The Travelin Maine(rs), George and Linda Smith of Mount Vernon, have spent their lifetimes enjoying all that Maine has to offer. Now they’ll tell you all about it — their favorite inns, restaurants, trips, activities, experiences, and travel books and websites — in their own personal style. They’ll be offering anecdotes, tips and all the details you need. So join them in exploring, experiencing and enjoying the great state of Maine.

The China Dine-ah will surprise you. It’s a lot more than a diner, from food to atmosphere.
And it’s a true reflection of owner Norm Elvin, who modeled some of the restaurant on his Palermo camp, and who puts his personal stamp on every aspect from service (excellent) to the menu (huge) to the restrooms (immaculate). And the food is exceptional. Who would have thought that the longtime owner of G&E Roofing would become a foodie!

Our good friends Ed and Cate Pineau have been raving about the China Dine-ah for some time, so we invited them along for dinner there last week. Norm also joined us for the evening.

Cate loved the interior of the diner so much that she used the same colors and furniture in the dining room of her newly built home on Webber Pond in Vassalboro. And I could see why — the woodwork from ceiling to floor is gorgeous, and the green paint on the walls and chairs, buffed to look antique, is very nice.

Leaving nothing to chance, Norm visited two-dozen small restaurants around the state, studying all aspects of the business, before opening China Dine-ah in October 2007. He read and reread “Running a Restaurant for Dummies.”

Yet Norm, a meticulous and garrulous man, seemed astonished that he serves upwards of 95,000 meals a year in this somewhat out-of-the-way place. He’s very focused on customer service, posting information regularly on the diner’s Facebook page (3500 friends!), and emailing a newsletter to the 14,000 customers in his database.

Ed and Cate provided good guidance on the food — from Ed’s favorite, the Turkey Pot Pie to Cate’s favorite, the Senator Collins salad. The diner offers comfort food like Shepherd’s Pie (enjoyed by Ed on this visit), pasta, steaks and ribs, chicken dishes, seafood, a nice array of sandwiches, a kids’ menu and a special gluten-free menu.

Ed and Cate reported that their specialty drinks were superb, and the excellent bottle of Malbec (just $19) that Linda and I enjoyed was a real bargain. Cate’s chocolate peanut butter swirl pie with whipped cream and chocolate fudge sauce was sinfully scrumptious. Ed, Lin and I all dipped into it.

Our server, Amanda, did a superb job steering me through a seafood spectacular: crab cakes, crabmeat stuffed mushrooms (superb), seafood chowder (packed with lobster, shrimp and fish and was very creamy), and their most popular entrée — the stuffed haddock — very good with a savory stuffing filled with shrimp, lobster, and scallops. It’s the best stuffing I’ve ever had.   

Okay, I have to admit that when I’d heard the name China Dine-ah, I was thinking “diner,” as in metal dining car with lots of tables crowded together. What a pleasant surprise walking into the China Dine-ah! It is a spacious restaurant with well-planned seating. There is a mix of tables and booths (custom-built), and seating areas are divided by beautiful wooden partitions. Huge poster beams and a wooden ceiling give this space an intimate feeling despite its size.

Owner Norm Elvin has put his heart into the design of this place, researching the exact color to paint for his walls and coming up with an elegant green that is very pleasing. You’d want to bring friends and family here. Tastefully decorated, the diner’s staff was ready for the holidays with beautiful greenery over the windows, poinsettias and Christmas music in the background.

Norm made an observation: Chefs often start new restaurants. He is not a chef, but “wanted to come into this with a business mind.” He knows the value of partnerships and building relationships. He researches everything and strives for perfection.

The food here was impressive. The generous portion of crab-stuffed mushrooms was incredibly good.

The cheesy Alfredo sauce over the top kept them moist and added lots of flavor. I ordered the Jon James (named after the radio personality) — a chicken cutlet, lightly fried, topped with an incredible Dijon mustard sauce, and baked to melt the Monterey Jack cheese on top. I want the recipe. I haven’t seen this offered in any other restaurant, but believe me, it’s a winner.

“People come here for the desserts,” says Norm. I certainly see why after ordering a piece of the raspberry pie! That crust was perfection, and the list of pie choices was very long. All of their desserts are homemade by a good Maine cook — who measures nothing! Save room for dessert!

We returned home with 15 pages of the China Dine-ah’s menus, an unbelievable array of food choices, and we’ve already made plans to return for their famous breakfasts — maybe the Sunday buffet that draws as many as 300 diners in the summer. From Tuesday through Thursday, their “Two for $20” menu is popular.

But all the prices here are very reasonable, from the $9.95 Sunday brunch to my $16.95 stuffed haddock. And prices go lower for early birds, Tuesday through Thursday from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Prime rib is offered on Friday and Saturday nights.

China Dine-ah is the finest-kind of dining. Be surprised there soon!

Visit George’s website: for travel tips, book reviews, outdoor news and more.

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