48 Hours In…Ellsworth
April 2011 | By Melissa Coleman | Illustration by Josh Brill
48 hours of our favorite places to eat, rejuvenate, shop, and visit
Ellsworth was once the place you stopped to buy basic supplies on the way to Mount Desert Island, Winter Harbor, or Deer Isle—the places with natural attractions and quaint shops but no malls. When I was growing up on Cape Rosier, my back-to-the-land family would make the forty-five-minute trip to town only when we needed kerosene or to use the laundromat (actually spelled Laundrymat on the sign), which was located next to Pizza Place in what used to be the mall. Ellsworth was about errands, not tourism—unless you were on a University of Maine geology field trip to see the famous Ellsworth Schist.
Ellsworth has since, particularly recently, developed into a destination of its own, one that has a unique appeal but retains its nuts-and-bolts characteristics, not to mention a number of spots to rejuvenate the body and soul. These days, my parents and their neighbors (most of whom now have electricity and running water) head to Ellsworth to eat at Cleonice, get a massage, stop at Rooster Brother, or see a show at the Grand. It’s not that they’ve gotten soft; they’ve gotten wise. With all this in mind, I decided to make an Ellsworth sojourn of my own.
Your first stop as you come into town on Friday looking for lunch has to be Cleonice, Rich Hanson’s Mediterranean bistro. Downtown is a quaint row of old buildings and shops climbing up Main Street from the Union River, and Cleonice is located in the iconic 1938 Luchini building, which has a newly face-lifted trompe l’oeil exterior. Inside the door, the black-and-white tile floors and thirty-two-foot mahogany-topped bar transport you to a Mediterranean tapas bar, as does the menu. On my visit, the welcoming Hanson—aka everyone’s favorite James Beard–nominated chef—chatted with me about Artisana, the Bucksport farm run by his wife, Cary, that provides the restaurant with heirloom vegetables, eggs, chicken, and pork. Hanson recommended that I try the Rockin’ Rabe sandwich, featuring mustardy broccoli rabe with garlic- and herb-brushed Artisana pork on a crusty Borealis baguette. Yum. Other favorites include the Grilled Middle Eastern Spiced Maine-Raised Lamb “Burger” with pita and tzatziki, which pretty much sums up Hanson’s knack for local Mediterranean-inspired masterpieces. The house salad—with my very own dad’s Four Season Farm greens—exemplifies truly local flavor. You’ll want to come back for dinner or try one of the monthly wine events.
Another downtown hangout for Friday and Saturday nights is Finn’s Irish Pub, where I ordered a hot toddy and a Scotch egg (yes: a breaded, deep-fried, Boston-banger-sausage-wrapped, free-range hard-boiled egg). I sat at the bar while the friendly locals wooed me with their best (and worst) jokes. (What’s invisible and smells of carrots? A rabbit fart.) The original Jerry O’Mahoney dining car was so cozy that I ordered one of the eighteen beers on tap as I took in the Ellsworth gossip (definitely a reality show in the making) and learned about other nightlife options, including Jasper’s Restaurant, Chummies for open-mic nights and live music, and Hillfire Grill for its steakhouse-style bar.
Morning means it’s time to head over to the Maine Grind. If this welcoming and roomy coffee shop located in a renovated Masonic temple isn’t a sign of Ellsworth’s up-and-coming status, I’m not sure what is. The 2,500-square-foot space features comfortable leather couches, free Wi-Fi, and lots of tables for setting up your “home office.” There are sandwiches, soups, wraps, baked goods from nearby Little Notch Bakery, and Maine-sourced Rock City coffee and Atlantic Brewing Company microbrews. It’s possible that much of what happens in Ellsworth is hatched here during coffee-fueled conversations or casual run-ins between the town’s movers and shakers. Co-owner Leslie Harlow even has her own radio program on WBACH, Maine’s Scenic Ride, which features interviews with interesting downeasters.
You can also grab snacks, soups, and sandwiches at John Edwards Market, the natural food store established in 1970 (possibly one of the oldest in Maine) that has successfully transitioned from the somewhat inedible forms of health food to the truly delicious. There’s a bounty of organic produce and meats—sourced from local farms as much as possible—and a well-stocked selection of vitamins and supplements. Further dining options include convenient comfort food at the Riverside Cafe: breakfast all day, sandwiches, Sunday brunch, and the quintessential blueberry pie. Live acoustic music on Saturday nights and jazz on Fridays adds to the fun. And the popular Finelli New York Pizzeria boasts thin-crust pies from its bustling location: the triangle made where Route 1 and Route 3 diverge, on the way to Bar Harbor.
