Rudy’s of the Cape

Serving the community more than delicious food.

Every town should have a restaurant like Rudy’s of the Cape, a place that’s well designed and welcoming, comfortable and comforting with a menu full of whatever you’re in the mood for. A place where kids can come straight from the ball field and slide into a table for a burger and fries. A place where parents can talk about those kids, and much more, over glasses of wine and bowls of ridiculously delicious Brussels sprouts. Rudy’s is a place where everyone is welcome, from the electricians who wired the building to the football commissioner who spends the summer in nearby Prouts Neck.

“I wanted this to be a community-focused place from the start,” says owner Paul Woods, of the Cape Hospitality Group. In 2011, Woods purchased the original Rudy’s, a much smaller building that was part lunch counter, part convenience store and had stood in the same spot since the 1960s. He had never owned or run a restaurant before, but that was not an impediment. “It was run down and for sale, so I stepped up and thought, why not create something the community can be proud of ?” he says. “Virtually everyone in town, from lobstermen to lawyers, was a patron.” He put together a team to run it for a couple of years before making the decision to tear the old place down and rebuild. As a long-time resident of Cape Elizabeth, Woods wanted a place in town that could rival Old Port restaurants in quality, while still reflecting the town’s unique sense of place. There was some grumbling among old-timers, but it’s hard to argue with the transformation.

Kaplan Thompson Architects designed Woods’s own vision for the new building. “The team and I put an extraordinary amount of thought into the design of the place. There are so many details that build the total experience,” he says, beginning to point them out. There are the oversized, black-framed, energy-efficient windows; the high-tech composite ceiling fans that resemble airplane propellers; and the Emeco Navy Chairs, originally designed for use on battleships in World War II, made of recycled Coca-Cola bottles and aluminum. “Colors and materials are very important to me,” he continues, waving at two glossy orange chairs tucked into a corner table by the window. “That’s the couples’ two-top, quiet and private.” In a nod to Maine’s logging heritage, the flooring, wall paneling, and tables were all handcrafted in Madawaska from “sinker logs” dating from the 1800s. Each table is stamped on the side with a circular “Made in Maine” logo. A glass Jøtul stove glows warmly inside the sunroom, which can be closed off for private events with a clear, automatic, garage-type door. The lower exterior is clad in Cor-Ten, a weathering steel, the same type used by Maine artist Robert Indiana for his iconic LOVE sculptures. The building makes a statement on Route 77, a distinctive and attractive structure where New England shingle-style and industrial sensibility meet in a modern interpretation of the classic roadhouse. “Good design subtly provides a sense of harmony and comfort,” says Woods. “I think this is the best-looking building in Cape Elizabeth.”

The bar is an integral part of the main dining area, a hefty slab of polished concrete fabricated locally by Jon Meade Design. It’s a popular gathering spot at many times during the day and evening. Social Hour starts at 3 p.m., and on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I arrive shortly thereafter to talk with bar manager Janessa Emmerton. She’s worked in the Old Port, but she’s appreciative of the relaxed atmosphere here at Rudy’s and the families who have become regulars. The Social Hour menu has special prices on beer and wine, but I’m tempted by a cocktail called Cougar Juice. It’s one of three cocktails on tap at Rudy’s and a top seller. “Women often get a laugh about the name; then decide they have to order it,” says Emmerton. She pours the mixture of vodka, elderflower liqueur, grapefruit juice, and Peychaud’s bitters into a coupe for me, then finishes it with prosecco. It’s delightful and quietly potent, sneaking up like its namesake animal. Social Hour also has its own abbreviated but tempting menu, with snacks like rosemary and roasted garlic focaccia, deep-fried deviled eggs, and broccoli tots. The tots are perfect, hot and crispy on the outside with a tender, garlicky interior. I can’t think of a better way to get kids, or anyone, to eat their vegetables. The back wall of the bar has 27 beverage taps. Sixteen of them are dedicated to beer, including local favorites such as Funky Bow Beer Company, Austin Street Brewery, Bissell Brothers Brewing Company, and Maine Beer Company. “We’re also really proud of our vintage draft wine program,” says Woods. “It’s an environmental bonus, and it tastes better. Each glass is fresh, tasting exactly the same, from the first glass to the last.”

