The quiet, dignified streets of the Down East town of Castine are lined with more than 300 flourishing elms that, thanks in part to the coastal town’s continuing care and maintenance, survived the nation’s Dutch elm blight of the early 20th century.
They shade the lawns of grand and gloriously preserved Federal and Georgian homes and inns set on land that rolls gently down to Castine Harbor, where shingled and weathered boat houses stand alongside Dennett’s Wharf.
First built as a sail loft to manufacture big canvases and at one time home to nine-pin bowling lanes, Dennett’s Wharf has been a restaurant and lounge for at least two generations now. Among the handful of spots in town to get a cocktail and a bite to eat, for residents, it’s most like an extension of home.
But last winter, changing circumstances – including retirement, illness, COVID and new ownership – meant that none of those places, including Dennett’s Wharf, planned to open this summer season. A forlorn feeling set in among the town’s 1,300 year-round residents – after two-plus pandemic years, people were aching to get out.
“Suddenly there was nowhere in town for people to get together anymore,” said Cassie Vogell, a Castine native whose great-grandfather built the Castine Inn on Main Street in 1898.
Beyond sentiment and social needs, the prospect of a summer without most of Castine’s restaurants was an economic concern, too. Vogell had worked at Dennett’s Wharf for several years in the past, including last year with her 16-year-old daughter, Hailey, when the restaurant was briefly called Otter’s.
So, the town took the situation into its own hands, like it did almost a hundred years earlier with the elms, and set out to reopen Dennett’s Wharf.
Castine is postcard-pretty, and its residents have taken care to keep it so for centuries. The town is steeped in history that predates the American Revolution. So much history that even a road sign that mistakenly says, “Welcome to Historic Castine, Settled 1613” is left standing uncorrected.
“Castine was first inhabited in the early 1630s,” explained Lisa Simpson Lutts, executive director of the town’s historical society. But because the sign is over 100 years old, she said, it’s now part of the history.
Dennett’s Wharf has been one of the most beloved destinations in Castine since the 1980s.
“It’s the kind of place where, when you walk in, you usually see 10 of your best friends,” Vogell said.
The family restaurant, perched right on the town’s bustling harbor, is a local institution – part eatery, part watering hole and part community hub.
“Dennett’s Wharf was a real focal point for the entire town,” said Gary Brouillard, who owned and ran the restaurant with his wife, Carolyn, for 21 years until the early 2000s. “That place has fed a lot of people.”
Carolyn Brouillard now runs Windmill Hill Gardens and Market, where an old Dennett’s Wharf sign and a black-and-white photo of the 19th-century wharf building grace the back wall.
“We weren’t the best restaurant in town, but it was a place people would come two or three times a week,” she said.
Dennett’s Wharf has had other owners and even names in recent years, but remained the preferred hangout through it all.
By the beginning of February, building owner Kipp Parish had learned that Otter’s, the restaurant that leased the wharf for the 2021 season, was moving its operation to Florida and so would not return this year. Parish put in a Hail Mary call to Dan Leader, baking guru and founder of New York State’s renowned Bread Alone Bakery who moved to Castine just before the pandemic, to see if he might know someone who could take over the space.
Leader immediately thought back to the previous year, when he was buying produce at nearby Four Season Farm in Brooksville and met Max Katzenberg, a restaurateur who had been general manager for multiple Michelin-rated restaurants in Manhattan, and more recently had been co-owner of the highly praised Brooklyn restaurant Olmsted.
“You know when you meet someone, and it feels like something special, you just know it’s right? It was like that,” Leader said of his first interaction with Katzenberg.
At the start of the pandemic, Katzenberg and his pregnant wife decamped to Maine for a few months so they could deliver their child in a healthier environment than COVID-inundated New York City hospitals could provide at the time. Katzenberg had enjoyed Maine many times before on vacation, but he and his wife, Chloe, soon grew smitten by their surroundings and made Deer Isle their new permanent residence in 2020.
In January, Leader reached out to Katzenberg to ask if he would visit Dennett’s Wharf in person, in case anyone in his professional network might be interested in reopening it. From landlord Parish’s call to Leader, to Leader’s call to the young restaurateur, “the great Castine search party had begun,” Katzenberg said.
