Maine Restaurant Week first launched in 2009, aiming to boost business for restaurants during their slowest stretch of the year. Nobody at the time would have imagined how a pandemic could make restaurants’ winter woes all the worse.

Now in its 14th year, and its second since COVID arrived in the state, Maine Restaurant Week, running from Tuesday through March 12, offers many area restaurants a timely chance to boost their bottom lines.

“We have menus (for the event) that we’re really excited about. And we’re optimistic that people are ready to get out and go have some good food,” said restaurateur David Turin, whose David’s Restaurant in Portland and David’s 388 in South Portland are participating.

Turin has taken part in Maine Restaurant Week since the start. Still, he concedes that when he first heard about plans for the original event, he was “skeptical.”

“When people were first talking about it, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s just a discount thing,’ ” Turin said. “But it wasn’t that at all. It was more of a celebration of the talent and enthusiasm on display in Maine restaurants. It’s really more about highlighting the bounty of options we have.”

As for a boost in business, “Restaurant Week has always been a busy time for us,” Turin said. “We’ve had the experience many years where it was as huge for us as a week in the summer.”

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Chris Pelonzi and Caitlin Charette of Biddeford dine at Broken Arrow restaurant, which opened in 2020 and will participate in Maine Restaurant Week for the second time. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

EXPANDING RANGE 

Lyle Aker, owner of Broken Arrow in Portland, said he’s not certain whether last year’s Restaurant Week increased business at his restaurant, since it had just opened in October 2020. “But it sure felt like it did because of COVID. It’s been such a weird year and a half,” he said.

Broken Arrow will offer a special three-course menu for $35 for this year’s event, Aker said.

More than 50 restaurants had signed on to participate as of last week, and others may have been added to the lineup by early this week, said event organizer Gillian Britt. She said she hasn’t seen a drop-off in the number of participating restaurants compared with this time last year. “In fact, restaurants were actually faster to sign up this year,” Britt said.

Luke’s Lobster will have several lobster roll options available during Maine Restaurant Week. Photo by Jenn Bravo for Luke’s Lobster

“It’s nice to see the event geography stretching out a bit,” Britt continued, noting that restaurants in Leeds, Rockport and Arundel have joined the event this year. Other notable first-timers include Portland’s Cheese Louise, The Maker’s Galley and Luke’s Lobster Portland Pier, as well as Judy Gibson restaurant in South Portland, Britt said.

“Being new, this is a great opportunity to get exposure,” said Rachel Sagiroglu, owner of The Maker’s Galley, which opened in November at 5 Commercial St. “Plus, you’re a part of the community this way.”

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MALLEABLE MENUS

Maine restaurants have struggled to stay open during the pandemic. Many have had to curtail business hours and slash staffing to make their numbers work. So as it was last year, the event’s setup is more flexible than usual to make it easier for restaurants to participate.

Restaurants will not be required to stick to the event’s typical three-course-meal offering, and can instead simply offer a special dish or two. “We want them to show off what they do best, and we want to make sure this benefits them as much as possible,” Britt said.

She added that people should check the Maine Restaurant Week website before visiting to learn what each establishment is offering for Restaurant Week this year.

In another pandemic-related format tweak, the Maine Restaurant Week website shows which restaurants are offering curbside or outdoor service. Restaurants can also choose to do curbside service only for the event. So far, only Portland’s Solo Italiano has taken that option, and will offer a five-course menu to go.

“The event is a little less structured again,” Turin said, crediting Britt for helping restaurants take part despite challenging circumstances. “She’s trying to allow restaurants to do it their way.”

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David Turin, owner of David’s Restaurant in Portland and David’s 388 in South Portland, at a previous Maine Restaurant Week event. Photo courtesy of Maine Restaurant Week

EAGER TO EAT OUT

Sur Lie in Portland has taken part in Restaurant Week for eight years, according to owner Krista Cole, who added that it’s always helped business during the notoriously slow month of March. “We’ve definitely found it to be a boost,” Cole said. “After surviving January and February, it’s very welcome added income. Restaurant Week has been one of the busiest weeks of the year for us.”

The COVID surge from the Omicron variant earlier this winter hurt business at Sur Lie and other eateries. “The beginning of this year has been very difficult,” Cole said.

Josh Hixson, owner of Italian restaurant 40 Paper in Camden, said December and January were two of the worst months his restaurant has endured. “But we’ve seen a lot of business in the past two weeks,” he said, noting like several other Maine restaurateurs that the week of Valentine’s Day sent a lot of customers his way. “It’d be nice to keep that momentum going.”

This year’s Restaurant Week comes at what may be an auspicious time, as local pandemic restrictions are lifting and public fear seems to be lessening.

Maine scallop ceviche is part of the three-course meal that The Maker’s Gallery is offering for Maine Restaurant Week. Photo by Rachel Sagiroglu, The Maker’s Galley

“People are really anxious to get out and spend some time with other people in public,” said Sagiroglu. “They’re anxious to get back to normal.”

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“We’re all kind of feeling a shift right now,” said Cole, who also recently became the owner of Gather in Yarmouth, which is participating in Restaurant Week. “People are seeming like they’re ready to go out and eat indoors again.”

Cole said, for the event, Sur Lie will serve a four-course tapas meal designed for sharing. “It’s meant to be a fun, social dining experience.”

“We’re getting lots of questions about what menus the restaurants will be offering, so we know people are excited,” Britt said.

SPIRIT QUEST RETURNS

An extremely popular event within Maine Restaurant Week is Spirit Quest, which organizers canceled last year because of the pandemic. Now scheduled for Sunday, Spirit Quest is a self-guided tour of 10 bars and restaurants in Portland’s Old Port and Congress Street Arts District, where ticket holders sample a craft cocktail and small bite pairing at each stop, voting at the end for their favorites.

Spirit Quest has already sold out, as it typically does, Britt said, noting that participation was capped at 300 people, 100 people less than usual, because of pandemic concerns. Proof of full vaccination is required for the tour.

“People love Spirit Quest, and the opportunity to walk into these places many of them haven’t been before and talk with the owners and chefs,” Britt said.

Caramel macchiato tartelette that Monte’s Fine Foods in Portland will serve for the Crave event. Photo courtesy of Monte’s Fine Foods

Crave, another annual Restaurant Week sub-event, invites chefs, bakers, baristas and chocolatiers to create both sweet and savory dishes infused with coffees supplied by Coffee By Design. No tickets are required for Crave. Britt said a dozen businesses are taking part, including Atlantic Baking Co. in Rockland, which will offer a coffee pastry cream eclair with coffee ganache, Little Dog Coffee in Brunswick, serving a Bavarian cream tiramisu, and Monte’s Fine Foods in Portland, which is whipping up a caramel macchiato tartelette.

Britt said $1 from each Spirit Quest and Crave sale will benefit Portland social services group Preble Street.


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