Dolphin Marina and Restaurant
By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
Dolphin Marina and Restaurant
515 Basin Point Road, Harpswell
For nearly fifty years, Dolphin Marina and Restaurant has been the excuse for a coastal excursion. Motorists, who come by way of Brunswick, travel a pleasant forty-five minutes down the long, narrow South Harpswell peninsula and, just when it seems they will drive straight into the ocean, they hang a couple of sharp rights and amble a few miles more to arrive in Dolphin’s sunbaked boatyard at Basin Point. Boaters, who on glorious summer days nearly fill the restaurant, come ashore having spent the last few hours skimming around the islands of Casco Bay or docked overnight at the marina. Getting there, in other words, is part of the Dolphin experience, an enviable restaurant niche that ensures most diners arrive relaxed, happy, and with good appetites.
“The Dolphin is more than the food,” says Mimi Saxton, who owns the marina and restaurant with her husband, Bill. “We feel honored to be living and working here on this blessed piece of property. It’s only because of my husband’s family that we’re here. We’re very fortunate.”
The Saxtons’ roots on Basin Point go back to the early twentieth century when Bill’s great-grandmother built a summer home on a hill overlooking Potts Harbor. In 1966, his parents, the late Malcolm and Jean Saxton, started the marina and restaurant and established the Dolphin’s reputation for what is arguably Maine’s best fish chowder, served with an enormous, warm blueberry muffin.
Today that chowder, along with the equally celebrated lobster stew, remain Dolphin’s signature dishes, though the restaurant has changed since Malcolm and Jean’s day — modestly in the case of the menu, dramatically in the case of the building. Three years ago the Dolphin opened for the season (April to November) in new quarters, located on the opposite end of the boatyard from the original building, which was charming but dated with its counter and booths. Designed by Texas architect Lou Kimball, a summer resident of Harpswell and a Dolphin regular, the new restaurant expresses the vision of Bill and Mimi’s sons, Chris and Billy Saxton. Outside, it is an unpretentious contemporary take on New England architecture — sort of an oversized Cape with clapboard siding and the main entry on its broad gable end. Inside, the layout is open and airy, with natural wood wainscoting and white walls adorned with paintings by local artists. A bowed dining room with large windows offers a 270-degree view of boat-filled Potts Harbor to the north and east and the wide open Atlantic to the south.
The more sophisticated digs have naturally raised expectations for the food, and the Saxtons have obliged, not by overhauling the menu, but by expanding it. Those seeking the traditional Maine seafood shack fare for which the Dolphin is known are not disappointed: There’s steamed lobster, fried haddock, shrimp and clam dinners, crabmeat and lobster rolls, and, of course, that fish chowder, a rich, soothing bowl with tender haddock and potatoes, its milky surface glistening with butter.
Modern preferences for lighter meals are accommodated with offerings like seared scallops with mashed sweet potatoes and baby spinach, grilled Atlantic salmon with a honey-Dijon glaze, and steamed lobster tails with sweet corn risotto and citrus butter sauce. There is a small selection of pasta dishes, and the specials, which have recently included offerings like lobster quesadilla and caprese salad, are often born in the Saxton family’s kitchens. All of the entrées come with a blueberry muffin, another Dolphin tradition.
There’s nothing gourmet or cutting edge here, and that’s as it should be; fussy food would be contrary to the Dolphin’s casual, easygoing appeal. “We know who we are,” says Mimi. “It’s been exciting to merge the old and the new, while never forgetting where we came from.”
The Dolphin is, as you have no doubt surmised, a family affair. Bill is, in Mimi’s words, “the big cheese,” focusing his energies on running the marina, while Mimi oversees the restaurant, where she is often seen going from table to table, greeting diners and chatting up the regulars. Chris and Billy are actively involved in both businesses, their brother, Jeremy, heads up the kitchen, and sister Maureen manages the front of the house with Chris’s wife, Maya. “It takes all of us to run it,” Mimi says. “It’s all hands on deck.”