Chicky's Fine Diner has its own art collection. That fact makes owners Chicky Stoltz and Blake Smithson laugh a bit, but they're also proud. When they opened Chicky's, an upscale diner in downtown Westbrook, in spring 2004, they lined up an exhibit of a friend's black and white photos of the mill town. As months passed, they showed other photographers' work; occasionally artists and even customers began giving Stoltz and Smithson prints that they'd made or picked up in their travels, thinking they'd look good in the diner's wide-open dining room.These days, between shows, Stoltz and Smithson hang the official Chicky's art collection, which otherwise rests on the floor in their small office down the hall from the bathrooms.
Stoltz and Smithson's attitude about their art collection — casual and accepting of outside input, but with a firm sense of what they like — is a good metaphor for their overall approach to Chicky's, a comfortable place where families, hipsters, and longtime Westbrook residents mingle easily, and the food is simple and tasty.
Smithson, 37, dreamed up the "fine diner" idea while attending the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont during the mid-1990s. "I came up with it thinking it was totally unique," he says, chuckling. "It turns out that places like the Fog City Diner in San Francisco have been doing this for twenty-five years."
As practiced at Chicky's, the fine diner concept means that entrees include diner standbys such as meatloaf and burgers, but that the meatloaf comes with horseradish ketchup, for example, and that there are eight variations on the burger, one of which includes such high-end accoutrements as feta cheese and avocados. (The Sills Burger, which Smithson borrowed from a San Antonio burger joint where he ate every day after school, goes in an entirely different direction, with mesmerizing toppings of refried beans, corn chips, red onion, and salsa). "We took the classic American diner as the starting point," says Smithson, who created the menu with input from Stoltz, who is thirty-three. "We stripped it down and made everything from scratch, and then we added some things I grew up with — some Tex-Mex and rural southern dishes — and some stuff we really like."
The duo also paid lots of attention to what their customers wanted. Chicky's took over the space that had been occupied for more than a decade by the Cornerstone, a straightforward family restaurant and neighborhood gathering spot. According to Smithson, Cornerstone regulars — many of whom were unhappy with the change — continually asked if the duo would add such Maine standbys as baked haddock and fried scallops to the menu. Smithson admits he was unenthusiastic about the former dish ("I fought it tooth and nail," he says) until another cook showed him a technique that didn't dry out the fish. Both items are now on the menu, though the haddock, described as "basil-crusted" and served with a white wine sauce, has a Chicky's twist.
In another diner throwback, each entree comes with two sides; diners can choose from a list of about a dozen options, ranging from standard veggies such as corn or green beans to throwbacks like hush puppies and tater tots, which are displayed on a large chalkboard hanging in the open kitchen. For patrons of a certain age, the tater tots may as well be Proust's madeleine, their crisp coating and creamy interior bringing back a rush of school cafeteria memories.
There's a sense of gleeful decadence to much of the food, as in the bacon-wrapped pork filet, which started as a special and then earned a permanent spot on the menu. It's a meat-lover's dream, with the saltiness of the bacon enhancing the mellower flavor of the pork filet, all topped with orange-pecan barbecue sauce. The indulgence extends to the portions, which are frequently more than generous, even as the entrees stay entirely reasonably priced, ranging from $10 to $22. "We do try to have stuff that's good for people," says Smithson. "I don't want people to come in every night and eat chicken-fried steak, or they're not going to be around to eat here all that long."
The healthier options range from a number of non-fried fish dishes, including haddock tacos with fruit salsa, another dish that began as a special, to a handful of ambitious salads that come either dinner- or starter-sized. But then there are the desserts — such treats as carrot cake, peanut butter pie, and Indian pudding, in a lineup that changes frequently. Alicia Van De Water, an amateur baker who started at Chicky's as a waitress, learned the dessert recipes from the pastry chef who helped open the restaurant; since then, Van Der Water has made the position entirely her own, Smithson says, with customers frequently phoning to order one of her carrot cakes for a special occasion.
as good as the food is at Chicky's, the experience of eating there is as much a part of the occasion as the meal. First there's the thought of a hip hangout in Westbrook, the town once known across Maine for its paper mill smell and its neglected downtown. In recent years, city officials have worked to revitalize the downtown area, adding a boardwalk along the Presumpscot River, which flows through town right behind Main Street, and encouraging business development. While there's still not much to see if you were to stroll Main Street after dinner, on a recent Saturday afternoon Stoltz pointed out a handful of retail and office renovation projects within sight of Chicky's wide plate glass windows.
Smithson and Stoltz, who met while working at Aurora Provisions, the gourmet shop in Portland's West End, chose Westbrook in part because of its ongoing renaissance. That meant that they got lots of support from the city — in fact, they say, city officials frequently ask Chicky's to cater meetings or stop in for a working lunch — and that they had access to a group of diners who didn't have many other nearby options. "Casa Novello had lines out the door every night," says Stoltz of the well-reviewed Italian restaurant down the street. "Obviously people want to spend money on good food here."
Smithson and Stoltz saw another opportunity in their new restaurant: they could have live music pretty much every night. Smithson refers to them both as "reformed musicians" — Stoltz in particular played in several high-profile Portland bands — who wanted to keep a hand in the business without actually performing themselves. They book acts with broad appeal, ranging from the bluegrass of the Saccarappa Boys to the blues-laced R&B of the Tone Kings, with forays into jazz, salsa, folk, and other roots genre.
What remains constant, though, is Smithson and Stoltz's commitment to keeping Chicky's from becoming a flash-in-the-pan nightspot. "We could have ended up as a place filled with college kids and that hipster niche," says Smithson. "But we wanted to have a place with hipsters and with families, and everyone would be happy."
"And," adds Stoltz with a wry smile, "a place where we can get to bed before midnight."
Chicky's Fine Diner is located at 3 Bridge Street in Westbrook. It is open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. 207-854-9555. www.chickysfinediner.com