ROCKLAND — 421 Main Street in Rockland will soon open its doors as North Beacon Oyster. Owner and Chef Michael Mastronardi, of Port Clyde, said he hopes to open the doors of his new business in the next two weeks, and “definitely before Memorial Day.”
Mastronardi, 33, is no stranger to the Midcoast restaurant scene. A native of Hartford, Conn., he said his career in restaurants started organically when he accepted a position washing dishes and “worked really hard.”
His work ethic and interest opened up opportunities for him to grow within the industry, and his resume boasts such employers as Portland’s 555 and Hugo’s, as well as the now shuttered Francine Bistro in Camden. For Mastronardi, good food is not pretentious. During his tenure working in the Portland fine dining scene, he also owned a sandwich shop for three years.
Currently, Mastronardi owns and operates the Drift Inn Canteen (formerly Yardbird Canteen) from a humble stand located on his front lawn in Port Clyde, just a short walk from Drift Inn Beach.
The business was formerly Doug’s Seafood, and when he saw that it was for sale he made the decision to purchase the home and on-site takeout stand. He and his fiance, Amber, moved from St. George to Port Clyde, where they are preparing to begin their fourth season in operation at Drift Inn Canteen.
Though Mastronardi repeatedly refers to Drift Inn as a “takeout stand,” his culinary chops have been recognized and rewarded by a steady and loyal following. Additionally, Drift Inn (then Yardbird) was named “Best of Maine Cheap Eats” for fried seafood by Down East magazine in 2016.
“I took a complete gamble and risk,” he said about purchasing his Port Clyde operation. “Somehow, I made it work.”
When 421 Main Street in Rockland became vacant, Mastronardi said the owner of the building reached out to him via a mutual friend. At the time, he was not compelled to pursue a new endeavor.
“I really wasn’t interested, but I thought about it for a good four months and realized more and more that I can do something that I think will work here,” he said.
Thus, the concept for North Beacon Oyster began to take shape.
For Mastronardi, approachable food and atmosphere is key. Echoing a descriptor used by Down East to describe the Port Clyde seafood stand in that aforementioned 2016 article, Mastronardi said one of the most important aspects of North Beacon is that it remain “unpretentious.”
Mastronardi enlisted Jennifer Mantica, 30, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and an eight-year veteran of one of Maine’s most celebrated restaurants: Primo.
The duo said that Mastronardi will perform the role of executive chef while Mantica’s role will be more akin to a chef de cuisine.
“We really don’t like titles here though,” Mastronardi said.
He said that while Drift Inn has a dedicated staff, he needs to have the flexibility to float between both enterprises.
“That’s why I am lucky to have someone as skilled as Jen,” he said.
Like Mastronardi, Mantica’s culinary career has given her the diverse experience of working in various roles within the kitchen. A native of Albany, she said that she began college studying pastry, her externship brought her to Melissa Kelly’s revered kitchen at Primo, and she was subsequently hired as a chef after graduation.
“[Leaving Primo] was a very difficult decision,” she said. “Working there was a life-changing experience.”
She and Mastronardi only knew one another in passing, but she said that when she heard about the opportunity to join him in the kitchen at North Beacon Oyster that it felt like a “natural fit.”
While Mantica and Mastronardi were still developing their menu May 8, they said that the 32-seat eatery will be focusing largely on small plates, and that the menu will be driven largely by Maine ingredients. To them, that means working with the best of what is available from day to day.
“For example, if Jess’s Market calls to tell me they have some really extraordinary [fish] then that ingredient might drive a dish,” Mastronardi said.
He has developed strong relationships with many local purveyors, and has begun to develop relationships with oyster farmers, as well.
The restaurant will offer some of the staple items that draw Drift Inn Canteen regulars to flock to the modest stand in Port Clyde each summer. Such offerings will likely include chowders, fish and chips, fried seafood preparations and a good burger. Mussels and clams will be prepared in a simple but elevated manner in order to showcase the seafood. As implied by the name of the establishment, a raw bar-centric menu will run the gamut with plans to offer littleneck clams, chilled lobster, crab claws, and shrimp cocktail as well as various rotating preparations with raw seafood including ceviche and poke.
Mastronardi added that they plan to offer a steak tartare to satisfy those seeking to enjoy something raw but land-based.
Of course, there will be oysters.
They will likely offer four to six varieties of raw oysters at a given service, and he plans to focus on Maine-grown varieties. Oysters Rockefeller will grace the menu, and a second roasted oyster preparation will likely be a near daily special, Mantica added.
The restaurant will open offering dinner service, and Mastronardi said he envisions opening five to six days a week right away.
He added that they are “looking to grow into serving lunch” when the time is right. He said that initially he plans to be open from 4 p.m. until close between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. He said he is really excited to offer a great happy hour every day that North Beacon is open, including drink specials and heavily discounted oysters.
“We’re hoping to have a really fun, affordable happy hour,” he said.
North Beacon will be open year-round, and Mastronardi is excited about the opportunity to provide year-round employment for his team, including the employees at Drift Inn Canteen who have returned for the past three years after finding alternate employment in the winter. He approximated that the two restaurants will employ about 20 total staff throughout the year.
A full bar will be offered with a selection of specialty cocktails and small, well-curated selections of wine and beer.
“We’ll have a small well thought out wine and cocktail selection, and lots of bubbles,” he added, referring to sparkling wine and champagne.
While Mastronardi is excited to focus on craft beers from Maine’s robust local beer scene, he said he feels it is also important to offer popular beers including PBR and Budweiser.
“There are so many good breweries right here,” he said. “That’s how we feel about oysters, too. There are a lot of great ingredients in Maine, and we’re always going to look to those ingredients first.”
Like other spaces on Rockland’s Main Street, 421 has a lower level that Mastronardi said he will likely focus on opening in the fall. He said the space will provide a good venue for private events, but sees it as an evolving space with many potential uses dictated by the yet unknown needs of the restaurant. He said that while he prefers small spaces, he would not be opposed to adding another 20-odd seats, bringing the capacity to 50.
“I prefer small spaces, they are easier to fill and easier to manage,” he explained.
Mastronardi said he is excited to open a business on a bustling street with “great neighbors” including Suzuki’s Sushi, In Good Company, and further down the street, Ada’s Kitchen.
“It’s a nice little row,” he said. “I think we can fit in seamlessly, like we’ve always been here.”
The support from Rockland businesses and organizations has been outstanding, Mastronardi said, but despite his excitement about being part of the downtown community, there will be no fanfare or ribbon cutting when North Beacon Oyster opens its doors.
“I’ll do a ribbon cutting when I get to my third year,” he said with a grin and a healthy dose of pragmatism.
There is an oft repeated expression — and commonly held belief — in the restaurant business that the third year of operation is when the establishment begins to realize a consistent profit, the first year a new restauranteur can begin to relax a bit.
Mastronardi said that summer is the “time to streamline and concentrate” on North Beacon Oyster’s concept and business. Winter, he said, is the time to experiment. He and Mantica said they envision special menus and events, and are excited about the many future possibilities the downstairs space presents.
For Mastronardi, North Beacon Oyster represents a personal return to the restaurant kitchen, something he says he is excited about.
“Drift Inn Canteen has been a great segue, but I’ve really missed cooking on the line,” he remarked, noting that that location will continue operations though he will divide his time between Port Clyde and Rockland.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to open a place in Rockland,” he said. “To me, it’s about fitting in and being a part of this community. I think this is a really good time.”