“I remember thinking it was stunning when I first saw it,” Katzenberg said of the high-ceilinged restaurant space and the vast deck that boasts panoramic harbor views. “But I was also thinking, ‘There’s no way I can do this.’ ”
Katzenberg, 34, was a new father and elbows-deep in another revitalization project. He and partner Matt Spector, also of Deer Isle, had bought the Stonington community institution Harbor Cafe, and they were busy with renovations for the upcoming season. What’s more, Katzenberg’s capital was tied up in the cafe.
“But there’s something about this area,” Katzenberg said, explaining how, in the end, he couldn’t pass on Dennett’s Wharf. “The beauty and the people. Once you spend time up here, you come to love it and want to support it. It would’ve been foolish to turn it down.”
Katzenberg would need backing, and so Leader put a call out around the community to see if anyone might want to invest in the new Dennett’s Wharf. He wasn’t sure what response he’d get, but knew community interest was high.
“People have a rich emotional attachment to Castine,” Leader said. When he held the first teleconference with prospective investors in April, 57 people were on the call.
BUILDING A TEAM
Meanwhile, Katzenberg needed to assemble a management team for the restaurant. He’d need an executive chef and a general manager, stat. He contacted Ingrid Paronich, 41, an industry veteran with the likes of Gramercy Tavern and Le Bernardin on her resume. And before Katzenberg had a chance to give her the elevator pitch, Paronich said she’d really love to spend the coming season working in Maine, if he knew of any opportunities. He did.
Even more perfect, Paronich had been working as director of operations for a hospitality group in the Hamptons, overseeing high-volume waterfront restaurants, making her expertise all the more valuable. She flew up on a frigid day in February to tour the wharf with Katzenberg.
“When I saw that view from the deck,” Paronich said, “I knew from experience how important and special that view is.” And the plan for Dennett’s Wharf that Katzenberg outlined for her sounded very much like the Hamptons restaurants she’d managed.
“It was almost eerily similar, just in a different state,” Paronich said. She knew right away she was in.
“This whole thing came together so organically and so quickly,” Katzenberg recalled. “Good things, good opportunities kept happening so consecutively, how can you say no? It really felt meant to be.”
He called Taylor Hester, a chef he’d worked with at Olmsted. Hester, 30, had climbed the elite ranks of Sean Brock’s brigade at Husk restaurant in Nashville, before joining Katzenberg in 2017, when Olmsted made Food & Wine magazine’s Restaurants of the Year list and ranked among the nation’s best new restaurants in Bon Appetit and Esquire.
Katzenberg said he was simply hoping Hester would know someone who might want to become Dennett’s new executive chef. Hester traveled up to Dennett’s Wharf in March to see it in person, and the visit moved him to take the job himself.
“There’s an energy in the building even when it’s empty,” Hester said. “It almost feels like the walls are talking. You can feel the history. It’s so beautiful, and it’s tied to the water itself.”
With the core team in place, the real work got underway: hiring and training dozens of staff, building inventory, nailing down the menu and perfecting the dishes, not to mention refurbishing and furnishing the interior and deck.
“I’ve opened a few restaurants in my life, but never in two and a half months before,” Paronich said in late May.
Nearly 30 locals and longtime seasonal residents invested in the new restaurant, raising six figures in just two weeks, according to Leader.
“This speaks to a lot of good-hearted people wanting to do some good in a tiny town,” he said.
In mid-June, the day before it was set to open five days a week for the summer, Dennett’s Wharf held an early evening soft opening. It was a casual event, meant to identify trouble spots in service or food prep.
“We have a group of young people who are open to leadership and willing to learn,” Katzenberg said of Dennett’s Wharf’s 30-plus new staffers. “The more they taste the food, the easier it is for them to buy in. As a manager, this is really refreshing.”
Hostess Sophia Biggie, who found work at Dennett’s Wharf just like her mom did when she was 18, explained to a guest the story behind a couple dozen folded dollar bills that appear to be stuck to the high-vaulted ceiling.
