LEWISTON — During a recent lunchtime in Lincoln Street's Mill No. 6, tables were filling. The enticing smell of food, the sounds of clinking silverware and soft jazz piano music filled the air.
“Hi, ladies," said Fish Bones American Grill owner Paul Landry, working the door and handing out menus with his wife and co-owner, Kate Landry.
The front area of the upscale-but-casual restaurant features an over-sized bar, leather couch and classic brown-and-black tables and chairs. Walls are exposed brick and the ceilings are thick wooden beams, both remnants from bygone days when the building was a mill. In the back is the “Trophy Room,” which seats 20 privately and is often used for business meetings. Fish mounts of prize catches by Landry's father-in-law hang on the wall.
Fish Bones and a host of other well-regarded restaurants that weren't here 10 years ago are helping to transform Lewiston-Auburn.
It's become a cool destination place to eat out, according to experts, restaurant insiders and those who blog about recreation. And locals staying here to eat out seem to be turning into foodies.
Restaurants that have appeared on the scene include Sea40 (Japanese), Fuel (French), Marché (lunch spot, Fuel's 'sister' restaurant) Forage (organic, local), DaVinci's Eatery (Italian), The Local Grind (bicycle cafe), Boa Thai & Sushi Restaurant, Gritty's (pub), Mother India, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chick-A-Dee of Lewiston (seafood), She Doesn't Like Guthries (eco-friendly wraps, salads), Jasmine Cafe (Asian bistro) and Narals (Arabic and Greek).
“I went down our member list — something like 80 percent started in the last 10 years, in a broad range of different categories, from high-end to local to national chain to family,” said Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce. “It's just amazing — perhaps the biggest change in our community.”
He said he would give the tipping-point award to Eric Agren, who opened Fuel on Lisbon Street in 2007. Agren was huge in helping to get the ball rolling, Morrison said. In recent years, “there's a lot better feeling about our community and staying here, recreation-wise. Restaurants feed into that, too. There are more people eating out, no question.”
Since Agren opened Fuel in March 2007, his online reservations and credit card reports show that half of his customers are from outside Lewiston-Auburn, he said.
“The big ones are Augusta, Freeport, Yarmouth, Brunswick and Portland,” Agren said. When he opened, people told him he was crazy to open a modern French restaurant on Lisbon Street.
“We were busy right out of the gate,” he said. “Our business has grown in double digits since. When I opened, I had an idea in my head of what I thought we would do. It's exceeded those expectations.” Barring a snowstorm, “I can't name a weekend in years when we haven't sold out.”
Dan Caron, director of the Green Ladle culinary school at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center, said locals are not leaving Lewiston-Auburn anymore to eat out.
“Looking back 16 years since I've been teaching at the Green Ladle, Fish Bones didn't exist. Paul Landry is one of the first restaurants that brought up the whole standard.”
After Landry opened Fish Bones in 2005, Agren opened Fuel and Jules Patry expanded DaVinci's to a larger section of the restored Bates Mill. The three “brought up the scene in Lewiston-Auburn,” Caron said.
He offered an example. “A few years ago, it was uncommon for chefs to come to Lewiston-Auburn. Lewiston-Auburn chefs would go to Portland. Now Portland chefs are coming to work here," Caron said. "That shows you how it's changed.”
The Green Ladle itself, which is one of the few, if only, state-of-the-art culinary schools for high school students, opened and expanded in 2007. Cooking classes offered to adults sell out, year-round.
Interest in good food, even in a tough economy, is growing as a recreation, Caron said.
“I've had to train my students to be more diversified, to have a higher skill level,” Caron said. “Restaurants are doing well. They're diversified. It's been amazing.”
His students are finding jobs, Caron said. “Many work at Fish Bones. The executive chef is Heidi Parent from this program." One of Fuel's chefs is Mike Gosselin, another former Green Ladle student.
When the Landrys opened Fish Bones in 2005, “there were a lot of naysayers," he said. "People said, 'I can't believe you're doing this,'” he said. He persisted. “We were the perfect type of restaurant the market needed — a casual, upscale restaurant, a Portland-style restaurant.”
Fish Bones has had some challenges, Landry said, but “we've been real happy with the business."
Many of his customers are Bates College parents and people in town on business. In the early years, local customers ate there mostly on special occasions, birthdays or anniversaries. That's changing, he said. More families are catching up with each other at restaurants. Weekends are the busy “monster nights,” when his staff serves 175 to 225 dinners per night.
“We're pleased," he said.