By Peter McGuire | Central Maine
BELGRADE LAKES — A foodie boom has erupted in the village, just in time for the hordes of tourists who flock to town for the summer.
Several businesses have opened up or changed owners recently, bringing options that include Greek gyros, fresh baked bread and pies, contemporary American, barbecue, and soon, wood fire baked pizza.
“It’s exciting to have a variety of businesses in town,” said Lori Yotides, who owns the Spiro and Co. food truck, parked in the driveway of her home in the village.
On Thursday, business owners and restaurateurs were gearing up for the busy Fourth of July weekend, most of it centered on Main Street, which splits the narrow isthmus between Long and Great ponds. The town’s population is said to double during the summer months, when seasonal residents come back to camps on the lakes that surround the village.
For some of those visitors, the Village Inn has been a destination they have taken their families to for decades.
That’s a good sign for Kate Beals, who last year bought the Belgrade landmark with her partner, Heather Pena. Beals has been coming to her family’s camp on Great Pond for her entire life, and she feels an intimate connection to the area.
“It sounds cheesy, but Belgrade is the home of our hearts,” Beals said.
They took over the business last year with about two months left in the season, and they got a crash course in running the inn and restaurant, Beals said.
To get ready for their second summer, the couple refurbished the inn’s interior, taking out old carpeting and replacing it with white pine floors, and decorated with dark-stained wood, old rugs, hunting plaid, trophies and mounted fish to evoke the feeling of a hunting and fishing lodge, down to the water glasses and silverware. The downstairs tavern was redone completely to provide a comfortable place for people who might just want a beer and a burger, not a sit-down meal, Beals said.
The menu changed too, adding appetizers such as lobster-and-corn fritters and lobster dip taken from an old family cookbook along with contemporary takes on standbys such as steaks, pasta and, of course, the inn’s famous duck. The restaurant is trying to source as much of its food as it can from local farmers and producers and is featuring Maine beers on tap.
“It’s not rocking the boat too much,” Beals said.
So far, the reception they have gotten is overwhelmingly positive.
“Everyone just loves it,” Beals said. “The comments we get is that it looks like it always should have looked.”
Across the street, a large round metal pizza oven has been intriguing residents and visitors since it showed up earlier this season.
Sam Wells, its owner, said people frequently ask him about it and are excited when he tells them he plans to open up a wood-fired pizza takeout and catering business.
“They are saying, ‘The area needs good pizza,’” Wells said. “I’m looking forward to filling that void.”
Wells, who lives in New York City, came to summer camp in the Belgrade Lakes region when he was a boy and always wanted to move to the area. Two years ago he bought the historic house when the Belgrade Lakes House bed-and-breakfast shut its doors. He plans to spend his summers in the village.
As he nears retirement, Wells wants to indulge his passion for food and cooking, and he’s excited about being close to the fresh ingredients and supplies in central Maine. For example, the oven was built in Skowhegan, and Wells hopes to source some of his flour from the grist mill in that town.
“There’s a re-emergence of food and artisan products in Maine that I really love,” Wells said. “I want to tell that story.”
168 Main Wood-Fired Pizza and Bakery isn’t open yet, but Wells hopes to have the oven fired up for at least a few days later this summer.
On the south end of the village, Shari Hamilton, the owner of Hello Good Pie Co. Bakery and gourmet kitchen had her hands full during the first day the business was open at the former site of the Brass Knocker Gift Shop.
A steady stream of customers came through the small bakery’s doors, buying up homemade brownies, pies and bread.
Hamilton, a master baker with 35 years of experience, has owned and helped manage restaurants in Norridgewock and Mount Vernon, but she said she wants to retire owning Hello Good Pie.
“I love working for myself. I like being a shopkeeper,” Hamilton said.
Everything in Hamilton’s bakery is made from scratch, and she intends to keep adding more food choices, expanding from a repertoire of sandwiches, cookies, cakes and pies to include soups and ready-to-eat meals such as lasagna and meatballs.
Her eventual vision is to have a kind of mini-market that offers fresh local fruit and vegetables and other locally sourced food along with her own creations.
Those used to seeing Fast Fred’s Franks at the corner of West and Castle Island roads now will see brightly painted H.J. Blake’s, a food truck opened by Holly Blake.
“Our motto is, ‘H.J. Blake’s, where the ocean meets the lakes,’” Blake said. She and her partner, Peter Wilkie, are offering traditional fare such as hot dogs, burgers and lobster rolls along with hand-cut fries, potato salad and more. The truck’s sign is recycled from her catering business on North Haven, where she spent summers since 1992, Blake said.
The truck opened last Friday, and although the rain has slowed business, the bright sunny weather made Thursday a “banner day,” she said.
Back at her food truck, Yotides was getting ready for what probably would prove to be a busy weekend. Yotides and her husband, Tim, opened their business last year after trying to open a restaurant in the village but not finding space that was large enough.
She was disappointed initially, but having the food truck has been a good move and has built up a client base of people who come from as far as Clinton and Farmington for a gyro.
With the new food businesses building on a base that already included Pete’s Pig Barbecue, Wings Hill Inn, the Sunset Grille, Belgrade Seafood, Wrap ‘n’ Roll and Day’s Store, the future is looking brighter for a food scene in Belgrade.
“It gives people a reason to come to town,” Yotides said. “There’s something for everyone.”