Michael Falk, 10, of Cape Elizabeth, sits at the bar of A & C Soda Shop with his mother Shannon McKinnon. The place has become a go-to destination for families in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When A & C Soda Shop opened last December, co-owners Joe Fournier and Matt Moran had conceived the fast-casual restaurant as a fun neighborhood hang with a simple yet irresistible menu built around carefully crafted burgers and optionally boozy milkshakes and ice cream floats.

Since then, A & C has become a go-to destination for families in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth. “In the summertime, it’s just parents and kids all the time,” said Moran. “They walk in and see other families they know, so it turns into a social event for them also, which is great.”

The tabletops at A & C Soda Shop feature comics and games. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“The neighborhoods we’re in the middle of have basically created our business model,” Fournier said, noting that at least 75 percent of the restaurant’s business now comes from families with children.

“The beauty of the menu is the simplicity,” said Moran. “Literally, a 5-year-old can look at the menu and understand it, it’s so straightforward. All the dishes are very simple, just executed well.”

Fournier proudly describes the care his staff takes to produce A & C’s signature $15 cheeseburger, a price point competitive with many other fast-casual restaurants, including chains. “We’re spending hours a day breaking down, grinding and portioning the sub-primal beef. All the bread is baked fresh daily by Mainly Grains Bakers,” he said. “The bacon is made in-house, and the burger comes with fries.”

A & C’s appeal spans generations. Grown-ups can grab a beer and some fish and chips – or indulge in a milkshake spiked with vodka and chocolate liqueur – while kids can enjoy a burger and shake and amuse themselves with various toys laid out on the tables, from mini Rubik’s cubes and fidget puzzles to Magic 8 Balls.


“That whole family-friendly vibe happened organically,” Fournier said. “And we were very fortunate to hit that crossroad of the two towns we’re kind of serving.”

Server Serina Cook brings food to the Acosta family of California and the Foughty-Meadows family of Massachusetts at Nonesuch River Brewing in Scarborough. “Craft breweries have become community gathering places,” said Tim Boardman, a partner in the brewery, where about half the dining business comes from families. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


A & C is representative of the modern family restaurant, an independently owned, fast-casual joint with a hip atmosphere and a focused but alluring menu of high-quality, thoughtfully sourced food. And plenty of booze, too, though bartender Alex Bobola has said many nights this summer he’s made more ordinary milkshakes than alcohol-based drinks.

Ten-year-old Elsmere BBQ, located just down Cottage Road from A & C, was one of the OGs of contemporary family dining in Maine, while others like Fish & Whistle in Biddeford and The Friendly Toast in Portland have opened in the past year or so. The family-friendly restaurant sector has come a long way in recent years, in part to meet the demand for well-crafted food from customers with young families and increasingly sophisticated palates.

When Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and late Millennials were kids, family restaurants were cookie-cutter chains – some with contrived carnival-like atmospheres – and old-school independent venues with generic menus and uninspired offerings for kids. Peter Bissell, co-owner of Bissell Brothers brewery, recalled plenty of lackluster family dining experiences when he was a kid.

“We would go out to eat at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, or Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse in Bangor for birthdays,” Bissell said. “It was just about getting through it. But the focus for more and more families is not just, ‘Can we get through a meal?’ It’s also, ‘We want good food.’ Which is a really positive trend. It’s not just foodies and food bloggers and gourmands. Food quality and sourcing are becoming more and more important to everyday diners and families.”


Breweries are a big part of the new family dining sector. At Bissell’s Thompson’s Point location, the nearby Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine supplies the brewery with all the family business they can handle.

“We’ve been kind of blindsided by it over the last couple of years as our kitchen has been in operation,” Bissell said, noting that the brewery opened its kitchen at Thompson’s Point in 2021. “There were times when it looked like Chuck E. Cheese in here. The amount of people from the Children’s Museum coming over to eat is insane. But it’s good. This is what we do. The goal is to be able to accommodate everyone, and families are now part of our core customer base.”

Bissell said to accommodate the volume of families coming in for a meal, the brewery reorganized its front-of-house structure and added a host position to help manage and direct traffic flow. “And it’s really worked wonders, bringing a level of structure that benefits us, the families, and other customers as well,” he said. “It’s been a fun challenge to work through.”

Still, Bissell found it somewhat puzzling that breweries would be a prime destination for families with young children. “It’s a bit of a conundrum. This is an alcohol manufacturing plant. It doesn’t, at face value, appear to be a family draw. And I’m not just speaking for Bissell, I’m speaking for all these breweries.

“Social norms have changed,” Bissell added. “You can go out as a parent and have a couple of beers, and your kid has chocolate milk and his own plate, and if everyone is happy, it’s great by me.”

“Craft breweries have become community gathering places,” said Tim Boardman, partner at Nonesuch River Brewing in Scarborough, where about half the dining business comes from families. “It’s like the old English public house model. There are a lot of families in Scarborough, and when we opened in Scarborough (in 2017), there wasn’t really a place suitable for family gatherings that included options for every member of the family on the menu.


