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Kittery, home to so much more than outlets

Ten years ago, there wasn’t much going on in Kittery’s Foreside area. Today, there are restaurants, shops, and cafes, including Lil’s.
Ten years ago, there wasn’t much going on in Kittery’s Foreside area. Today, there are restaurants, shops, and cafes, including Lil’s.(Ted Axelrod)

KITTERY — There’s a tangible sense of history here. Yes, here in Kittery. No, we’re not talking about the fifth anniversary of, say, the Ugg outlet.

If you live within an hour or two of the “Gateway to Maine,” as the state’s oldest town bills itself, you’re likely to have taken advantage of the clusters of more than 100 outlet stores along the Route 1 corridor just north of the New Hampshire border. While the deals are undeniably great, the sense of culture is, shall we say, off the rack.

But perhaps you’ve taken a wrong turn on your way back to the Interstate. You may well have rounded the corner into a real organic bastion of one-of-a-kind restaurants, shops, and services, tucked away in an old New England enclave by the waterfront and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. In stark contrast to the outlet malls just a mile or so down the road, Kittery’s Foreside neighborhood has developed a well-deserved reputation over the past few years as an offbeat, authentic, inviting place to cool off your credit cards.

Ten years ago, there wasn’t much going on in the Wallingford Square area besides the Corner Pub, the barnlike bar where Navy Yard workers have been playing darts for decades. “There was a fair amount of hair salons and a coffee place,” recalls Donna Ryan, who, with her partner, Andy Livingston, took a chance and opened Anneke Jans, the beloved bistro that still anchors the block today.

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They went on to open A. J.’s Wood Grill Pizza, featuring authentic Buffalo wings from a recipe Ryan learned in her hometown in upstate New York. She and Livingston have since sold both businesses, but they live nearby, on Cape Neddick, in York; Ryan still feels deeply connected to the Foreside.

“This is going to sound old-fashioned, but everyone takes care of each other,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of places left where people talk to you, and say hello.”

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On a cold recent night, Justin Brown sat at the bar at Rudders Public House, a tin-ceiling beer-and-burger joint on the square. A carpenter, still wearing his work pants and a tasseled ski hat, he’d brought along a book on cabinetry. He hadn’t cracked it — too busy talking to new friends on either side of his barstool.

A product of Boston’s North Shore, he moved with his future wife up to Kittery to buy a two-family house with his mother-in-law. Though he’d spent some time in Gloucester, he wasn’t entirely convinced he’d be comfortable living on the coast of Maine, until they settled into the home.

“Now I wouldn’t leave,” he said, before excusing himself to shovel his roof.

When Brown is by himself, he likes to frequent the bar at the Black Birch (just “the Birch” to the locals). Serving artisanal comfort food — deviled eggs, pork schnitzel, Reubens — with specialty cocktails and a long list of microbrews, in just a few years the place has become as much a meeting ground as the nondescript building’s unlikely former tenant, a small-town Post Office.

Just around the corner is another new mainstay, Lil’s Cafe, a brightly lighted, brick-walled bakery and sandwich shop that recently expanded into the next-door space of a former bookstore. Owned by Michael Landgarten, the Kittery proprietor of two Route 1 institutions, Bob’s Clam Hut and Robert’s Maine Grill (where the Moxie-and bourbon barbecue steak tips are a specialty), Lil’s is named for the late longtime cashier at the Clam Hut. Keeping it all in the family, as these Foresiders seem to do.

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Landgarten’s purchase and renovation of the big old Masonic lodge that dominates much of Wallingford Square has pushed the neighborhood’s development to its tipping point. The building is now home to such connoisseur-attracting businesses as Maine Meat (stylized MEat), a locally sourced “whole animal” butchery, and Folk, a finely curated, gallery-style gift shop.

With such rampant craftsmanship on display, the neighborhood now claims its own craft brewer and tasting room, Todd Mott’s Tributary Brewing. The gentrification of the Foreside has ample room for ethnicity too: One of the area’s longer-running restaurants, Tulsi, offers award-winning Indian food from chef Rajesh Mandekar, while the Kittery Dance Hall, home to an arts organization offering classes and community projects, books several shows each month featuring a global mix of performers. (Upcoming shows include reggae, Cuban dance music, and a tribute to the Afrobeat master Fela Kuti.)

By now there can be no doubt: This little corner of the state of Maine has firmly established itself as a destination for the H-word that dares not speak its name.

“I don’t like the terminology,” said one of the baristas at Lil’s recently, “but people say you know the area is up-and-coming when the hipsters move in.” In the Foreside, she said, “the hipsters have definitely moved in.”

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James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.