The composed lobster cobb salad is a very popular main course and for good reason -- it is delicious!(Photo: Larry Olmsted, for USA TODAY)
The scene: The Centennial of the National Park Service has caused an influx of visitors to parks nationwide, including Maine’s Acadia, one of the most beloved on the East Coast. But the rush will soon be over, as Mt. Desert Island, the park’s home, and Bar Harbor, its main town, are highly seasonal destinations that start to slow down after Labor Day. By winter, the area will be largely empty, with most local restaurants shuttered until spring.
Winter in Acadia still has its charms, with miles of graded carriage roads beloved by bikers and walkers, which if covered by snow make for great cross country skiing and snowshoeing. And one top eatery remains open all year, a relative rarity here. This makes the Side Street Café a favorite with locals, but it’s not just the availability that attracts them — the food is excellent and very regional, with a menu built firmly around the most famous of all Maine specialties: lobster. As our waitress is quick to note, “At Side Street the lobster you have for dinner was swimming this morning.” Of course the café is a fantastic choice any time, but in summer there is often a one to two-hour wait for dinner, though they take your number and text you so you can go for a stroll.
It lives up to its name, located on a nondescript alley-like side street just off the main drag in Bar Harbor, but still within walking distance of all town lodging. It’s a simple house-like structure with a front deck great for eating outside under umbrellas, with a busy bar just inside the doors. It’s not much to look at, with a small dining room wedged between the hostess stand and bar, some seating in the bar area, and the rest of the place broken up into small dining spaces.
Reason to visit: Lobster stew, lobster mac and cheese, lobster cobb salad, lazy man’s lobster, “Date Night Lobster Feast”
The food: Lobster is king in Maine, and with several active fishing ports, Mt. Desert Island is awash in the clawed crustacean, caught locally and served everywhere. But few places are as fanatical about it as Side Street Café, perhaps best known for its lobster mac and cheese, which no less a comfort food authority than Paula Deen suggested was one of the nation’s best. It’s made with shells, not macaroni, and a white cheddar based sauce (not yellow) that is rich, creamy and tastes of real cheese, but most of all has lots of real North Atlantic lobster, whereas almost every time you see this now trendy “gastropub” dish in the rest of the country it’s made with cheaper frozen warm water rock lobster.
The lobster mac and cheese is awesome, and has spawned its own cottage industry here. Your basic options are whole or half orders, or you can combine these, “if you want to go crazy,” suggests the waitress, by dong a half order with full meat. Then there are custom additions: build your own mac and cheese by adding burger meat, Philly cheesesteak, pulled pork, grilled chicken, avocado, shrimp, scallops, corned beef or even sliced hot dogs.
That’s just the start of lobster madness here. The menu reads “So here’s the deal… you can really add lobster to anything on our menu! You want a lobster topped cheeseburger?” Even if you don’t customize in this fashion there are no shortage of lobster dishes on the menu, like lobster quesadillas and rolls. The excellent cobb salad is a favorite with romaine lettuce, bacon, hardboiled egg, tomatoes, cucumbers, bleu cheese, and a generous mound of fresh picked lobster meat. Avocados are a highly recommend addition. The lobster stew is standout, rich and buttery and full of big lobster chunks, but I’d recommend a cup, not a bowl so you can explore other things, and the butter gets overwhelming. Get a simple whole lobster in the shell and it comes with a full ear of corn (not the measly half that many places serve) and the tail smartly sliced for easy eating. A traditional New England “Shore Dinner” is offered comprising a whole lobster with corn, clams, mussels and a cup of New England-style clam chowder, or a build your own option where you pick the add-ons. The Date Night dinner is basically two shore dinners with blueberry pie. In general, all lobster portions are generous and everything is flexible and customizable, and for sandwiches you can swap between house-made kettle chips, fries and sweet potato fries. Another party we know, all lobstered out after a week in Maine, has burgers, which look great and earn rave reviews.
It’s really hard to go wrong here, even if you don’t like lobster, but if you do it is paradise. They have lots of local craft beer on tap, cocktails served in mason jars (the special of the day is a wonderfully refreshing watermelon and basil), and make sure to leave room for the traditional dessert, wild Maine blueberry pie. Maine wild blueberries are smaller than normal ones, make great baked desserts, and are found on the island in abundance.
What regulars say: “The lobster mac & cheese is awesome and we locals all love the place,” says the front desk clerk in my Bar Harbor hotel.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but a must in Bar Harbor.
Rating: Yum-Plus! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 49 Rodick Street, Bar Harbor, ME; 207-801-2591; sidestreetbarharbor.com
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.