Linda

It’s not often that we stumble on a true gem of a restaurant, but we certainly did when the innkeeper Sarah at the Captain Jefferds Inn recommended The Village Tavern in West Kennebunk, telling us, “It’s where a lot of local people eat.”

Enough said.

But nothing prepared us for the over-full parking lot at 6 p.m. and a waiting line inside.

We were greeted warmly by the hostess and shortly afterward by Tina, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Rick, the chef. The restaurant was in full swing, with food flying out of the kitchen and the bar full as well. People giving hugs and visiting told me there were lots of regulars here.

After being seated, we found that Tai, our server, is the owner’s daughter. She expertly guided us through the menu while bragging about chef dad’s cooking. All three of them are as genuine as they come. And what a great story of a family (which includes the staff) coming together for something they believe in.

But people also come here for home-cooked food. The regular menu includes a nice mix of appetizers — and we’d have tried one — except that crab cakes were a special on that night’s menu. The Asian slaw was as delectable as the crab cake itself. A crunchy coating surrounded the fresh, unadorned crabmeat, and the sweet chili remoulade drizzled on top made the flavors soar.

One interesting part of their menu is that there are nearly as many sides as entrees, all priced at just $5. All entrees are served with one side of your choice. But it is really hard to select one side, especially if you enjoy vegetables or potatoes beyond fries. Tai convinced me that the popular steamed broccoli with blue cheese and green Tabasco was the way to go. I had chosen Herbed Chicken Breast with a Lemon Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette ($19) as my entree.

When I looked at my beautiful plate, I thought “what a healthy dinner!” The chicken was well-seasoned with herbs and was very moist and tender. The vinaigrette made it light, not heavy. And when eaten with my blue cheese and broccoli, it reminded me of the taste of buffalo tenders due to the green tabasco kick. Yum!

Dessert was immediately decided once we saw a giant profiterole filled with ice cream ($7) go to the next table. It is certainly big enough to share. Tai explained that it normally comes with vanilla ice cream, but perhaps we wanted salted caramel ice cream like the people at the next table. Well, yes! They even make their own ice cream for goodness sake. We will be making a point to swing off the interstate for more of that salted caramel ice cream. It was beyond fantastic.

One reason Village Tavern is so popular with the locals must be that everything here is house-made: breads, dressings, soups and desserts. Unusual, imaginative combining of flavors elevates simple fresh ingredients. But Rick’s knack of creating perfectly seasoned food using herbs and spices also plays a part. It’s a half mile from the interstate exit. Do not drive by!

George

During those blizzards last winter, folks actually snowshoed to the Village Tavern for dinner. It is not to be missed, no matter what the weather. We were told that some people eat here five times a week. And while you won’t dine here because they have real towels in the restrooms, that does give you a sense of the high level of service we enjoyed and appreciated.

Two and a half years ago, Rick and Tina, who had worked together for years in another local inn’s restaurant, bought an abandoned and very run-down grocery store to achieve their dream of owning their own restaurant. Most of their staff joined them here, including their daughter Tai, who was our server. Tina manages the front of the house. Rick said they originally hoped to attract 35 diners each night. But they exceeded that number immediately and now serve 140 or more each day.

Rick started cooking when he was 14 and he came out of the kitchen at one point because he wanted us to try his evening’s special of a maple sweet potato bisque with salmon, haddock, scallops and shrimp. The broth was amazing — velvety smooth — and the bowl was full of seafood and sweet potato. I called it creamy heaven in a bowl.

Tai said her Dad has been making the bread for 20 years from the same starter. “It’s part of my childhood,” she laughed. We especially liked the crunchy crust. I also loved the crab appetizer, and I stuck with the seafood theme with an entree of Pecan Crusted Broiled Native Haddock Filet over baby spinach with creamy lemon basil dressing ($19).

Believe it or not, I started with the broccoli, which was crunchy and delicious. I also loved Linda’s broccoli. Am I becoming a vegetarian? The haddock was perfectly cooked, moist inside and covered in a fabulous sauce. There was just enough sauce to have a bit with each bite. The dish was creative and I thoroughly enjoyed it. So forget what I said about being a vegetarian.

Tai said their pastry chef was her age and makes all their ice cream and desserts. Ours was memorable. We watched as a flaming birthday dessert was delivered to the next table. Yes, this is a place for special celebrations, as well as everyday dining.

I told Tina when she stopped by our table that only one thing disappointed us. When she politely asked what that was, I said, “We live two hours away!”

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.