“We have a lot of freshly prepared in-house-made food that’s better quality than what a lot of other places offer,” Boardman added, noting that the menu typically includes four or five different locally sourced salad options. At Bissell Brothers, the menu lists the farms and purveyors where they source their produce, meat and fish, and displays icons beside its seafood dishes indicating that the species they use are designated “responsibly harvested” by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

“We do a lot of food sourced from local farms, and I think that’s important to our demographic,” Bissell said. “The way people are eating and dining out is kind of changing.”

The Bawlak family of St. Louis – from bottom left, Bre, 11; Will, of Newfield, N.H,; Bruce, Owen, 9, and Kristen – toasts during their meal at Nonesuch River Brewing. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


“I feel breweries were among the first places for people to take their kids,” said Kate Hamm, co-owner of Fish & Whistle on Main Street in Biddeford. “It’s a low-key atmosphere. They’ve been a sanctuary for families who want higher quality food, but not a formal dining experience, and there’s also usually plenty of space to move around.”

Though Fish & Whistle doesn’t have a kid’s menu, as much as 40 percent of its business comes from families with children, and she says the kids love their house specialty: battered, crisp-fried fish.

“Our food is pretty simple, and we try to make it universally appealing,” said Hamm, a James Beard award-nominated pastry chef who bakes the Japanese milk bread buns for Fish & Whistle’s delectable sandwiches. Her partner, chef, and co-owner Jason Eckerson, also has a fine dining background as a former sous chef for Eventide Oyster Co., and the two demonstrate a knack for elevating traditional dishes while still making them feel homey.


“Counter service makes it more casual,” Hamm said. “And our cups are plastic and all of our tableware is pretty durable. Move the chairs and tables around, we’re pretty accommodating. People don’t feel self-conscious here, and kids can be kids.”

Hamm agreed with others that the collective palate has grown more refined in recent generations, leading parents in her millennial generation to seek out better quality food when dining out with their families.

“My generation is definitely more aware of what they’re consuming, and they’re more interested in where it’s coming from,” she said. “I’d say there’s an emphasis on local and higher-quality food. It seems to be we’re a foodie generation.”

“The average restaurant diner today has become more sophisticated and has higher expectations,” said Eric Goodwin, co-owner of the popular all-day brunch spot The Friendly Toast in Portland. He estimated that families make up as much as 70 percent of Friendly Toast’s clientele.

“They are not only looking for good value, but creativity, food that is different. Maine in particular is a very creative, high-quality restaurant and culinary environment where the diners are sophisticated,” he said.

Adam Powers, co-owner of Elsmere BBQ in South Portland, said his restaurant was designed to be a “cornerstone of the neighborhood” from the outset.


“We first opened in 2013, and our whole business model was completely family-oriented 10 years ago. At that time in Portland, family restaurants like this were pretty much nonexistent. We were one of the first places to do family dining in a new way,” Powers said. Today, families account for more than two-thirds of Elsmere’s business.

“Lots of restaurants in Portland were inward-looking and chef-driven. We wanted to be outward-looking, a comfortable place for the community,” Powers said. “Kids absolutely love it here.”

Elsmere has an extensive, nine-item kids menu, including barbecue, burgers, nachos, quesadillas, and flatbreads, and the kids can play free video games while they wait for their food. The restaurant sources humanely raised pork from Quebec, premium briskets from Boston, and air-chilled chickens from Bell & Evans. Yet despite these high-quality ingredients, Powers said Elsmere works hard to keep pricing reasonable – a family of four can have dinner, with drinks and appetizers, for $80 to $100.

Matt Moran left, and Joe Fournier are co-owners of A & C Soda in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


But it’s the personal touch that families appreciate most, Powers said. “Most of all, people come here for the staff. We know their names, they know ours.”

“We used to call it our ‘Cheers’,” said Bethany Smith of South Portland, who regularly ate at Elsmere with her husband and two children when they were younger. “The atmosphere inside is welcoming and you will always bump into another local family there.”


Randy Smith of South Portland said his family also considered it their “Cheers.”

“We started going when they opened,” Smith said. “It was a spot our kids could play on the free arcade game while the grownups decompressed from the daily grind. As the kids got older, we held sports fundraisers there. It’s been a gathering place of familiar faces, our regular go-to when connecting with local friends.”

These neighborhood family restaurants can feel like a home away from home for many. Kate Rizzo of South Portland regularly hits up A & C with her 14-year-old son, Levi.

“We go constantly. A little too much,” she laughs. “We’re proud regulars there and we love it. It’s a very chill vibe in there, and my kid feels like he’s having a good time. I’m happy to have him there eating and actually talking with human beings. Levi doesn’t go on his phone when we’re at A & C, because he’d rather talk to the staff and eat.”

Her son likes the restaurant so much, in fact, that he told Rizzo he wants to get a job there. “I said to him, ‘You realize this is going to involve doing dishes and taking out the garbage?’ And he’s like, ‘Sign me up.’ He can’t wait.”

A & C also gives Rizzo and her son a chance to socialize with the staff and other customers. “It’s a good place to connect with people,” she said. “You’re looking for two things when you go out: to have fun and be well-fed. A place like A & C delivers on both consistently.”

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