July 18, 2019
Getting to the Islesford Dock Restaurant is a boating experience in itself, one not to be missed by visitors to Maine’s Mount Desert Island region. Text & Photography By Tom Richardson
The town of Islesford, on Little Cranberry Island, is one of those special Maine places, where families gather each summer in generations-old cottages overlooking the water and where year-round residents embrace the peace, solitude—and frequent challenges—of out-island life.
Serving as a gathering spot for this isolated yet vibrant community for over 40 years is the Islesford Dock Restaurant, perched at the end of a former coal-landing pier on Hadlock Cove, on Little Cranberry’s western shore.
In 2017, “The Dock”—as it’s known among regulars—was purchased and updated by restaurateur Michael Boland and his partners, island residents Mitch and Emily Rales. We caught up with Boland over the winter and asked him for some insight to the venerable restaurant and what makes it so special.
NEB: Can you provide a bit of background on The Dock and how you and your partners came to buy it?
Boland: The Rales and I bought the Islesford Dock from its longtime operators in the winter of 2017 and reopened that summer. The prior owners had been operating it for 24 years and were preparing to close it down if no buyer was found. Mitch and Emily are summer residents on Mount Desert Island. The Dock has always been an important place to their family and to many others, and we starting talking about buying it to ensure its survival.
NEB: How did you update/change the restaurant and what did you preserve?
Boland: The trick was, as is often the case, changing enough to make needed improvements, but not so much that it changed the vibe or spirit of the place. Maintaining the high quality of the food was a priority, but we’d like to think we improved that, along with the many structural changes we made. Being on an island presents some significant challenges, of course, including the production and usage of water. We installed a reverse-osmosis system to provide high-quality fresh water. Interestingly, it was one of the most appreciated changes. Another thing that hasn’t changed are the sunsets. The restaurant looks due west over Mount Desert Island, providing some of the most stunning sunsets in the country.
NEB: Is there any interesting history about the location?
Boland: The pier on which the restaurant sits was originally built to receive shipments of coal, which was the primary fuel source for the island in winter. The pier is said to date back to the late 1800’s.
NEB: What are some of your signature dishes?
Boland: We were careful to retain some of the long-time favorite menu items, including the fairly famous Islesford Dock Clam Chowder. Everyone has their favorite chowder, but it seems this recipe resonates with people from all over New England and beyond.
We’re also well known for our fantastic burgers featuring a “house secret” caramelized-onion-base marmalade topping and, of course, for the best steamed lobsters around. Folks have been known to make a two-hour boat ride just to get a bowl of our chowder, a dozen oysters and a burger.
NEB: Can you touch upon your focus on the use of local ingredients?
Boland: My wife and I have owned multiple restaurants over the years, and have always believed strongly in local, organic produce—not only for our health and that of our planet, but simply because it makes for better tasting food.
One of the many attractive things about The Dock was the large garden and greenhouse behind the restaurant. We have a full-time gardener/greenhouse manager who grows a multitude of items for the restaurant. Our lobster comes from the Cranberry Isles Fishermans’ Co-op, located on the pier next to ours. Much of our other seafood, including oysters, steamers, mussels and fish, come from Maine.
NEB: How can boaters access the restaurant?
Boland: We have a series of floats off the main pier that are available on a first-come, first-served basis and can accommodate boats up to 60 feet. The floats are exclusively for customers of the restaurant. There are also a number of moorings that we sub out for the mooring owners that boaters can use. Just call ahead and we’ll give you directions.
NEB: Are reservations required?
Boland: Dinner is very crowded and reservations are strongly recommended, but walk-ins are welcome. Lunch reservations, particularly for groups of four and more, are helpful to us to prevent a lengthy wait.
NEB: How far is Islesford from some mainland ports?
Boland: Little Cranberry is just two to three miles from Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor. There is a long-running, 50-year-old ferry service that runs out of Northeast Harbor six times a day in season. The Beal & Bunker Mail Boat also sells tickets on the town dock in Northeast Harbor or by phone. The mail boat takes packages, mail and people out to the islands all year round, and the boat stops at Great Cranberry Island, Sutton Island and Little Cranberry.
NEB: What are some of the other businesses on the pier?
Boland: The Islesford Dock actually comprises a fine-arts gallery featuring original paintings by many renowned local and visiting artists. There is also an amazing pottery shop—Islesford Potter—and a fantastic gift and artisan shop called Winters Work.
NEB: What else is there to see and do on Little Cranberry?
Boland: Steps from the restaurant is a superb little historical museum featuring exhibits and items relating to the island’s past and its lobster industry. The roads that wind through the island serve as great walking or biking paths for exploring.
The “back beach” is amazing—it’s on the eastern side of the island and features a long, cobble beach with sweeping views of the ocean and the former lifesaving station. If you’re interested in wooden boats, the Islesford Boat Works is a fantastic non-profit that focuses on teaching kids how to build boats. Most importantly, the island is home to the Ashley Bryan Center, where you can learn about the famous artist and his work.
THE ISLESFORD DOCK
SEASON: Memorial Day to Columbus Day (but call ahead to be sure!
HOURS: 11:00 a.m.- 10:00 p.m.
CONTACT: (207) 244-7494; islesfo