling around with dishes.” Right now, he’s experimenting with slow-braised chicken shawarma. “We get you to come back by always changing the menu,” says Donovan. Rossi, with help from chef de cuisine Jeff Fraser, presents an extensive roster of dishes each night that range from escargot in puff pastry and harissa beef wontons to rack of lamb and baked stuffed lobster. The sweet and salty Brussels sprouts with crispy pancetta are a major crowd-pleaser, as are porcini mushroom sacchetti, little pasta “purses” in sage brown butter. Server Steve White tells me that diners always order extra bread just to get every last bit of that butter. The mushroom bruschetta uses locally foraged chanterelles two ways—in puree and seared on top of soft goat cheese. Toasted almonds add a pleasant crunch factor, and an orange balsamic glaze brings it all together. Another starter of grilled pork belly is tender and tempting, highly flavored with hoisin sauce and chili aioli, accompanied by crisp pickled vegetables.

Main course offerings are generous; chances are good you’ll have enough left over for lunch tomorrow. There’s an 18-ounce bone- in “cowboy steak,” served atop mashed root vegetables and piled high with irresistible fried potato sticks. The meat is fabulously flavorful, accented with a savory red wine sauce. Pasta and seafood lovers take great pleasure in the scallops carbonara, a creamy, decadent dish that includes applewood- smoked bacon. The dish is accompanied by sautéed snap peas, brought to the door of the kitchen this morning by a neighbor. “These are hearty meals for active people hiking, skiing, or snowshoeing all day,” says White. When you’ve worked up an appetite, outdoors or inside, you’re going to want dessert, and with the recent addition of pastry chef Lisa Cabral, there are some very enticing options. We share a fresh, rum- soaked doughnut, topped with house-made Baileys and Oreo ice cream and fudge sauce, a heavenly treat. And we watch enviously as a server brings out a sundae glass filled with rhubarb and blueberry cobbler with ginger ice cream, a candle stuck in the center, and wishes a diner a happy birthday. The relaxed ambiance encourages guests to order dessert, or maybe another drink, and linger a little longer.

The restaurant offers a variety of dining specials throughout the week, including a $32 twofer menu on Wednesdays and a well- priced three-course menu every evening. Thursday nights are pub nights, with half- price specials and other offers on food and drink. The pub menu is a compendium of bar favorites such as tacos, grilled meatloaf, sandwiches, and a Maine lobster roll. Local beers go well with Rossi’s pub food, with several on tap and more in cans. Small-batch Maine spirits and seasonal ingredients are used in cocktails, like the refreshing summer mojito made with Rusticator Rum from Gouldsboro blended with fresh strawberry, rhubarb, and mint. The wine list has evolved since the restaurant opened, taking customer feedback into consideration as well as suggestions from distributors and staff.

The staff at the Coplin Dinner House is made up of people who have made Sugarloaf their home for decades. “They’re all professionals,” says Donovan. “We don’t have to teach anyone to open a bottle of wine. And they know practically everyone and their grandchildren by name.” The affable White, sporting a blue Sugarloaf belt, tells me he came here in the 1960s as a schoolteacher. He then realized there was more money in working on the mountain and in restaurants, and has been doing so ever since. “The employees are a tight group,” Donovan says. “There’s no drama, no nonsense. They’re the most important part of our business.”

The Coplin Dinner House is most certainly a reflection of the kind of people Rossi and Donovan are—laid-back and low-key but committed to quality and service. They understand the Sugarloaf community, having been an integral part of it for so many years. “The farm is a big deal for us,” Donovan says. “The results will come down the road. It’ll be interesting to see in five years.” Establishing the farm is a further commitment to the area and to the restaurant’s future. We look forward to watching it grow.