LAKE SHORE — Mahogany wood gleams from the wainscotting on the walls to the tabletops and polished bar.
The dark, shining wood is a dominant look in the new Bar Harbor restaurant, which officially reopens its doors Tuesday afternoon after a much-anticipated renovation.
The restaurant closed in September. Owner John Allen planned a major renovation and when winter didn’t arrive, he took the opportunity to expand the project and open when spring arrived. Now he’s doing just that and reopening at 4 p.m. Tuesday, the first official day of spring.
It’s a new life for the venerable restaurant that has been part of the lakes area lore since 1938. A vintage photo of the restaurant and its Elbow Room hangs on one of the walls in the new Bar Harbor. The restaurant has two sides, one with white table cloths and fireplace and the other with high tables and bar seating, including an intimate piano bar and nearby stage for a three- or four-piece band.
The rectangular bar takes up the center of the room with seating on all sides, giving patrons a view of Gull Lake.
Shea Inc. architects of Minneapolis designed the restaurant and Gull Lake Construction did the work.
Gone is the gray exterior. Gone is the bar that faced away from the lake. Gone is the gift shop in the base of the light house.
General Manager Chris McHugh said he knows expectations are high. Bar Harbor, he said, is where people met their future spouses and where they celebrated momentous occasions. It was Allen’s vision to pull from the restaurant’s rich tradition and rebuild that grandeur that was present for so many years.
“This is his vision to rebuild Bar Harbor for the community,” McHugh said of Allen.
The vision is to recapture the restaurant’s reputation for quality food and nice customer service, McHugh said.
“We want to be kind of upscale casual,” McHugh said. But McHugh said they are not creating a restaurant just for special occasions. They hope to bring in patrons fresh off a boating excursion as they dock at one of Bar Harbor’s 32 boat slips. The restaurant seats 210 inside and 110 outside. Seating on the deck now has a focal point of a gas stone fire pit and view of Gull Lake. McHugh said they want to incorporate music, such as an acoustical guitar, on the deck. The hope is to create a dining experience whether patrons are off the boat or golf course or celebrating and everything in between, McHugh said.
“We want to be as many things to as many people as we can,” he said.
Photos of wooden boats are displayed near the restaurant’s main entrance and are an indication of one of Allen’s own passions for the classic boats. Allen has been a lakes area resident since 1994. Names of resorts and landmarks are displayed in a line winding around the bar area near the ceiling in the Elbow Room.
The restaurant employs 80. About 177 people applied for jobs at a job fair in Nisswa a few weeks ago. McHugh said they feel they’ve got a guest-focused and hospitality driven staff. At the base of the light house, a wine locker was created. Patrons who live in the area or vacation here will be able to put their own wine bottles behind the mahogany doors of the wine lockers.
Beyond the look and the service, the real measure of a restaurant is the food.
“The food is the engine that’s going to drive our car,” McHugh said.
To that end, Chef P. J. Severson said the kitchen’s focus is on fresh ingredients and meals made in-house. He said the restaurant is focused on a higher-quality of tender meat that incorporates the tradition of the supper club and its steaks.
Severson said the steaks take on a nice sear under 1,400 degrees for something that isn’t seen in the area.
Beyond steaks, the menu features appetizers, entrees, salads, soups, vegetarian dishes, seafood, pasta, Rotisserie chicken, seared tuna. The restaurant includes a late night menu from 10 p.m. to midnight with chicken and waffles, sashimi grade tuna and mini-beef sliders with truffled french fries. A focus is on fresh and vibrant flavor, McHugh said. There are Cajun pork chops, dry-rubbed wings toasted in a sauce, fish tacos, walleye and salmon dishes. The Rotisserie chicken uses a house brine. Shrimp comes in every fashion from scampi to coconut to cocktail. And Severson said they have a traditional Maryland style lump crab cake. Pastas include a fettucini Alfredo.
Prices range from $14 entrees to a 32-ounce porterhouse steak for two at $55. The entrees come with salad, potato and vegetable. A speciality item, Severson said, is a soft pretzel bun. Other items include a spinach salad with vanilla bean vinaigrette.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Severson said, of the ability to work with a restaurant of this size and impact a large customer base in a short amount of time.