SEARSPORT—Just five minutes over the Belfast bridge heading north on Route 1 sits the newly opened Rio’s Spiked Café, a European-style tapas bar and eatery. Owners Oana and Russell Manton who also own the adjoining business park, were avid worldwide travelers before the pandemic put a halt to their adventures. Self-described foodies, the couple decided if they couldn’t go to Europe to sample the food at the present time, they’d instead, bring Europe to Maine.
RIO is the combined initials of Russell, their seven-year-old daughter Ilinca, and Oana. And spiked, well, it’s a play on the type of drinks the café serves, from a cultivated European wine list to specialty coffees with a kick.
Previously a garage, the renovation took more than three years to remodel the premises into a warm, inviting, and socially-distanced restaurant with HEPA air filters embedded in the demi-walls beside every table.
With oversized retro light bulbs casting a soft glow upon the room, its focal point is a modernist fireplace built into the prominent stone wall in the center of the room, which also serves as a bar with custom epoxy counters. Out in the parking lot sits an electric charging station for diners who want to grab a bite while waiting for their car to charge.
“Every time we went out to eat abroad, we’d take pictures of what we loved and brought all of these elements back to the design of the café,” said Oana. “The whole restaurant was built with the Midcoast community in mind. We want to bring a little taste of Europe to the area as people still cannot travel as much.”
Patrons of the Lincolnville Pound will remember Sullivan, who formerly served as the Lincolnville Pound's bar manager. Having built out the place with Russell, Sullivan has now settled back into his role of manager. His love of Maine craft brews has transferred to Rio’s Spiked Café with a wide array of both European beers and some of Maine’s beers. He also serves as a mixologist for their cocktails. Happy hour with drink specials is offered from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. nightly.
Oana, who is Romanian, and Russell, who is Scottish, have taken culinary elements from their culture, working with Chef Timothy Churchill, who is formally trained in Italian cuisine. Together, they’ve created an inviting small plates menu with a charcuterie board for two, infusing meats and cheeses from Maine, Vermont, Spain, Italy and Austria.
The most-popular dishes coming out of the kitchen have been their grilled flat iron steak sourced from Pineland Farms, with grilled cippolini onions, balsamic butter, and jus of local veal. Another hit has been the pan-roasted Scottish salmon with a toasted hazelnut and coffee bean cream sauce.
“Coffee actually pairs well with fish,” Churchill said. “With everything I create, I try to strike a balance between the classic and my own twist. And keeping everything seasonal is always on my mind.”
Harkening back to Oana’s own favorite dish is the “Mici,” (pronounced “Mitch”) is a traditional Romanian skinless grilled sausage made from beef, lamb, and pork with a housemade spicy mustard.
The raw salads on the menu are Chef Churchill’s special forté, such as the Sweet Autumn Salad with a local Honey Crisp apple, fig, olive, sherry, and mascarpone.
“I think for most restaurants, the raw salad is the most neglected item in a restaurant,” said Churchill. “Our salads are a strong point to the menu.”
While word of mouth has largely driven diners to the new eatery, the owners are keen to keep the feel of the place homey and local.
“At the same time, we don’t want to be known as a high-end fine dining establishment,” said Oana, who emphasizes that their vision of the place is more of a neighborhood tapas bar.
Searsport, not known for its culinary scene, is gaining a little gem with this cafe. Early reviews on Rio’s Spiked Café on since they opened October 6 put it in the good-to-excellent category with one patron calling it a “delightful surprise,” adding its merits included the description: “Beautiful bars, fireplaces, lighting—elegant and yet cozy.”
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org