On a Cranberry Cove

Reached only by boat, Islesford Dock is a scrappy outlier. Jutting over the salt water at the town landing on Little Cranberry Island, it’s a beacon for the sailboat crowd, and those of us tempted by seaside chowder and cocktails.

It’s a fog-early summer day, and we’re on the Beal and Bunker Mail Boat and Ferry, which runs out of Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island (MDI). It’s not a heavy fog but a wispy skim, hovering and making some of the long views hazy. Piled in with all of the Amazon packages and other morning passengers, we’re headed out across the water a few miles, to the five islands of the town of Cranberry Isles. It’s an easygoing August weekday, and some of the other morning passengers have newspapers, but we all look to be anticipating something. It’s as if everyone is ready for the island transition.

On this boat, too, is Michael Boland. He has a long beard and dark sunglasses, and he’s the MDI restaurateur behind some Bar Harbor dining favorites: Havana restaurant and Choco-Latte cafe. As the ferry passes Greening Island, Sutton Island, and Great Cranberry, Boland and I start talking about birthdays. His 50th is coming up in a few weeks, and he says he wasn’t sure how to celebrate until it dawned on him: “I have the coolest restaurant on the coast of Maine, so why would I celebrate anywhere else? We’re closing that day for a private party.”

By Ferry, By Yacht

The restaurant he’s describing is the iconic Islesford Dock on Little Cranberry Island (population: 94 year-round and 600 in summer). In the village of Islesford on the 200-acre island, the restaurant is an institution for the boating crowd around MDI and for Cranberry Isles’ summer residents. I first saw the rustic restaurant while on another boating excursion, around Acadia National Park back in 2016. The weather-beaten exterior immediately charmed me, but the restaurant wasn’t open that day, and the boat captain explained that the ownership and whole future of the place was in limbo because its longtime owners had decided to sell.

By January 2017 Boland helped make sure the restaurant would reopen when he bought the one-acre property with Mitchell Rales, a billionaire businessman and art collector from Maryland, who owns a second home in Northeast Harbor. The new owners announced they not only would keep the restaurant open but would hire many past employees, install new bathrooms and floors while keeping the rustic overall character, and extend the season to early June through Columbus Day.

To get us ashore, the ferry’s captain threads through the sailboats moored near the floating docks of the island cove, and our view is of dock pilings and weather- worn buildings over water. This is still a lobstering island, and a smaller dock is home to the Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-Op. Beside it, the restaurant looks like an oversized, wooden shed-style shack with water-facing windows, and it’s situated at the head of the old coal dock.

Patches of gray-green moss and lichens that appear to have crept upward from the salt water are clinging to the wooden siding on some of the walls. I’ve read that the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants had visited Maine on early family summer trips, and it’s true that its vibe is reminiscent of the Krusty Krab, the undersea restaurant in the TV series and movies. Boland explains that Stephen Hillenburg, the show’s animator and a former marine biologist, also “has spent a bunch of time on the island…word is that the Krusty Krab was modeled after the Islesford Dock Restaurant, and that the Squidward Tentacles character was modeled after one particularly grumpy cook from long ago.”

Island Differences

Before jumping off the boat, Boland hoists a few crates of kitchen supplies and wine onto the dock. That’s the thing about islands—almost everything has to be transported on and off. There’s no running down the street to grab something forgotten. We follow him into the long, narrow kitchen, and it’s filled with a busy crew. Employee Nate Pfohl is stirring a massive pot of chowder. The steam is rising, and I smell the clam broth and potatoes.

Other crew members are chopping ingredients, shucking oysters, or washing dishes. We’ve got time before lunch to look around as “Team Dock” keeps cooking. In a storeroom, I see several kegs of beer. That’s another island difference, Boland explains. By pouring from kegs the restaurant can avoid having to deal with so many bottles and cans. Waste and recycling costs and hastle are reduced. That’s also why the owners invested in a reverse-osmosis water system to filter the well water and remove off-notes from its natural mineral content. That way, they can serve tap water instead of bottled water and reduce the restaurant’s carbon footprint.

Another way to be more sustainable is to grow and gather what they can on the island itself. Barely 50 steps from the back door of the restaurant is a hillside garden with a toppled but living apple tree—a mature one with sprawling branches. Here we meet Gretchen Blank, who was born in Bar Harbor and grew up on the island. By sixth grade, she and her twin sister, Frances, were hiring themselves out to cook special meals for island locals. Later, Gretchen says, she would work on weekends at Islesford Dock—bussing tables, washing dishes, as a barback, on the prep line, and as a waitress. She left Maine for a spell of working in an apple orchard in New Zealand, but now the restaurant’s garden is her domain. “I wasn’t planning on coming back, but Michael got in touch about this job before the reopening, and it was an easy thing to say yes to.”

