Still in the Game

At the Bitter End in Wells, longtime restaurateurs Kate and Pete Morency stay in play.

Still in the Game

At the Bitter End in Wells, longtime restaurateurs Kate and Pete Morency stay in play.

Issue: November 2019

By: Susan Axelrod
Photography by: Nicole Wolf

In 2016, after Pete and Kate Morency sold the enormously popular Pier 77 and the Ramp in Cape Porpoise, they thought they were done with hands-on restaurant work. They still owned Pedro’s, a Mexican restaurant in Kennebunk, but because it is effectively run by longtime staff, “we felt we were free,” says Kate. “But then we got bored.” With 90 years between them in the business—13 in Cape Porpoise—they weren’t quite ready to hang it up. “I can keep myself busy enough in the summer,” says Kate. “But the winter is a different story.”

The menu at the Bitter End includes dishes with Portuguese, French, Asian, and Italian influences. Seared New Bedford sea scallops (left) are a signature; here they are served Asian style with forbidden rice and bok choy. Cassoulet (right) features a confit duck leg with duck and orange sausage, pancetta, and cippolini onions on a bed of navy beans (the dish has since been changed to use merguez sausage and cannellini beans).

For nearly two years, the Morencys drove by the former Capt’n Hook’s, a seasonal lobster shack on Route 1 in Wells, wondering if the ramshackle building and large adjacent lot might have potential as their next project. In early 2018 they bought it and embarked upon a major renovation that involved digging a series of trenches below the concrete floor to replace inadequate plumbing and removing the old lobster tanks in the shed out back. “Our plumber quit the business after that,” jokes Pete. They named the new restaurant Bitter End, a nautical term for the end of a rope or an anchor chain. “We wanted something that said, “This is it,” says Kate.

The Bitter End opened on Memorial Day weekend 2018, staffed by many of the same crew that worked with the Morencys in Cape Porpoise. Most notable is chef Richard Ellis, whom they hired 11 years ago as a dishwasher. “He was a goofy 19-year-old kid who started paying attention,” says Pete. “Next thing I know he’s my right hand on the line.” The affection and respect between the Morencys and the chef they call Richie is mutual. “I’ve grown up here, and I’ve seen what it actually takes to make a restaurant work,” says Ellis.

The Bitter Marg cocktail is made with Milagro Reposado tequila, St. Germain, Aperol, and lime juice.

Both chefs take cooking seriously but not themselves, and the Bitter End offers proof that a restaurant can be lighthearted and serve top-notch food and drinks. When a friend and I walk through the antique wrought iron gates to the Bitter End’s backyard, we’re not sure where to look first. Tables fill a flagstone patio next to a fire pit and a ground-level stage, where musicians play on the weekends against a fence decorated with old outboard engines. The shed is now an outdoor bar dubbed the Rear End, which is festooned with vintage finds, much of it related to boats or trains (the Amtrak Downeaster rumbles by just beyond the property, and Pete plans to install an old Boston trolley car out back next summer). The outdoor area stays open until the water freezes; during the colder months guests dine inside the main restaurant building or on the enclosed porch the Morencys call the Pergola. The restaurant space is equally fun and distinctive. Part of Pete’s collection of Boston sports jerseys hangs from the ceiling, interspersed with crystal chandeliers. Behind the bar are a row of trophies and a giant key to the city of Boston, presented to Bill Russell in 1956 by the owner of the Celtics, Walter Brown. On one wall, a copper-framed glass case designed for church bulletins displays a collection of paintbrushes the Morencys found in a Sonoma, California, antique store. Two wooden stadium seats from the old Boston Garden hold cloth napkins rolled around silverware; one of the seats is signed by legendary Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr. “There’s no rhyme or reason for any of it,” says Pete.

My friend and I make a beeline for two of the bright blue metal stools at the Rear End’s bar, which was built by a local stone mason. Bartender Brendan Gaudrault deftly mixes two of the Bitter End’s signature cocktails: the Pinky Up, a refreshing mix of Hendricks gin, St. Germain, lemon, and Angostura bitters garnished with slapped mint, and the Bitter Marg, a tart yet balanced version of a margarita tinted orange-pink with Aperol. To start, we order crab cakes and Portuguese mussels, the latter on the advice of Gaudrault. The preparation of the mussels, one of three styles on the menu, reflects Pete’s upbringing in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and his early career working with Portuguese cooks in kitchens on Cape Cod and in Boston. The brimming bowl of mussels is served with a thick slice of toasted baguette slathered with traditional aioli. The mussels are plump and perfectly cooked, but it is the broth, rich with chorizo, tomato, and garlic, that is wonderfully delicious. The crab cakes are just as impressive: two hockey-puck-sized discs of delicate Maine crab served with an herbaceous green aioli and a zesty arugula salad with orange sections and edible flowers.

While the Bitter End’s menu changes seasonally, these two dishes are staples, and it’s easy to see why.

Dinner entrees at the Bitter End range from a burger and fish-and-chips (also offered at lunch) to heartier plates such as the New Bedford seared scallops, another menu constant, although the accompaniments may change. Our four meaty scallops are paired with forbidden rice, asparagus, and an umami-rich sauce, which Ellis says is blend of ginger, garlic, chili paste, soy sauce, pineapple juice, and tamarind paste, among a few other ingredients. Served over corkscrew pasta, the Nine-Hour Bolognese gets its depth from beef, pork, and chicken livers. Both of our entrees are well matched with a bottle of 2017 Domaine de Cristia Cotes du Rhone Blanc, a blend with enough intensity to stand up to the flavors of each dish.

On a second visit, I sit with the Morencys and Ellis to sample some of the kitchen’s fall offerings. Presented in a skillet, Ellis’s excellent version of cassoulet features a confit duck leg, duck and orange sausage, and a thick, meaty slice of pancetta cooked crisp, on a bed of navy beans studded with more pancetta (the dish has since been changed to use merguez sausage and cannellini beans). “It’s naughty food,” says the chef with a grin. A generous platter of paella is made in the Portuguese style, with saffron rice, chorizo, mussels, shrimp, chicken, and olives, with a grilled lobster tail on top to gild the lily. On another plate, a beautiful, fat piece of halibut rests on a creamy tomato-mussel-butter sauce and is accompanied by mashed potatoes. All three dishes are loaded with flavor yet well balanced, with every component thoughtfully prepared.

As we eat and talk, guests stop by the table to chat with Kate and Pete, who are warm, gracious, and clearly in their element. Many of the Bitter End’s regulars know the Morencys from Cape Porpoise, and to see the same customers in Wells is “total validation for all that hard work,” says Kate. “To say it was heartwarming when they started showing up here—there are no words.” While the restaurant business is notoriously tough, offering hospitality should be a pleasure, and the Morencys seem to thrive on that joy. “We’re all about having fun,” says Pete, which is always how it feels when you do what you love.

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