I jumped a little when I first walked into the guest room we usually occupied during our week in Maine. What I thought was the new family cat was actually a small sculpture of a seal, staring up from under a bench with Kewpie Doll eyes.
“What’s that?” I asked Dan. It hadn’t been there last time we visited.
“Oh! That’s Andre,” he replied so matter-of-factly, like obviously you know about the beloved seal that was basically the mascot of a small Maine town for like 20 years and they made a terrible kids’ movie about it and I can’t believe you’re asking me this question. “We can go see the harbor where he lived if you want.”
And so I learned the second best thing about Rockport, Maine. The first best thing is the existence of Shepherd’s Pie.
It’s easy to figure out the clever reference in the restaurant’s name by a quick look at the facade, a quick walk up the hill from the Rockport harbor—where Andre frolicked for most of his long seal life (26 years!) and where a slightly more stately statue than the one in our bedroom keeps watch. The place isn’t just named for the shepherd’s pie on the menu and all the comforting, warming qualities that dish evokes, but for the fact that it’s housed in the Shepherd Building. A photo tucked away in the bathroom shows off the former Shepherd Company grocery that used to inhabit the space.
On this August weeknight, we were one of the first diners to slide our weary lighthouse-overloaded bones onto seats at the long bar at 4:30 pm. Dennis, the affable barkeep, simultaneously trained a new hire in the art of making a jalapeño-laced cocktail while nudging me into ordering two dishes. Though the menu’s divided into short sections—Bar Snacks, From the Grill, Plates—nearly any item save a few snacks is big enough to satisfy on its own, and no one will shame you for choosing only one thing or sharing plates.
So despite hoovering down haddock tacos at Home Kitchen Cafe in Rockland only hours before, a spot opened up in my stomach for both the pork belly sandwich, stacked with housemade pickles and dripping with red pepper jelly, and all of the freshly fried tortilla triangles that scooped up every last strand in a heaping coupe of Maine crab ceviche. (Dan, of course, had a burger, this one with local cheese, purple mustard, and tomato confit in place of ketchup. He cleaned the plate.)
Though I pride myself on seeking out the small gems, the holes-in-the-wall, the best bites to eat on any trip, this surpassed pretty much every expectation. The food at Shepherd’s Pie is better than the food I’ve eaten at some of Portland’s critically-acclaimed-yet-shall-not-be-named restaurants. It’s better, and better priced, than the food at some of Manhattan and Brooklyn’s precious locavore bistros.
It was so good, in fact, that we did the drive again—almost an hour each way—from the homestead near Wiscasset to Rockport a few days later, this time with family in tow. (A repeat visit to a restaurant on vacation? Who are you and what have you done with Casey?) Chef Brian Hill has said in interviews that he intended this place as a more casual sibling to his schmancier Francine Bistro just up the road in Camden, and Shepherd’s Pie’s no-reservations policy was in full effect at 8:00 pm on a Saturday night.
No matter. Another quick walk to visit Andre’s harbor and a round of bar snacks killed the hour-long wait. Seated at one of the cushy banquettes built into the restaurant’s front bay windows, we filled every square inch of the table with plates of the signature fried clam tacos, Berkshire pork with salted caramel, fried chicken with vinegar dipping sauce, cheesy grits, buttery green beans, another pork belly sandwich because I’d talked it up so much, and bowls of salty fresh-cut fries. We thanked Dan’s family for letting us bunk with the Andre sculpture the best way we could. With food.
I even managed to snag the last bottle of Lunch IPA, a gorgeous cult brew (so small batch it’s only been brewed twice!) from Maine Beer Company. The beer is named after yet another Maine mammal, a whale with a “bite” out of her fin who’s been spotted swimming up and down the coast for years. Lunch doesn’t have a statue in her honor yet, but give it time. In a few years, maybe I’ll make my own little sculpture to put in the guest room next to Andre.
Shepherd’s Pie, 18 Central St., Rockport, ME. 207-236-8500. No reservations.