My family owned and operated a restaurant in Ogunquit, Maine, for nearly 40 years. After we sold it, we kept a house in the area. During nearly all of that time, the run-down mill city of Biddeford was always a “drive through” location, never ever a “drive to” place.
In recent years, however, all of that has changed. According to a 2019 report in the Portland Press Herald that quoted Census data, the city of about 21,500 residents is now the youngest in the Pine Tree State, with an average age of 35 and a city center median age of 29. In addition, Biddeford’s culinary, arts and business scenes are all blossoming … so much so that local wags have a come up with the word “Biddesance” to capture the city’s resurgence.
What happened? Those same old, shuttered and decrepit mills that had been Biddeford’s undoing are now its … well-doing!
The 35-acre mill district has been revived, renovated and resurrected. Though Biddeford lagged behind other fading New England mill cities that reinvented themselves — say hello, Lowell and Haverhill — it has occupied the fast lane over the last few years and has become one of Maine’s more hip and upbeat communities.
If my mother was still with us, that previous sentence would have caused her to faint in shock and disbelief.
But Biddeford’s turnaround isn’t only about once-abandoned mills. The place also needed a white knight, and it found one in developer Doug Sanford, who made the monetary investments to purchase and renovate many of the venerable buildings.
And, of course, timing is everything. Less than 30 minutes south of from Portland, Biddeford has always existed in that city’s shadow. And that was especially true on the food front — Bon Appétit magazine named Portland its 2018 Restaurant City of the Year.
But a funny thing happened after that. As more and more people discovered Portland, and more and more chic and/or high-end eateries opened, rents and property prices skyrocketed. Portland’s restaurant scene became ultracompetitive and expensive, and startups could no longer afford to open there.
So they didn’t. They went to Biddeford, where rents were much cheaper, there was plenty of available space, and good ideas were encouraged and rewarded.
Biddeford now has a thriving foodie scene, and that longtime one-way culinary trip — Biddeford to Portland — is now very much a two-way street.
The same thing has happened to other small businesses or startups. A distillery, a classic car showroom, photography studios, breweries, specialty food groups, and manufacturers, and even a circus school, for cryin’ out loud, are among the nearly 200 tenants that occupy the revitalized mills. And there are almost as many housing units.
But the food and beverage scene, in particular, has really taken off, and you don’t need to scour the rabbit’s warren of mill buildings to discover it.
The novel coronavirus has put everything in flux, especially restaurants. But in previrus times, a stretch of Biddeford’s Main Street, just off Route 1, was home to a stunning array of dine and drink spots, all within a short walk of each other
Yeto’s, for example, was offering a funky Italian/Southern USA hybrid menu that even included … are you ready? … an absinthe cocktail menu. Sign me up!
Elda received rave reviews for its insatiable quest to serve casually high-end meals mostly dedicated to seafood and the local food scene. I had a couple of knockout dinners there, but most remember a valiant attempt to get really local. It was something like a spruce foam, I think. I don’t know what I expected, but it tasted like I was chewing on a forest branch. Still, I was impressed by the attention to detail, and almost everything else I sampled there, especially the scallops, were swoon-worthy.
The biggest culinary success story in Biddeford, however, may be located a literal stone’s throw off Main Street. The Palace Diner, built in Lowell in 1927, once fed the city’s famished mill workers and was likely the exact sort of greasy spoon destination you’d imagine back then. In 2014, a couple of chefs who had made their mark in Portland’s food scene, Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell, bought the place. They were its sixth proprietors and quickly did things none of their predecessors dreamed off.
Bon Appétit named it one of the 50 best new restaurants in the United States in 2014, and just this year Conley and Mitchell were named as James Beard Award finalists for Best Chef in the Northeast.
And did I mention the place is a diner?
Other smart Main Street options include Cowbell Burger Bar, Thai ME for great Thai family food, Dizzy Birds Rotisserie Chicken, Martini’s on Main, which is right next to Sublime Taco, and Elements, a bookshop/coffee bar/beer place.
Without knowing what 2020 holds, it seems Biddeford’s days as a strictly “drive through” locale are over.