At The Black Birch in downtown Kittery, proprietors Gavin Beaudry, Benjamin Lord, and Jake Smith ensure the vibe of the restaurant supports their comfort food menu. “We want everyone’s experience to be the experience we want to have when we dine out,” Lord says, which turns out to be a community block party in restaurant form.
Black Birch does not accept reservations, which is a boon for first-timers when there’s a line out front, otherwise the discreet entrance can be tricky to spot. The squat, single-story exterior looks like a post office, which in fact it was during the 1960s, bare but for the lacquered brown tree stump sign propped in the corner of the doorway.
Inside is as lively as the outside is stark. The stools along the wooden bar are often the hardest to nab. Here, a turntable plays vintage vinyl—everything from ZZ Top to David Bowie to De La Soul—while knowledgeable plaid-shirted bartenders mix drinks and pull taps on 20 or so draught beers. Ask them to surprise you, or choose a cocktail from the menu, like the 2 Gov’t with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, house-made grenadine, muddled orange peel, and Fee Aromatic Bitters, or the Reading Room Slippers with Maine Craft Distilling Ration Rum, Amaro Montenegro, and hand-squeezed citrus juice.
The trio opened the doors on December 1, 2011, and joke that for the first week they sold only cocktails and doughnuts. Local patrons knew Beaudry and Lord, who had worked at places like Jumpin’ Jay’s Fish Cafe and Anneke Jans, but Chef Smith, formerly of Lydia Shire’s Scampo and Towne Stove and Spirits in Boston, was a mystery. Word of his talent spread, and soon customers were sampling First Bites with their cocktails, including Marinated Olives, House Pickles, a daily selection of pickled vegetables or fruit, and the signature Deviled Eggs 3 Ways, a menu standard although the set often changes. The eggs encapsulate the tone of Black Birch; a comfort food classic executed with an imaginative, expert touch. A recent interpretation included everything bagel, curried graham cracker, and lemon-asparagus.
Smith changes the menu every few months, sometimes transforming the entire dish and other times only the accompaniments. The Duck Rillette, a mainstay, is served in a mini Mason jar with slices of crunchy toast for smearing. The meaty Chicken Liver Mousse, plated similarly, changes seasonally. “For us it’s about making what could be complicated pieces of food accessible and recognizable and fun,” Lord says. “Sometimes it’s about getting people not to worry even about having a fork and knife.”
In the impossibly tiny kitchen out back, Smith and his staff produce everything in house, from the hand-cut fries for the Poutine and Duck Confit, to pillowy spinach gnocchi accompanying Pork Schnitzel, served under a drippy fried egg and a drizzle of Styrian pumpkin seed oil.
The shared plate concept rounds out the experience. Customers smoosh into communal tables and dig into sides like Caesar Salad or the Roasted Cauliflower, served browned and crisped on a pool of velvety red mole, or dare to double-dip gooey Grilled Cheese into Smith’s tangy Tomato Soup. Entrees like the Black Birch Fish and Chips, an enormous fillet of haddock deep-fried to a knobby golden brown and served over house-cut fries and shredded cabbage and carrot slaw, would be an impossible feat for one.
The kitchen offers two to four desserts daily, chalked on the board above the kitchen pass-through. Perhaps as a humble reminder of how far they’ve come, they usually offer a doughnut, like Piña Colada Doughnuts, dusted with toasted coconut flakes and served with a smear of tropical fruit puree, as well as some variation of custard, mousse, or cake.
“We’ve done our job if we can coax people into the small plate experience,” Beaudry says. “When people share food with friends, it’s the most fun and interactive experience we could hope for.”