‘The advantage of being local for so long is that you know everyone’

51 Main brings food, community to downtown Liberty

Posted:  Monday, November 20, 2017 - 10:45pm
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LIBERTY — When Tom Opper, of Liberty Graphics, purchased a dilapidated antique residence perched on a hill just up the street from his shop early in 2015, he had his sites set on adding a restaurant to the small, eclectic Waldo County village of Liberty. The building, located at 51 Main St., was in rough condition after sitting unoccupied for years. Opper saw the opportunity to purchase it out of foreclosure and transform it into a viable asset to the community.

While Opper has owned Liberty Graphics for four decades, he does not have a background in the restaurant business. Though he knew he wanted a restaurant to occupy the freshly renovated space, he said he saw the arrangement working out in any number of ways, he had even tapped Nadine Cotier, the veteran cook at Bowen’s Tavern, to head the kitchen. He ultimately decided to rent the space to Andre Blanchard, who is the official owner/operator of the cafe, aptly named 51 Main for its location. Blanchard opened 51 Main for business in late September, with Cotier working the kitchen.

Opper explained that his own retail operation in Liberty Village is a tremendously important part of the Liberty Graphics business model.

“Retail is important to us, and to the downtown,” Opper said.

“I had been looking to open a restaurant for a while, I live in Liberty and wanted something close to home,” Blanchard said.

He said that he heard that Tom (Opper) was renovating a building, and he reached out. Opper was receptive to his call, and the two began the process of negotiating a rental agreement.

“I think it’s a really good fit,” Blanchard said.

Though the restaurant will be open year-round, Blanchard said he envisions a steady crowd in the summer, including shoppers from Liberty Tool and Liberty Graphics. He said he has already received laudatory feedback from locals who are thrilled to have a place to get lunch or brunch close to home.

“A community is not really a community unless it has food,” Opper added, reflecting on the impetus for opening a restaurant in Liberty Village.

He added that Liberty now boasts two full liquor licenses — 51 Main is equipped with a full bar as is La Mesa, a new Mexican restaurant slated to open nearby.

Additionally, the town has two breweries: Liberty Craft Brewing and the recently opened Lake St. George Brewing.

Danny McGovern, of Lake St. George Brewing, will be designing and installing a tap tower at 51 Main, and Blanchard said that they hope to have as many as five of the brewery’s locally crafted offerings on tap at a given time. Serving beer brewed just down the road — in addition to an array of bottled beer — is in keeping with Blanchard’s desire to use as many Maine products as possible.

“When I look for products, I start with the list of MOFGA certified farms right in Waldo County,” he explained.

Blanchard said he envisions 51 Main offering some dinners and musical events as time moves forward. The establishment is presently open Wednesday through Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., and uses their Facebook page to update patrons on changes and events.

“I think it’s a pretty unique location for a restaurant,” said Blanchard, who has not previously been in the restaurant industry, “there’s a lot of learning going on on my part.”

“If you’re out in the country, you need to be a destination,” Blanchard said.

He added that the slow but apparent renaissance happening in Liberty is something that can be observed in many of the little villages around Maine.

Blanchard has several additional plans in the works to ensure that 51 Main is a destination. In addition to exploring eventual dinner service, 51 Main will launch a cocktail program in the near future. He also intends to use the second story of the building as a retail space, offering cheeses and locally sourced products among his wares.

Opper explained that the renovations were time consuming and intensive, however they were able to preserve many of the building’s original details including ornate mouldings above the doorways, fireplaces (which have been decommissioned), and a Russian oven set in the large brick chimney visible near the entrance of the restaurant.

The ceiling in the dining room was stripped down to expose its original beams. Blond wood floors and plenty of windows lend an airy quality to the dining rooms which encompass the better part of the lower floor of the building. A sizeable patio is adorned with a few hopeful tables despite the rapidly waning outdoor dining season.

Inside, rustic touches prevail, with a small cherry breakfast bar lining the window in the entry way, and exposed original wood visible throughout. The small, but well-appointed kitchen is located just inside and a selection of fresh baked goods and self-serve coffee beckon from various counter spaces.

Two adjacent dining rooms each contain just a few tables, adding a casual yet intimate feel to the dining experience. Opper said that a local friend, Greg McDaniels, spearheaded the renovation work.

“That’s the advantage of being local for so long,” he said, “you know everyone.”

Blanchard said he likes the idea of feeding shoppers who have enjoyed perusing Liberty’s unique destinations including Liberty Graphics’ flagship location, Liberty Tool, the Davistown Museum, and a handful of small shops and galleries that have chosen to hang their shingle in Liberty.

The menu, which Blanchard said was developed by Cotier, is laden with both breakfast and lunch items, including favorites like huevos rancheros, old-fashioned oatmeal, and classic eggs benedict, as well as twists including a “Louisiana benedict” made with local andouille sausage and served on homemade corn cakes, and a Maine benedict made with lobster. Several iterations of the recently popular avocado toast are on offer, as well as red flannel hash and a variety of sides and additional options.

Breakfast is available all day when 51 Main is open.

The lunch menu includes staples such as a reuben sandwich, made with local Morse’s sauerkraut, a lobster roll, daily soups, salads, vegetarian options, and a variety of sides. Authentic poutine, made with 51 Main’s own handcut fries, is among the shared plate options. A blackboard boasts a variety of daily specials, and the prices are notably affordable.

On a rainy mid-November Sunday around 11 a.m., there is standing room only at 51 Main. Tables are packed with families, groups of young people, and couples enjoying brunch. Laughter and conversation echo throughout the cozy dining space. Spicy Bloody Marys are presented garnished with thick slices of local bacon and red pepper, and the smells of coffee and home cooking waft through the air. Blanchard works the room, taking orders and delivering them; mixing drinks and refilling coffee mugs.

All the while, drizzle wets the street and a dense fog hangs over the mountains in the distance. Our group laughs as a soggy flock of hens scratches hopefully at lawn just outside the window.

Blanchard is busy, and it’s evident that this is just a taste of things to come for his little eatery.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Jenna Lookner can be reached at jlooknercopy@gmail.com