By the bar, you’ll find a long communal table to accommodate groups of friends or to meet new people. In fact, everything about Rudy’s encourages community. “Social interaction is the backbone of any community,” Woods says. “It’s very gratifying to have the setting to promote that.” Every Monday night is Community Pizza Night, with a portion of pizza sales, even take-out and delivery, benefitting various organizations. “This turned out to be a really interesting dynamic,” Woods explains. “The groups get contributions, but they also come in and use the restaurant as a gathering place.” The wood-fired pizza oven turns out hot pies non-stop, some that are only available on Mondays. You can never go wrong with a classic Margherita, but the specialty pies are where the fun is. The P3 Pork Trifecta is a meat lover’s dream, topped with pepperoni, soppressata, and coppa, along with shishito peppers and a dash of hot honey. It’s salty and spicy and irresistible. Rudy’s insanely popular version of Italian sausage pizza includes grilled peppers and onions, making the whole thing taste like a sandwich you’d find at Fenway Park. Seasonal and daily pizza specials are added to keep things interesting.

The menu is the work of chef Casey Christensen, with input from Woods. Dishes, from big, beautiful salads and deviled eggs to sweet potato gnocchi and steak frites, are carefully thought out and well crafted. Starters, like mussels or sesame-marinated chicken wings, are perfect for a light dinner. “We want each dish to be the best of its kind,” Woods says. “No one cooks a burger like we do. We really chef it up.” Rudy’s burger does have a legion of fans. Christensen comes with years of steakhouse experience that serves him well. He forms the burger by hand and uses a unique process to cook the meat, which includes both sous-vide cooking and grilling. The result is a thick, juicy patty that’s cooked perfectly throughout. It’s served on a buttered brioche bun, piled high with applewood- smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, and a tangy but not overpowering horseradish aioli. There’s also a burger made from freshly ground turkey that gets special treatment with pepper jack cheese, red peppers, and lots of toasted spices for a warm, flavorful sandwich. The well-seasoned and moist quinoa burger is an excellent vegetarian option. A cone of crisp, Parmesan-dusted fries is the perfect complement to any burger.

The menu changes seasonally, and Christensen is constantly tinkering with it. He makes use of the raised garden beds on the side of the restaurant, where organic herbs and produce are grown. He’ll often take a trip down Route 77 to Alewive’s Brook Farm or Maxwell’s Farm for best-of-the- season ingredients, putting them to use in daily specials or new menu items. If Sunday morning is the best time for you to catch up with friends and family, Rudy’s has you covered. The Bloody Mary is practically a meal by itself, garnished with blue cheese- stuffed olives and beef jerky. Christensen’s brunch menu has choices for all appetites and cravings. Caramelized ruby red grapefruit wedges are a sweet start. For a more savory dish, Daddy’s Fried Chicken Bites is a winner, as is the avocado toast with tomato, feta, and scrambled eggs. An excellent breakfast pizza is topped with smoked ham, fontina, and fried eggs. All the classics are represented, too, from house-cured corned beef hash with eggs and huevos rancheros to buttermilk pancakes and French toast.

I sit with Woods one pleasant Sunday morning during brunch, watching families and groups of friends come and go. He tells me of his admiration for Danny Meyer, the ultra-successful New York restaurateur. Woods borrows liberally from Meyer’s philosophies to guide him at Rudy’s. “You get the best hospitality when staff is prioritized,” he says. “Take care of the staff, and everything else falls into place. Providing a good place to work is very important to me. My mission is to serve our guests, and I don’t mean placing food and drink in front of them,” he says. As if on cue, the chef appears tableside with a decadent chocolate milkshake for me, while Woods continues. “All of us here at Rudy’s are committed to providing a happy, welcoming place. There are so many things that go into running a great restaurant,” he says. “I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and we’re committed to improving. So many people have put their hearts into this. It thrills me that, as a result, we have a thriving restaurant community, which so warmly supports us.” There’s a friendly face greeting each hungry individual who comes through the door of Rudy’s. All are welcome.