I gun my little bright red 1998 Chevy Tracker down southwest Maine’s Route 26, passing the hardware store and Old Pa’s antiques until I make it to Irving Oil on the outskirts of Oxford. I pull in just in time to line up in the parking lot. Not for gas—for fish. It’s mid-July and that means one thing: lobster season.
Every morning, Cantrell’s Seafood trucks their best catches around the state. Oxford isn’t that close to the coast—about an hour and a half from Portland—but it’s the best place to get freshly-caught salmon, scallops, and, of course, lobster. It’s Saturday, which means a meal of lobster rolls freshly made in the parking lot next to Cantrell’s truck, BYOR-style (bring your own rolls).
When we think about gas stations, we tend to think about filling up and getting back on the road as quickly as possible. They’re not places to linger, and certainly not places to eat—unless you find yourself driving around the backroads of Maine. Here you’ll find the kinds of places where it feels like it could still be 1959, 1979, or 1999. Where you can fill up your car and get a sandwich the size of your head. Where the woman behind the counter offers an extra pound of fudge just to “tide you over.” Where you can ask for directions to that swimming hole someone told you about that one time.
Forget Portland’s small plates or tasting menus. These small country stores are also where you can find some of the best food in Maine.
More than a gas station
Route 35 in North Waterford may not take you anywhere you were meaning to go. But it’s worth a detour from Sunday River or Mahoosuc Notch if only to visit Melby’s Market and Eatery, a quintessential diner, general store, and gas station. It’s the kind of place you swing by just to see what’s going on, sit down at the low-slung formica counter, and chat up the servers. Order some pancakes larger than your face (if you finish a stack of them, you win a t-shirt) and a real bison burger before picking up that last-minute sweatshirt, because Maine is always colder than you remember.
If you continue down Route 35 to Long Lake, you’ll drive through Harrison. Its Main Street is a blink-and-you’ll-miss it experience that feels as if it could exist almost anywhere in the U.S. In a nondescript building with only a few parking spots, you can pull up to the Village Tie Up Market & Deli and find whatever you have a hankering for—including cinnamon rolls, a signature “Pontoon” panini, loaded hot dogs, homemade ice cream, and onion rings—before filling up your boat or your car, depending on your mode of transportation.
And on the very edge of Maine’s eastern coast, the forest green Port Clyde General Store feels like the last outpost of civilization. Sit down and stay awhile at the four-person counter for pre-ferry eggs, bacon, or smoothies—or grab last-minute rations of fudge, rain gear, live lobsters, crunchy cookies, bath towels, soap, and paintbrushes. Boats can fill up with gas on the dock but most guests go to and fro, gathering supplies for a stay on idyllic Monhegan Island, accessible only by boat.
Make way for whoopie pies
There’s one thing you can get everywhere in Maine but almost nowhere else: the whoopie pie. The Pine Tree State may be known mostly for its lobster, but it’s the whoopie pie that deserves all the attention. Thick, marshmallow-like frosting slapped between two rounds of sticky chocolate cake comprises the classic, but whoopie pies now come in many flavors including pumpkin and cream cheese, vanilla and maple cream, red velvet, peanut butter, lemon, and mint.
On Route 26 heading toward Old Speck Mountain—one of Maine’s classic 4,000-footers in the Mahoosuc Range—you’ll want to slow down, and not just to watch for moose. You don’t want to risk zipping by Puzzle Mountain Bakery, a colorful roadside stand packed with homemade fresh pies, maple cookies, and, of course, whoopie pies.
“My mom started it in 1999,” says Ryan Wheeler, who took over the bakery six years ago with his wife Devon. “Every day we start fresh. On a busy day in the summer we can have up to 20 different varieties.”
Choose your favorite, drop a few dollars into the box, and be on your way, whether that’s from Montreal to York Beach or off to hike some of the gnarlier Grafton Notch peaks. “It’s definitely special,” Wheeler says. “We get people coming in with their kids saying they used to come in with their parents when they were kids.”
Climb up all the way to the fire tower and you’ll be able to see for miles. Luckily for me, the whoopie pies survive the somewhat strenuous climb. At Douin’s Market at the corner of Routes 2 and 27 in New Sharon, you’ll find an award-winning twist on the classic: the brownie whoopie pie, invented by DeAnne Douin and her husband.
“[My husband] said, ‘I wonder what it would be like to take brownies and put whoopie pie filling between them,’” Douin says. “I was skeptical because I was thinking, nobody’s gonna want that much brownie, that’ll be too much sugar, you know?”
But the next day, people kept coming back asking for more of the inventive dessert. “We’re just a small town market,” Douin says. “Now we ship them all over the world.”
If you go
Due to the spread of COVID-19, many points of interest are currently closed and travel is not recommended. Please check with businesses directly for the latest information on hours, and follow your state and local guidelines. Stay safe!