She shows us around a garden of tomatoes, five kinds of basil, cucumbers, raspberries, and dozens more herbs and vegetables. She’s growing purple, white, and yellow varieties of carrots. Flowers for the tables include phlox, tall sunflowers, and sweet peas with curling tendrils. She points out the radicchio, which grows well, she says, “if the bugs don’t get it.”

Using natural, organic methods, Blank started the year’s plants from seed in the restaurant’s greenhousein April, then she moved the seedlings into outdoor garden plots. She’s carrying a basket, and as we’re talking she’s gathering microgreens and herbs for the kitchen. I notice the tattoo on her wrist that’s an outline of the island’s shape.

The clouds and fog have burnt off completely by now, and I use the sunshine as an excuse to buy a hat at the Lobster Co-Op next door. Just outside the coop, we see a woman wearing the kitchen clogs of a chef—along with skull earrings, a few tattoos, and a bright-eyed smile. She is the restaurant’s executive chef, Emily Damon, and is stopping by to check on the lobsters needed for the day’s chilled salads and lobster rolls.

Family Style

Midmorning has eased into lunchtime. We walk past the Little Cranberry Yacht Club headquarters, marked by burgees with a circle of five spots to represent the five islands. A boy from the island, Whit Chaplin, has just gotten back from taking some younger kids out for a rowing lesson.

When we step back into the busy kitchen I hear a server call out: “Order in! For table ten, and it’s a super, super VIP.”

Quincy Garner and Edwin Lebron, two guys from Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurants who are working here for the summer, look up but take it in stride when they hear that summertime Seal Harbor resident and entrepreneur Martha Stewart is here with 11 friends for her birthday lunch.

“We’re making great food, and the pace is at a New York level,” Lebron says, and I watch awhile as the kitchen crew keeps cooking and plating up Asian-style barbecue ribs and “Dock” burgers with caramelized onion–garlic jam and herbed crinkle fries. The sizzles and delicious smells fill the old wooden building. “We live in military-like barracks for the summer,” Lebron explains, “but sometimes we jump in the water at the end of the night. Working here is magical.”

Taking on the chef’s role here is a return to childhood memories for Damon, who grew up in Northeast Harbor. Her family would visit Little Cranberry on weekends before she left to study art in New York City and the culinary arts in San Francisco, and before she worked in restaurants in New Mexico, Canada, and Rhode Island. Back home on MDI, Damon has been a chef-owner of three now-closed Northeast Harbor restaurants: 151 Main Street, House of M, and Watermark. Because Islesford Dock is seasonal, she’s been able to keep her other job, as chef at Mount Desert Elementary School, as well.

Fog Finish

I step out into the dining room to see the scene. Off their own boats or as ferry passengers, the lunch crowd has arrived. (Her back is to me, but I recognize Stewart when I see her blonde hair and crisp white oxford shirt.) Two Hinckley yachts are now tied up at the dock. One is painted heather green. That’s Stewart’s “picnic boat,” which she commissioned from the Southwest Harbor–founded company and had painted an exclusive hull color. (The yacht’s name is Skylands II, after her hillside home in Seal Harbor.)

I sit with a saltwater view for a lunch of fish chowder, a few of those ribs, and the Louie salad of chilled lobster and shrimp in a creamy dill dressing. Damon also brings out a plate of hot biscuits with a crock of butter topped with honey. I eat it all as I watch the clear sunny day start to melt into an afternoon fog. People are making their way to their boats, as the fog rolls in by two o’clock and hangs thickly on the water through the afternoon.

Eventually the evening waitstaff start to arrive. They meet with Boland for a wine tasting and to sample the night’s special, a thick grilled T-bone steak. Damon says some of the staff live on the island but many ride the ferry daily, and if they ever complain about the added time she shares a reminder. “I’ll say, ‘Guys, you’re off an island, on an island, on a dock. That’s pretty special.’”

Meanwhile, everyone waits for the evening diners. Some of the 130 or so with reservations are delayed or have canceled because of the fog. Whit Chaplin’s father, Courtney Chaplin, an experienced rower and past chief of the island’s volunteer fire department, is touching up the paint on a wooden boat that’s turned hull-side-up behind the restaurant. He’s getting it ready for a rowing-event fundraiser for Islesford Boatworks, which has been building boats all summer with island kids.

Then the sun breaks through. The water’s surface smooths out, and there are ripples of light on the whitewashed walls inside as the sun gets lower. I can see sunlight on paintings in the restaurant’s gallery, which is connected to the dining room. Bartender Sierra Lowe, who returns each year from Texas to make the “Margo-rita” and Sea Glass cocktails, is juicing a bowl of oranges. Manager and gallerist Georgia Howland, who Boland says can carry more dinner plates than just about anyone he’s seen, is checking in with longtime staff, including brother and sister Isaac Krasnow and Sam Krasnow. Everyone’s ready for another summer dinnertime, with Islesford Dock open in all of its moss-covered glory, just as the next ferry arrives.