George

You might call this review historic, given that Darby’s is in a Belfast building that has housed a restaurant for 140 years. Jerry and Gail Savits are relatively new at this, given the history here. They purchased and restored Darby’s in 1985. So I guess you can say they’ve covered 20 percent of the restaurant’s history!

At one point, the restaurant was owned by the same folks who owned the Jefferson in Waterville.

Upon entering, I was captivated by the walls, tin ceiling and antique bar — all original to the building. Before we even checked in, I was taking photos. The warm welcome we received from Jerry and Gail got us off to a good start,and when they offered to dine with us, we quickly accepted.

While the food was wonderful, this dynamic couple really made our experience special. But let’s start with the food.

Advertised as “Regional and International Comfort Food” by a talented kitchen staff, including Chef Brad Fraser — who has worked here since the 1985 opening — Jerry and Gail have obviously created a great place to work. Our server, Theresa, has worked here “a long time,” and now is joined by her high-school-aged daughter who works weekends. Jerry and Gail take the entire staff of 40 to another Maine restaurant each year for a celebration. Nice!

A couple of workers met here and married, and one server is now trying her hand at baking. Darby’s is definitely a family-friendly community gathering place. We were here on a Thursday night and the two interior rooms and bar were packed.

The menu, including the extensive wine list, features detailed information about the choices — a commitment to informed customers. And everything is made from scratch here.

Jerry didn’t have to suggest more than once that I try the Baked Jarlsburg appetizer ($11). Described on the menu as, “Sauteed sweet onion folded into Jarlsburg cheese sauce and browned ’til bubbling,” I will be dreaming of this until we can return.

The four of us shared this along with the Spicy Pepper Relish Calamari (golden fried, tossed with Parmesan, served with marinara, $10), and we still couldn’t finish either appetizer. Well, to be honest, that is because Linda kicked me under the table — twice — to stop me from finishing them.

A funny story came with the calamari. Jerry and Gail prefer a soy sauce to the marinara that comes with the dish — but haven’t been able to convince the chef to offer it to the public. Jerry did get both sauces served with our dish, and Lin and I both agreed that the soy sauce was the best — take note, Chef Fraser!

I checked some appetizers for our next visit, especially the Pot Stickers (stuffed with pork, deep-fried and served with ginger-soy dipping sauce). Well, fat chance Lin will allow me to have that!

While the “House Specialties” entree list was enticing, especially the Seafood Ala Greque, Pad Thai, Crab Melt and Hand-cut Jack Daniels Flank Steak, the restaurant always has a bunch of specials on the menu, and I was intrigued after Jerry described the Pot Pie ($16).

It was full of haddock, shrimp and crab, and included roasted tomato, onion and spinach — all in an awesome Newburg sauce. Covered in a perfectly-baked crust, the thing is about as large as a football. Huge, really. I ate and ate and ate and still had half to bring home.

I so wanted to order dessert, but we really would not have been able to eat it. The Scottish Toffee Pudding Cake ($6.50) was initially called Icky Sticky Pudding, the dessert Jerry loved while on a golfing adventure in Scotland. Upon his return, he put Icky Sticky Pudding on the menu immediately. No one ordered it. So he changed the name and it’s been their most popular dessert ever since!

As the evening progressed, and the stories continued, we lingered a long time, even taking a few notes on the many restaurants Jerry and Gail have enjoyed throughout the state. These folks are real foodies, and that’s very good news for their customers.

Linda

On our first scouting mission to Belfast for this column, we discovered Darby’s restaurant by stopping in for lunch. It was a charming restaurant and one of their specials that day was White Chili made with chicken. George and I both ordered it, and that chili still stands out in my mind as one of the best ever. In fact I went home and started looking for recipes for white chili. Nothing came close to the one at Darby’s.

As we waited to be seated when we recently visited, I noticed a Bangor Metro magazine open on the bar. It featured an article about Brad Fraser, Darby’s chef. He started working here at 16 and never left. I quickly found out that Brad is a Texas native, as is his father. Aha, I thought, that’s why that chili was so special! It turns out that there’s a lot of Southern Barbeque and Tex-Mex style influencing his cooking.

We were lucky to dine with owners Gail and Jerry, and when we inquired about popular menu items Jerry noted that “the burgers are one of our most popular items.” Right after that was the Pad Thai and the Big Buddha Bowl — both playing to Chef Fraser’s strengths with his knowledge of spices. You’ll also find a variety of steaks, seafood and salads on the menu.

Gail shared how the Jarlsberg appetizer came to be. When they were visiting Jackson Hole, she got a cookbook put out by a local group in the area. She found the appetizer recipe using sweet onions and Jarlsberg cheese sauce, tried it herself, then suggested putting it on Darby’s menu. I’ve never given much thought as to how restaurants choose items for their menus, but being on the lookout for something special must be key.

Believe me when I say the Baked Jarlsberg appetizer, served with crusty rounds of toast, is unexpectedly wonderful. The sweet onion taste was surprising. It was perfect when shared with the four of us. Clearly George would have consumed way more that he should have if it had just been the two of us!

Darby’s is known for comfort food, but I was looking for some of that Texas influence when I ordered my meal that evening. And when I spotted the Pulled Pork Taco plate, it was an easy decision. The pulled pork was great and came with a garlic- chipotle slaw. Crunchy cabbage combined with the tender pork, arugula and chili sauce. Amazing!

The biggest surprise was the fantastic side dishes of rice and beans. They held their own against the tacos because they were well seasoned. Everything on this dish was perfection.

Gail is an artist who creates beautiful ceramic pottery. Jerry pointed out a unique piece on the shelf behind us. Each table is graced by one of her vases and you should probably order coffee just to be able to hold one of Gail’s mugs that fit your hand like a glove.

Darby’s restaurant has an undeniable family feel to it. Three smaller rooms (once three different restaurants), keep it cozy and charming. Many of the staff have been here for a long time because they love working here. Gail and Jerry ended our evening by pointing out an area which held many group pictures of the staff taken as they celebrate as a group each year. I can certainly see why both locals and visitors return often. Great food, great atmosphere and especially great people.

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.