Drive In Down East 4 September 2011

ME State Route 102 is a two-lane highway that stretches like a lazy figure 8 across the western lobe of Mount Desert Island.  It was built in the early 1930s as a continuation of the highway that connected Augusta, the state capital, with down east, via Belfast and Ellsworth along the coast.  In the late 1930s, that route was designated ME 3 and continued onward to Bar Harbor, the island’s biggest town and the social center of the summer rusticators.  102, by contrast, served the more hard scrabble working towns of the island’s quiet side: Southwest Harbor, Tremont, Bass Harbor.

As such, 102 was never overrun by the tourist honky tonk that typified the state’s major coastal highways, like Route 3 and especially U.S. 1, as it runs from the state line in Kittery all the way to Canada.  By the middle of the last century, critics were bemoaning the degraded state of those roadsides.  In Harper’s, Bernard deVoto complained that the coastal routes had degraded into a “neon slum” of tawdry amusements and cheap-jack restaurants, of drive-ins and diners.

E.B. White was somewhat kinder in the New Yorker, calling Maine’s highways “a mixed dish” of “Gulf and Shell, bay and gull, neon and sunset, cold comfort and warm, the fussy facade of a motor court right next door to the pure geometry of an early-nineteenth-century clapboard house with barn attached.”  For White, however unavoidable “the garish roadside stand” might be, the traveler was always conscious of a “triumphant architecture” just beyond it: an extended, unspoiled landscape of pine trees and granite that managed, along with the occasional deer and fox, to “creep within a few feet of the neon and the court.”

There are only a few places left on Route 1 where you can sense White’s creeping pine trees today, and Moody’s in Waldoboro is one of them.  Moody’s opened in 1927 and when White and deVoto were driving the coast, it was the only 24/7 establishment between Portland and Bangor (it closes at 9 pm these days; 10 pm on weekends). But for its iconic neon sign, Moody’s isn’t much to look at: a modest lunch wagon expanded to trailer proportions with two ADA ramps flanking a double-wide entrance.

With living pine trees so close to the building one wonders why it was necessary to decorate the vestibule’s fake shutters with cut-out pine trees.  (One also wonders why those fake shutters were necessary in the first place, but that’s a subject for another day.)  Perhaps those little pine trees are a talisman against destruction.  Widening Route 1 is a persistent threat and for miles up and down the coast big box sprawl has overwhelmed the small-scale roadside stands of an earlier automotive era.  This is one reason places like Moody’s are so revered.  The quality of the diner’s whoopie pies is another.

Whoopie pies are not on the menu of the Seawall Drive-In one hundred miles north on Route 102, but pine trees and granite are very nearby.  And while the place lacks neon, it does have sea-foam green accents on the coping of the modestly canted roof, the bollards separating the parking and picnic areas, and the log fence along the road.  In Miami Beach this would barely register as color, but a New Englander might find it a a touch garish.  I am not a New Englander (indeed, I was born in Miami, which may explain a few things), so the place charms me.

On a bright summer day, few things are better than a freshly painted CMU box, especially when it’s got a plate glass storefront with aluminum flashing outlining the alternating heights of the display and ordering windows, which have both sliders and louvers.

Frederick Kiesler abstraction it ain’t, but that’s a smiling sort of modernism the Seawall is showing to Route 102–one that would be even more obvious from the road if the proprietor hadn’t blocked the view with split-rail planters and plastic armchairs with faux-caning on the seats and backs.

The drive-in takes its name from a natural barrier of smooth granite rocks that separates the pounding ocean from a tranquil pond just down the road in Acadia National Park.  It’s called a natural seawall because humans didn’t actually build the thing, though they had something to do with the asphalt and the yellow lines.

The Drive-In was abandoned for many years but it reopened recently, which I learned while reading maine., purchased at the Whole Foods in Portland before heading up the coast.  The magazine is beautifully produced, if a bit too self-conscious–note the miniscule letters and the punctuation in the title.  And if its design reflects the long shadow of Martha Stewart Living, it’s got a better sense of humor–note the backside of the camper in the tent pictured on the cover.  Plus, you have to appreciate a publication that knows its demographic so clearly (recall where I got my copy): “upscale readers who have a passion for all things Maine.”  As long as those things include only the accoutrements of bourgeois privilege, craft beers and weekend getaways, and not, say, the crushing poverty of the inland counties or the deleterious effects of gentrification on the working harbors of the coast.

At any rate, “engaged and active” reader that I am, I took maine.’s recommendation to check out the under-new-management Seawall Drive-In and drove down the lower loop of Route 102 (officially 102A).

The Seawall still serves the kind of roadside fare you’d expect in these parts (hamburgers, lobster rolls, clam chowder) but with an emphasis on fresh and local and biodegradable plates, forks, and spoons.

I can attest to the quality of the Maine-raised beef.  The burger I had on my first visit was quite good, as was the blueberry lemonade.  And the pleasantness of the setting, whether at midday or on towards evening, undoubtedly enhances one’s enjoyment of the food.

As for the Seawall’s frozen confections, they needed no enhancing whatsoever, though that 7-mile hike to the summits of Norumbega and Parkman Mountains probably didn’t hurt.  The blueberry gelato rivaled any you’d get at Giollitti, and since you’d be unlikely to find wild Maine blueberries anywhere in Rome, this drive-in down east just might have the Eternal City beat.

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