The interior of Dennett’s Wharf features various playful nods to local history. Cadets from the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine traditionally pin their name badges up on a wall by the bar when they graduate, as they’ve done in other Castine eateries and pubs. A blackboard sign from the 1984 Maine State Oyster Eating Championship held at Dennett’s Wharf has the apparent winning tally scratched in chalk at the bottom: 144 in 20 minutes.
But the dollar bills are quintessential Dennett’s Wharf. To demonstrate how they get on the ceiling, Katzenberg takes a thumbtack and sticks the pin through George Washington’s nose on a dollar bill. He sets a half-dollar coin – they keep a stash of these on hand for just this purpose – in the middle of the bill, then folds paper in over the coin to make a tight bundle. He whips the bill underhand toward the ceiling, where it sticks with the rest.
The tradition started with a customer from Utah who came into the restaurant in 1990, Carolyn Brouillard said.
“He said to us, ‘Have I got a trick for you,’ ” she recalled. “And he threw the dollar bill up there on the ceiling, and it stuck. We all thought it was fun, so we threw some up there, too. Then later, guests came in asking about the dollars up there, and wanted to throw some up there also. Wasn’t long before there was a lot of money up there.”
And the Brouillards put the money to good use. After Sept. 11, they took all the bills from the ceiling – totaling $12,313, Brouillard said – and donated it to the wife of the elevator operator at the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World restaurant, who died in the attacks. Some years later, they pulled down another $12,000 to help hurricane victims.
“If a customer asks how they all got up on the ceiling, I tell them, just give me a dollar, and I’ll show you,” laughed Cassie Vogell, who is front-of-house manager at Dennett’s Wharf, working again alongside her daughter, Hailey.
In the kitchen, Hester and his sous chef, Camila Rinaldi, formerly of Olmsted, worked the line and guided their 10 cooks and prep cooks as they served up items from the new menu Hester put together. Dishes include plenty of seafood classics, much of it sourced from top-quality purveyor Buxton Day Boat Fresh in Stonington, including lobster rolls, crunchy yet light fried belly clams, mussels and fries, beer-battered haddock and five local oyster selections from the raw bar.
Hester rounded out the menu with items like a wagyu steak sandwich, broccolini panini, a cobb salad with lobster, and in another nod to local tradition, Dennett’s crab melt, a popular item from the restaurant’s past. The Georgia native also shows off his roots with expertly executed Southern dishes, like fried green tomatoes with pimiento cheese and fried chicken drizzled with honey and served with white barbecue sauce.
“How do you make people feel like they’re eating this familiar food for the first time? By not pushing boundaries and making it something really funky and pretentious and weird,” Hester said. “Nobody wants a weird lobster roll.”
The management team at Dennett’s Wharf knows that before you can exceed expectations, you must first meet them. Paronich said they debated early on whether to call the operation something other than Dennett’s Wharf. They were concerned about backlash they might get from nostalgic customers if they felt the new Dennett’s had changed too much from what they remembered. The restaurant had operated briefly under other names in the past, anyway, including Otter’s, The Wharf and 15 Sea St. Bar & Grill.
“But then people told me, it doesn’t matter what you call it, people will still call it Dennett’s,” Paronich said. “The name is something that was never broken, and folks tried to fix it a couple of times. Why would we do that too?”
At tables inside and on the deck, guests seemed delighted with their food and drinks, happier still – thrilled, really – to have another season at Dennett’s Wharf.
“I think it feels fresh, open and relaxing,” said Diane Modesett, as early evening sunlight poured into the dining room. She and her husband, David, residents of Houston who have been visiting Castine for more than 20 years, are among the Dennett’s Wharf investor group. “It’s a great fit, and it feels very healthy. It’s reinvigorating, this new tide of ideas and talent. We’re starting to see the next generation take over in town.”
David Modesett said the resurrection of Dennett’s Wharf may portend good things for Castine. “If this restaurant thrives, then the village of Castine is energized, and more people will stay in the inns, bring their boats here, shop at the bookstore, the galleries, the variety store. Jobs are created, taxes paid and the community has a place to gather and enjoy meals together.”
“It’s the beginning of a new chapter for Castine,” Leader added. “The town is definitely coming alive again.”