April’s mud season may not be the best time to pursue the plentiful recreational options in the area—ice fishing on Green Lake, cross-country skiing on the Acadia carriage trails, or the numerous hiking, biking, and swimming opportunities—but it’s a perfect month to recover from wintah and get in shape for summah, and Ellsworth is something of a wellness mecca. “Regardless of how straitlaced Mainers can be, Ellsworth has gone big into alternative medicine,” says architect Mike Sealander, who shares his building at 79 Main with a yoga studio.
You might as well start your Ellsworth weekend of wellness there at the Yoga Place with a Saturday morning Iyengar yoga class (10 a.m.–11:30 a.m., $16 for drop-ins). The old brick-walled, wood-floored third-story studio has eight instructors and a variety of classes throughout the week. From there, head up to 210 Main Street to visit Diane Viner for a Reiki treatment. You can also book a couple’s massage at Kenyan-born Fiona Young’s The Boma Day Spa (boma means “the house”) or try a facial, mud wrap, or reflexology session. Weymouth Chiropractic on Beechland Road is the place to get your spine aligned, and Lynn Benson can help shrink any psychological concerns to a more manageable size. After all this self-improvement, you’ll likely want to dance for joy, and it just so happens that dance is all the rage here these days, as evidenced by the success of the monthly Down East Dancers swing and ballroom events at the James Russell Wiggins Down East Family YMCA (April 2 and 30). You can also take a swing lesson with Elizabeth Pouwels at Chance to Dance or with David LaMon, director of Dancing with the Ellsworth Stars, or spice up your workout in a Jazzercise Ellsworth class.
For a springtime dose of visual and olfactory therapy, my friend and downeast native Caitlin Shetterly recommends stopping to smell the hyacinths at Sweet Pea Gardens, a flower shop located just five minutes from downtown Ellsworth in neighboring Surry. Born from a booth at the original Ellsworth farmer’s market, the shop has since been featured in Martha Stewart Living and Lynn Karlin’s book Gardens Maine Style.
Shopping in Ellsworth presents a microcosm of the great American dilemma: Do I go to the mall to save time but support giant corporations, or do I frequent local businesses with familiar owners who will remember my name and order the things that aren’t in stock? Actually, there’s no reason I can think of to purchase kitchen supplies at a big-box store when you can go to Rooster Brother. George and Pamela Elias have made a name for their store by selecting only the nicest things for your kitchen—Le Creuset and All-Clad cookware, Fiestaware, and everyone’s favorite reason to visit on a daily basis: the house-roasted coffee and homemade molasses ginger, oatmeal cranberry, and chocolate-chip pecan cookies. Former customers even include Julia Child.
Other venerable Ellsworth shopping institutions include Cadillac Mountain Sports, which will always be the place to get outfitted for the great outdoors, and the Grasshopper Shop, which has provided the town with casual clothing, cards, and gifts since 1975. My children also love the toys purchased by their doting grandparents at Ruth Foster’s, founded in 1985. And I would be remiss not to mention the iconic Maine discount department stores Renys and Marden’s, which have long been popular with bargain hunters, as is the L.L.Bean Outlet.
While the Ellsworth Schist—a variegated metamorphic rock sculpted by glaciers—remains a riverside attraction for some, it’s the elver harvest on the Union River in April and May that attracts a crowd. The nets evoke Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence, but they are designed to capture the young, finger-sized eels that have found their way from the Sargasso Sea to the fresh waters of Maine. Check out the view from Rooster Brother, Harbor Park, or the riverside walking trails. Come summer, Friday’s free Waterfront Concerts will fill the town with revelry, as will the City Band performances on the steps of City Hall—but spring is all about the elvers.
You’ll also want to check out the Woodlawn Museum and four-season Woodlawn Farmers’ Market (Sundays, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.). The estate was built by Colonel John Black in 1827 and has since become an Ellsworth treasure that includes formal Colonial Revival gardens, walking trails, and a Federal-style house (opens May 1). During the summer, events include lectures, croquet tournaments, and Wednesday-afternoon tea. Birdsacre—aka the Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary—is another Ellsworth treasure and features an avian-rescue program and lovely walking trails. For more in the way of recreation, bring your mountain bike and hit the Down East Sunrise Trail, the longest recreational rail trail in Maine, which stretches eighty-seven miles from Ellsworth to Ayers Junction.
When it’s time to call it a day, Ellsworth’s accommodations tend toward roadside motels: try Jasper’s Motel for a locally owned option. For more in the way of a Maine getaway experience, head for the Lucerne Inn, an 1800s mansion with a golf course and swimming pool, located fifteen minutes away in Dedham. You’ll have to leave the many diversions of Ellsworth behind, but you will be rewarded by the beauty of the surrounding lakes and forests. In other words, your unique Maine sojourn is now complete.