“I was running away from here as fast as I could. I couldn’t wait to get out,” says Patrick Doherty. “And now I’m back, and loving it.” Doherty is talking about his hometown of Biddeford, Maine. He left the depressed town about 10 years ago, and returned in 2018 to start up the Nuts & Bolts Brewery, located in the restored Pepperell Mill Campus.
“Ten years ago, there were empty store fronts and pawn shops lining Main Street,” Doherty says. “There are still a few, but it’s a lot better.”
Locals are calling it “the Biddessance,” the rejuvenation of downtown as young chefs, artists, and entrepreneurs, who can’t afford the rising prices in neighboring towns (Kennebunkport, Portland) relocate here to start businesses and raise families.
“There is a wide demographic of people moving to the city both to live and open up or move their businesses here,” says Megan Higgins, director of leasing and marketing for the restored Pepperell Mill Campus. “I think young people are finding it a more convenient and affordable urban area than some of the more established cities just North and South.”
The result is a renewed pride and energy in town, a growing food and art scene, and one of the youngest populations in the state of Maine. Here are five reasons to check it out.
We’d go to Biddeford just for the food. There’s Elda (www.eldamaine.com), helmed by Chef Bowman Brown, recipient of the 2011 Food and Wine Best New Chef Award and a six-time James Beard Semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest. It’s a small, contemporary space with high tin ceilings and brick walls, offering a limited four-course, fixed price menu. Recent dinner offerings featured a tuna and eggplant crepe, razor clam with yuzu kosho and nori, rabbit with sweet corn porridge, and roasted cod with chanterelles. Elements: Books Coffee Beer (www.elementsbookscoffeebeer.com) is a warm, convivial spot to hang out, grab a cup of Joe, nosh on small bites, and listen to live entertainment. Farm to Coast, which started as a popular food truck and catering business (www.farmtocoastcatering.com) is Chef Brian Grossman’s first brick and mortar location, serving breakfast and lunch; try the steamed buns and Korean fried chicken. Craving comfort food? Order hearty biscuit breakfast and lunch sandwiches or biscuits and gravy at Biscuits & Company (www.biscuitsandcompany.com). The tiny, 15-seat Palace Diner, the oldest diner in Maine (www.palacedinerme.com), serves straightforward breakfast and lunch (expect a line out the door), and Dizzy Birds Rotisserie (www.dizzybirdsrotisserie.com) offers spit-roasted chicken and beef platters and piled-high sandwiches.
The city was once a bustling mill town, home to the largest cotton mill in the country. Today, many of the massive mill buildings still loom along the Saco River. The large Pepperell Mill Campus has been transformed into a mixed-use complex of residential and commercial space. The Biddeford Mills Museum offers two-hour walking tours of the mills, from mid-May to mid-October, and also by appointment throughout the year (www.biddefordmillsmuseum.org). The City Theater is an ornate restored 1896 Victorian opera house; it’s a great place to watch top-notch, live shows, musicals, and plays (www.citytheater.org).
Beer & Booze
From Biddeford With Love is the tagline for the Banded Brewing Co. in the Pepperell Mill Campus (www.bandedbrewing.com), with an impressive lineup of beers and a small menu of grilled cheese sandwiches and munchies. You’re also welcome to bring your own food, or to order from Portland Pie located next door. A few doors down is Round Turn Distilling, where you can sample handcrafted Bimini gins and enjoy craft cocktails (www.roundturndistilling.com). The Nuts & Bolts Brewing tasting room, located on the second floor of the mill complex (follow the signs!) is a small, friendly spot to enjoy craft brews (www.nutsnboltsbeer.com). Stop by lounge-y Martini’s on Main for creative cocktails and desserts (www.martinisonmainbiddeford.com), or Uncorked, located next door and owned by the same folks, with an impressive selection of wines by the glass.
The city is surrounded by nature preserves, salt marshes, and wildlife sanctuaries. Take a scenic drive out to beautiful Biddeford Pool, a large tidal pool at the mouth of the Saco River and the Atlantic Ocean, where you’ll have expansive water and rocky coastline views. From here, you can walk the two-mile sandy beach from Biddeford Pool to Fortunes Rocks, a rocky promontory. For a bit more exercise, don your hiking boots and head to Clifford Park (www.cliffordpark.org), with a system of trails crisscrossing 140 acres of fields and forests.
When a second wine tasting bar opens up, you know the city is becoming gentrified. Lorne opened in summer 2019 by Carson James and Erin Sheehan, who had careers in New York City and Dallas, before setting up shop here (www.facebook.com/lornewine). “We visited Maine often and loved this area,” says Sheehan. The urban-chic space has a bar area, serving a nice selection of wines and quality beers by the glass, and a retail wall filled with wines from around the world. The knowledgeable staff can help you select a bottle or two to take home. If you love cookbooks, or all things about food and drink, put Rabelais, located in the North Dam Mill, on your must-shop list. It has the largest selections of rare, out-of-print cookbooks in the country, and thousands of titles from the 16th century to the present (www.rabelaisbooks.com). They’re open by appointment or chance, so call ahead. Suger is a sweet boutique, owned by designer Roxi Suger (www.suger.me). You can find angelrox here, her nationally distributed brand, along with other local and international design labels.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.