STOCKTON SPRINGS — When Kirk P. Linder and Charlie Zorich decided to leave Portland, Oregon, it was New England's siren song that called them. Traveling in their 1984 Volkswagen Westfalia — affectionately called "Larri" — the pair said they were discussing their shared feeling that it was time to leave Portland.
They had been working on starting a project out there but had become discouraged and were ready to move on. What they did not yet know was that they would become the owner/operators of a historic building and a 24-seat restaurant a stone's throw from the Maine Coast.
"We were driving down the highway and said, 'why don't we look for a place in New England?" Linder said.
Linder, a native of Rochester, New York, had lived Portland for over 20 years and Zorich is an Oregon native.
"I came out to see Maine and just knew I had to live here," Zorich said. He added that both of them are drawn to cooler climes, making what is often seen as a drawback to northern living another factor that appealed.
Not the types to sit idly, the couple immediately got to work and developed a short list of properties in New England that could accommodate their passions. They left Portland in January 2017 and headed across the country, enlisting Larri for the trip that would mark the beginning of their new pursuit on the opposite side of the country.
Zorich is a culinary school grad and has been in the restaurant business since childhood — first working alongside his grandmother at her catering business in Astoria, Oregon, and then alongside his father, also a trained chef and restaurant owner. More recently Zorich has worked as executive chef at several well-known Portland area establishments. He credits pioneering Northwest Chefs Jimella Lucas (who passed away in 2013) and Nanci Main, with whom he interned, with inspiring the direction of his career.
He added that the women were also pioneers of the farm to table movement, with gardens on site and their own oyster beds as early as the 1980s.
"They had a huge impact on my life," Zorich said. "Here in Maine, [farm to table eating] is not a trend, it's a way of life."
Linder is an artist with a background in landscape architecture, graphic design, and a career that placed him in the business of managing high-end construction projects, and historic renovations, for over a decade. As an artist, he works in various mediums including cold wax oil painting and photo assemblages.
"One of the most important things as far as this whole adventure is making the art I want to make," he said. Linder's studio currently occupies the parlor of the home, which bears original wallpaper that practically leaps from the wall with its rich texture and pattern. It is details like this that make THE HICHBORN a little magical.
The two were ready for a creative venture, but their vision was an open-minded one.
"The goal was to find a place where we could both do what we love and have a sustainable way of life," Zorich said.
"Being close to good food and a ski mountain were on our list," Linder said.
"We lived in the Westy [Westfalia] for nearly four months," Linder said with a laugh. "We basically lived in a van."
During their initial trip, they said they nearly purchased another property in Maine, but were unable to come to a deal. Though that property was inland and north, their travels brought them to Belfast.
"The proximity of this area to so many small farms was striking," Zorich said. He added that the men visited the United Farmers Market, browsed Belfast and "fell in love with Maine."
In March, 2017 the duo visited the Hichborn for the first time. They both lit up as they discussed the storied history of the building which began its life as a single family home in 1849 by shipbuilder N.G. Hichborn, the stately home has been continuously occupied since. It has been a single-family home as well as a bed and breakfast.
It took a bit of negotiating, and a few periods where Linder and Zorich said they had all but given up on acquiring the property, but in July, 2017 that changed when a call to check-in with their Maine realtor indicated that the owners of the Hichborn were interested in revisiting a negotiation.
"We were determined to get back to Maine," Linder said.
They were able to strike a deal with the owners who had spent 30 years lovingly restoring, caring for, and operating the property as an Inn. Even the plumbing and electrical systems in the building were all upgraded, benefitting from the prowess of one of the last owners, an engineer.
"We landed on terms and here we are," they said while sitting at the communal farm table in the Hichborn’s dining room.
The table, they added, was commissioned from Wes Reddick, a Belfast artist and craftsman who will be building a full complement of tables for the establishment.
"We have never felt so instantly at home anywhere," Linder said.
For now, Linder and Zorich will focus on operating their restaurant, but the two said that they intend to utilize the extra bedrooms for friends and family who are already inquiring about visiting them in Maine.
Zorich is the Chef while Linder operates the front of the house. Due to the seating capacity, reservations are highly recommended, however both men emphasized that they are happy to accommodate walk-ins when possible. Though the restaurant is small, part of the goal is for it to be a vibrant addition to the local community.
THE HICHBORN hosted two preview nights in May, and officially opened on June 1. The second May preview drew enough interest to inspire a significant waiting list.
For now, they intend to serve dinner Thursday through Sunday, but plans include adding a brunch and bar as time and space allow. They also intend to be open year-round.
"So far, the response has been really good," Zorich said. They added that they have already had multiple repeat diners during their short tenure in operation. "We're really happy to have the local support."
While the couple has never worked together in a business sense, they have collaborated on numerous home remodels and projects.
"We've collaborated on projects a lot, there is an ease to it," Linder said.
The menu will be small and often changing, driven by the seasons and the availability of local products. Zorich said he is excited to see the emphasis on sustainable fisheries in Maine, and the two have already set up partnerships with farming neighbors who will take their restaurant scraps as pig feed.
A sample menu includes four thoughtful entrees and a selection of intriguing starters; from peekytoe crab arancini with arugula, chickpeas and chili mayo to gin cured scallops with taragon aioli, nasturtiums, citrus and sea salt, to a crab-topped green garlic and potato soup.
Main courses include fresh local halibut with bok choi, alaria [seaweed] dashi, king oyster mushrooms and miso butter, lamb sugo with tagliatelle, gremolata and percorino, and a spring vegetable ragu with abundant local vegetables, polenta and tofu ricotta. Numerous house made dessert selections are also available.
Starters begin at $6 for an assortment of house made pickles, and top out with the halibut entree at $28. As aforementioned, the menu is ever changing. Wine and beer are available, and a cocktail program is in the works.
Zorich said everything is made in house, from pasta to breads and desserts.
Though the space is striking in its elegance, it is unpretentious. Small touches, like a hologram of a unicorn adorning the bathroom wall, bring playful touches to the refined but unfussy space. They've enjoyed hunting for antiques and upcycling pieces, finding their attractive antique chairs through an online hunt and restoring a striking 1974 Vulcan range for the kitchen. It is clear that the two are in their element.
The restaurant will have a total of about a half-dozen staff members, including Linder and Zorich.
"We're so excited to be part of the sustainable local food economy in a real way," Zorich said.
Jenna Lookner can be reached at email@example.com