The Central Maine restaurant scene is as unheralded as they come. Having lived in the region for four years earlier this century, I’m very familiar with the area, and yet I haven’t written about any of the restaurants there during the 2.5 years I’ve been operating this blog. One of the most compelling aspects of restaurants (at least to me), though, is that even if an area isn’t known for its dining, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t restaurants there, or that they don’t mean a great deal to the local population. Put differently, if we want to arrive at the cultural significance of a restaurant, we have to look beyond the food they put on the plate and address the relationship they maintain with their community. Food and cultural significance are related, of course, since a restaurant serving long tasting menus probably won’t survive in this region, but the point remains that even towns that are generally subpar in the restaurant department still maintain a restaurant culture all their own, with their own cherished eateries. An example of such a restaurant is Slates, in downtown Hallowell, ME, which is probably the most beloved restaurant within a 50-mile radius. Several years ago, part of the building burned down in a fire, but it rallied back and continues to enjoy a packed dining room every night. I first started dining at Slates during my undergrad years, when I lived not too far from Hallowell. In the intervening years, I’ve found occasion to eat there 2-3 times per year, not because I find the cuisine challenging but for its nourishing dose of nostalgia and delicious cooking. My family was happy to return on a recent summer evening on our way back from Waterville.
Slates isn’t limited to its restaurant. Next door is a bakery that is open until the evening, where they sell baked goods, as well as signature side dishes, hummus, and salad dressings from the restaurant menu. This means that Slates isn’t just contained within the physical boundaries of its property, but is a part of the daily lunch and dinner spread for many Central Mainers. The restaurant is, therefore, less a restaurant and more a town institution.
One of the challenges faced by Slates and other neighborhood restaurants concerns how to satisfy a varied clientele. On any given evening at this restaurant, one may find business diners (Hallowell stands adjacent to Augusta, the state capital), couples celebrating their anniversaries, families with their children, or people in for a quick one-course meal. This means that Slates doesn’t just mean different things to different people, but may mean different things based on the day of the week or occasion. Because the restaurant flows between casual to special occasion-worthy and everything in between, this makes constructing a coherent menu a challenge. Slates covers its bases by emphasizing breadth, with dozens of menu items. There are burgers, pizzas, and pasta dishes, but also substantial proteins like lobster, beef tenderloin, lamb, and duck. I would generally rather see a more streamlined menu since my interest in menus are typically inversely proportional to their length (shorter menus give the impression that the menu has been pared down to what’s really delicious), yet I understand the commercial motives for doing it this way and in fairness, my family has ordered from each section and never found something that didn’t belong.
The menu hasn’t been overhauled in several years and so I encountered past favorites, including the Cajun seared haddock with jalapeno mayo and the gazpacho with Maine crabmeat. The constancy of so many of these dishes means that people don’t just develop a relationship with this particular restaurant, but also with the specific plates served. One of the questions raised by such a menu is the duration for which a dish can stay before it feels stale? I suppose that there is no clear answer, and that a dish can simply stay until it feels dated. This is an interesting dilemma to me, though, because it speaks to the way in which we expect restaurants to stay innovative while also crafting signature plates of food—satisfying this tension between innovation and distinction seems to me to constitute the goal to which every restaurant aspires.
Collectively, my parents and I ordered from most sections of the menu. For the main dishes, one selects their choice of sides from a template of four possible choices. This is lazier than crafting composed dishes and recalls a critique I had of Street and Company, where I mentioned that the restaurant would benefit from a more careful selection of accompaniments for each dish. Here we ran into the same problem to a degree, but this was better since at least I could choose which sides I wanted. I wound up going with the shaved broccoli salad and Thai cabbage salad. I began with the greens salad because I love the accompanying house dressing, and progressed to the haddock with jalapeno mayo. My dad forwent an appetizer and selected the burger with crispy prosciutto and roasted red peppers. Lastly, my mom began with the gazpacho and crab, and progressed to a greens salad with grilled salmon.
While waiting for our food, we admired the dining room, which has retained its eclecticism. The vitality of this restaurant stems not just from its cuisine but also from the abundant color. The deliberately-unmatching plates and linens are not of great quality, but they keep everything cheerful, which is a particular virtue in the winter months, when temperatures cross the zero-degree threshold.
Following tradition, for bread we were served this crusty offering with garilic-infused olive oil. Because our reservation was at 5:30—the first seating—the bread was still warm.
A greens salad is something I almost never order and my decision was prompted by the excellent salad dressing, which has a strong sesame-ginger taste. The pickled beets were good and the red cabbage an unusual treat.
I’ve ordered the gazpacho with crab in the past and so I can speak to the strength of my mom’s dish, which was perfect with the hot weather outside.
One doesn’t see haddock too often outside of Maine, I suppose because it isn’t one of the more prestigious Atlantic fish. Here it was given the sort of heavy seasoning one often finds with catfish, but haddock can withstand this kind of treatment and everything was delicious. Both sides presented nice summer flavors.
My dad enjoyed his burger, which featured good local beef. He appreciated that a grainy mustard was used in lieu of ketchup or aioi.
The salad was an enlarged version of mine, with the addition of a nicely-prepared filet of salmon.
All of the desserts are made next door at the bakery, which makes it easy for the small kitchen to expedite large volumes of desserts. We shared two desserts: a butterscotch sundae with housemade butterfinger and chocolate ice creams, as well as toasted almonds and whipped cream. Supplementing this was a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream. These were traditionally-minded but very New England and perfectly executed.
I’m not sure how photogenic this cuisine was, but we loved everything we ate. I don’t think Slates places much emphasis on their plating style, but to my mind that isn’t a problem since they only purport to be a neighborhood restaurant. While some people may treat it as a special occasion restaurant, at its core Slates serves more of the kind of food one might cook at home. To this end, I think Slates is successful because they beat the home cook at their own game; the cuisine is relatively unambitious, but chances are that the home cook doesn’t prepare salad dressings, pies, or burgers this delicious.
Slates doesn’t really have a signature style, nor does the restaurant necessarily specialize in native Maine ingredients. Therefore, I wouldn’t designate it as an important restaurant on a statewide level. It is, however, an important restaurant for Hallowell and Central Maine, and one can see why it occupies a central position in the culture of this culinarily impoverished region of the state.