The heart of Hancock County, where three highways converge and county government is centered, Ellsworth still moves at a noticeably slower pace than Bar Harbor, Rockland, Boothbay and other booming resort towns.
It’s leisurely strolling that visitors can discover some culinary gems within the historic storefronts lining the city’s Main Street. In the historic downtown, bisected by the flowing Union River, they will find restaurateurs who showcase the finest Maine cuisine but also cater to adventurous palates.
At the Union River, a visitor’s culinary journey begins at a rambling, three-story Victorian called Rooster Brother. On the ground floor of this cooking supply emporium, visitors will find house-roasted coffee beans from small farms, coffee estates and other carefully chosen producers.
Behind the counter, baristas concoct a variety of hot and cold coffee drinks including lattes and cappuccinos for customers, many of whom they know by name.
George and Pamela Elias, who co-own Rooster Brother, opened the store 30 years ago.
“We spend a lot of time finding coffee we do roast,” George Elias explained. “We ship coffee all over the world.”
The store also boasts an in-house bakery where gourmet sandwiches, cookies, brioche, scones and other treats are prepared daily. The chocolate chip pecan cookies are a favorite among customers.
“The cookies are kind of legendary,” Elias declared. “We bake thousands of them a day.”
Crossing the Union River, the next stop is Serendib at the corner of State and Main streets. The recently expanded Sri Lankan and Indian restaurant overlooks the downtown crossing. Rich smells of cumin and coriander greet customers opening the door.
Sanjeeva Abeyasekera is Serendib’s cook and co-owner.
“Pretty much everything’s traditional,” said the Sri Lankan. “I think that’s one of things we’re trying to do is stick to the rules and not do fusion.”
Sanjeeva and his wife, Menemsha, opened the restaurant on a whim about two years ago. They didn’t know how Sri Lankan cuisine would go over.
“It was a shot in the dark,” Sanjeeva recalled. “But I think this area’s ready for some new stuff, some new flavors.”
The menu carries a wide range of regional food. The Sri Lankan curry, made with a coconut sauce, is popular. The restaurant also is known for its varied vegetarian and vegan cuisine. The main dishes are all served with sides, such as kale with shredded coconut and spices and eggplant moju.
What’s popular tends to shift every week.
“It changes from the korma to the palak paneer to the vindaloo,” Menemsha said. “We have people that are going slowly through the menu and each time they’re trying something new. They want to try new items.”
Continuing on up Main Street, orange, green and white stripes of the Irish flag tempt folks to stop in for a pint at Finn’s Irish Pub. The public house serves a fusion of traditional Irish and American cuisine. Their menu ranges from traditional dishes like bangers and mash and shepherd’s pie to more imaginative menu offerings such as blackened Pacific wild salmon sandwich with mustard and lemon aioli.
Finn’s was originally opened by J.P. Taillon in 2009. Lorena Sterns took over the restaurant in 2011, but she has kept many of the same menu items.
“Lorena wanted to continue the menu because it was well thought out flavor profiles,” said Beth Fendl, the restaurant’s general manager. “[She had] the idea of catering to the community as authentic an Irish pub feel as you could get.”
The restaurant’s most striking feature is the bar area contained inside a 1932 Jerry O’Mahony diner car attached to the building. Northport’s former Pineland Diner was hauled to Ellsworth in 1982. Michael and Kate Welch used the diner car to fill a gaping hole on Main Street.
“There was a time when you looked out this window, and you were looking outside, so it was just the dining car,” Fendl explained pointing out the car’s glass windows. “It’s all original — the mahogany and the bar tiles and top and stainless steel.”
Now, customers can sit at the worn wooden bar and order a cocktail, wine or beer while enjoying a burger or fish and chips.
Across Main, the Airline Brewing Co. transports folks across the pond to a classic London pub. Vanity Fair caricatures of notable British figures hang on the walls, and pub games, including cribbage and Snakes and Ladders, line the shelves above the red leather banquettes.
“This is modeled after a London town pub, so this would be a classic English pub environment in London or downtown,” Gary Cresswell, the proprietor of the restaurant and brewing company said. “It’s got to feel like somewhere where you can just sit and relax and just enjoy.”
Cresswell opened the restaurant with his wife in 2016 after starting the brewing company in the northern Hancock County town of Amherst in 2014. Cresswell, who originally hails from Huddersfield, Yorkshire, wanted to bring a piece of his home to Maine.
“Back at home, you fundamentally have to have a church, a pub and a general store for any town or village to survive,” Cresswell explained. “We view this [as] a piece of old England brought into New England.”
Customers are invited to enjoy a locally brewed ale, stout, porter or English IPA while enjoying pub food, including Cornish pasties and jumbo sausage rolls. Cresswell has created a space where friends can catch up and enjoy each other’s company.
“To me, the role of a pub in a community is to provide a social environment where people sit down and talk, so you see there’s no television,” Cresswell explained. “People actually have to sit here and talk to each other.”