Sundown in Old Orchard Beach

Published in the October 2015 issue of Dispatch Magazine

Why the tiny coastal town remains the last pure, untouched frontier in a state plagued by “foodies”

Photo by Skylar Thorne Kelly

It’s important for me to begin by admitting that although I grew up in Southern Maine, Old Orchard Beach was never part of my life. My adolescent years weren’t spent waiting in traffic in the family car on the Old Orchard strip every summer. I was never anxious to see which storefronts made it through another winter without burning down. I didn’t spend entire afternoons walking around barefoot in the hot sun, covered in sand, with the grease from a large slice of Bill’s Pizza running down my arm after it had completely saturated the single paper plate it was served on.

Granted, when I was young I visited once or twice, and recall being concerned that if I stayed too long and indulged on carnival rides and french fries that I may suffer the fate of the other children on Pleasure Island — that is to say, transformed into a donkey and sold off to a transient circus or remote salt mine.

As a result of this misconception, I never gave the food in OOB any consideration whatsoever. My appreciation arrived in reverse. After the new wave of eateries drew me in, it opened my eyes to one of the most unapologetically old school restaurant communities in New England, a place that thrives on giving its diehard visitors exactly what they want and expect every single year while blithely spurning any attempts to make the town “magazine-friendly.” Its aromas of ancient pizza ovens and French fries have intoxicated me ever since because, well, these are some of my favorite things.

Though the decidedly blue-collar crowds are not seeking out flatbread with za’atar or vegetables cooked in embers, rescoldo-style, it is interesting to note that seemingly failsafe staples at the other side of the spectrum — like McDonald’s and Amato’s — have not been able to keep their doors open either. This could be due to seasonality, but also speaks to how firmly places like Rocco’s Pizza are ingrained in the town’s culture and dining community. No matter how big the corporation, and how much money they have behind them, the people decide whom stays and who goes.

Gina Martinez, a longtime OOB resident and owner of the nightclub Mr. Goodbar, puts the Old Orchard beach experience into perspective.

“People down here are faithful to the rituals,” Martinez tells me. “You go out, drink, see a live band, drink some more, and then next thing you know you’re in front of Bill’s Pizza hooking up with someone. That’s just how it goes, and that’s fine with us.”

 She tells me about purchasing a large pizza oven for Mr. Goodbar years ago, using fresh dough in an effort to offer a higher quality pie than the joints on the strip.

“We ended up (literally) having to give it away,” she recalls. “The minute last call was over everyone makes a beeline for the old favorites.”

This is what OOB is and will always be, a haven for fried dough, soft serve ice cream, pizza, and French fries. The crowd is mostly tourists from Canada, Western Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Amidst the last remaining oceanfront amusement park in New England are institutions like Pier Fries and Lisa’s Pizza, as well as a Chinese takeout window that boasts very good egg rolls. Arcades abound, as do numerous t-shirt emporiums where beach-goers can purchase garments bearing phrases like “#twerk” and “Mermaid Hunter.” Despite receiving a grant to improve their façade from a town initiative that began in 2005, The Pier is still what it always has been, a strip of debauchery that extends out over the water, suspended on weathered wooden pylons.

Off the strip are quintessential dining and drinking establishments, like Joseph’s by the Sea, The Whaler, and Pirate’s Patio, all of which have seen many an era in the town’s development — or resistance to it. There is a style of service in many places that reflects the attitude one may develop after being stiffed on tips by Canadians year after year.

On a crisp weekend after Labor Day at the beachfront bar of one of the most pronounced enterprises, The Brunswick, I enjoy a near-perfect fried haddock sandwich and a cup of rich, buttery chowder while chatting with bartender Kat LaCasse. Her father, Tom Lacasse, purchased the restaurant 16 years ago, and all four of her siblings are currently employed there.

“This place, like so many others in this town, is a product of its own clientele,” Kat continues. “We have survived by catering to them, to that niche of people looking for something a bit more upscale but still family friendly.” On a busy night in-season, Lacasse says, over 3000 patrons will come through their doors to cavort and take in live music, but the chaos remains controlled. This is a far cry from the “Honkytonk kind of place where you are most likely to see a fight break out” description endowed upon it by a controversial magazine piece back in the early 2000s.

Still, the seemingly unbreakable food traditions were not enough to deter newer restaurateurs from setting up shop and pioneering more updated concepts, playing on the strategy that if they were cautious to adhere to the primal human need for grease the masses might just come along.

One of the first to do so was Hoss and Mary’s Tasty Grub, a self-proclaimed “American Grill specializing in road food.” Brazenly ignoring conventional wisdom about the traditional way to make a sandwich, but re-assuring beach-goers that they were still “American,” they spawned creations such as a double cheeseburger topped with crab rangoons and duck sauce slaw, a meatball banh mi, and the re-envisioned classic steak bomb known as the “Double Dragon,” incorporating hot pastrami into the classic mix of shaved steak and grilled onions, finishing with a healthy dollop of nacho cheese and topping with sriracha coleslaw. If you weren’t already on the threshold of Hell and had saved room for dessert, get ready for the one-pound pecan milkshake, garnished with a wedge of coffee cake. There is no denying the gluttony in play here, and all of the flavors, regardless of what combination they arrived in, were familiar and approachable yet remained somewhat balanced. Though well received by both OOB visitors and even many who would make the special journey from Portland just to eat there, they still couldn’t make it, and shuttered in 2014.

Meanwhile Kevin McAllister, a veteran of the Portland bar scene, had been monitoring the people’s reactions to change while plotting to open “Butcher Burger” in a space about a block away from the strip that had formerly housed Amato’s. He decided to dial the concept back to basics to appeal to a wider customer base, focusing on cheeseburgers with a variety of toppings, while at the same time making these foods from scratch. This, he hoped, would showcase the difference from the fast food staples with what he perceived to be much fresher tasting ingredients.

“We were very careful with the menu in the first year,’ McAllister tells me, “The price point was a little bit higher than most places, and we wanted to keep the everything as accessible as possible.”

After his first season, McAllister was pleasantly surprised with the reactions of his clientele, and he decided to strike while the iron was hot and open a second business not far away, in the space Hoss and Mary’s once occupied. His choice to name it The Shack seems prudent to me, as it blends seamlessly with the ramshackle nautical theme that so many visitors gravitate to, while avoiding the campy nature of other places such as “Weekend at Bernies,” which, if you’ve seen the film by the same name, makes absolutely no goddamn sense.

At the The Shack, McAllister incorporated a brand new deck overlooking the beach, as well as a full liquor license, while keeping a similar food philosophy to Butcher Burger. He understands the predominant culture here very well acknowledging that it “Will never change, and I don’t think it needs to. But a common misconception is that the entire area is like the strip. That would be like saying that Fore Street is representative of downtown Portland as a whole.”

Still, while definitely adding a bit of diversity to the dining landscape, establishments like Butcher Burger and The Shack are still very much the outliers in a town where the mention of anything outside of Bill’s Pizza is likely to draw blank stares and complete indifference. If you spend a night roaming the streets here, you will see a crowd that can be found nowhere else in Maine. This is not Kennebunkport or Freeport, though it easily rivals both in terms of natural beauty. This town does nothing to camouflage its appearance, and it resists any and all attempts at “gentrification.” The pedestrians don’t give a shit what kind of car you’re in; they’re gonna walk right in front of it anyway.

 While staring out on to the beach from the bar at The Brunswick, I see volleyball nets with a sign on them declaring, “anyone can play.” As an outsider, this phrase sums up OOB nicely to me. Everyone is welcome, but it’s not right for everybody.