The Carriage House Restaurant

Local chef steps in to revive a former Boothbay mainstayNearly every day for five years, Kelly Farrin drove past the shuttered Carriage House Restaurant on his way to work at Primo in Rockland. He lived on Ocean Point in East Boothbay, a particularly scenic piece of land that juts into Linekin Bay. Having grown up in Boothbay, Farrin was familiar with the old restaurant that had sat vacant for the past 15 years. Before that, the Carriage House had been a popular gathering spot for locals since 1986, serving up simple coastal fare. “It always looked like a place that might suit me,” says Farrin. He kept turning over the possibilities in his mind, thinking, “How do I get myself in there? How can I make it better without offending its legacy?”

Farrin’s family has lived and worked in Boothbay for several generations, so he takes the idea of legacy quite seriously. His grandmother, Norma Smith, ran the Southport Yacht Club sailing program, where his mother, Robin Farrin, was an instructor. He and his brother spent summers there, navigating the waters of Cozy Harbor.

His father, Pat Farrin, is well known around town for his construction business. Kelly Farrin was a high school basketball standout who decided that culinary school was a better fit than a traditional college. Upon graduation, he wanted to get out of New England for a while and took a job in Key West. When he returned to Maine less than a year later, he landed at Azure Cafe in Freeport. In 2010, he took home the Harvest on the Harbor Festival’s Maine Lobster Chef of the Year title, no small feat in this state. “I grew up with everyone who has a lobster boat in this town,” he says. Looking to advance his career, Farrin sent an email to Melissa Kelly, owner and chef at Primo, saying, “I want to work for you.” He got a job as a line cook with Kelly, one of Maine’s most highly regarded chefs and a two- time James Beard Award winner. At Primo, Farrin learned the value and importance of teamwork. He came to appreciate the idea of utilizing every bit of a product, whether it’s a vegetable or an animal. And his passion for food intensified. “This was the real deal,” says Farrin. “It was fire and heat nonstop, all day. Melissa Kelly works harder than anyone I’ve ever met and pushes everyone to do better, every day.” Which raises the question: why would a young chef want to leave a place, and a mentor, like that?

It all comes back to his hometown and his family, the memory of his mother and the respect of his father. “My dad is such a hard worker, and he motivates me to do the same,” he says. Farrin lost his mother in 2013, but the effort to make her proud drives her son to improve every day. “I’m learning how to blossom, how to put myself out there and shine,” he says. Buying the Carriage House was a leap of faith, and Farrin has a fear of failing. “But I can’t let that get to me,” he says. He purchased the place in April of 2016, after a nearly year-long negotiation with former owner George Bourette. That gave him just two months to get ready for the busy season: repairs, hiring, getting vendors in place, and all that goes with opening a restaurant. “Everything came together in a very small window of time. On opening night, everyone knew their jobs, we were prepared, and the parking lot was full,” he says. “It all happened so fast that people didn’t even realize we were open. But it turned out to be crazy right from the start, with a full house every night.”

Farrin changed very little about the Carriage House’s interior and decor, wanting to stay true to the place’s heritage. The downstairs dining area is full of knotty pine tables, paneling, and posts, slightly reminiscent of a summer camp dining hall. There are nautical details, such as cleats and brass lighting, a nod to Boothbay as a boatbuilding community. Vintage signs for local businesses add old- school charm and evoke fond memories for regulars. Photos of boats and boatbuilders from Boothbay are hung on the walls. “I inherited all this, and when we opened, people brought more stuff to me,” says Farrin. “Visitors will often point at a photo and say, ‘That was my grandfather’s boat.’ It’s like a shrine to the local community.”

The mood here is quiet, perfect for families. But up a short flight of stairs, it’s more of a party, with two bars and a lively atmosphere. There you’ll find a bartender with the lovely name of Winter Page. “There are a lot of martini and Manhattan drinkers here,” she says. Page likes to put a twist on classic cocktails, like the East Manhattan she makes for us using cardamom syrup made by Farrin. She also demonstrates the Ideal, a blend of gin, dry vermouth, Maraschino Luxardo, grapefruit juice, and a dash of grapefruit bitters. She serves up the drinks on a bar that’s half of a heavily varnished, actual dinghy. The cozy room displays more signage and memorabilia, including nautical flags, propellers, and life rings. “It’s a blast from the past,” says front-of-house manager Alexandra Neese. “It’s been a long time since people have seen this stuff.” With its low, dark green ceiling and paneled walls, the room feels a little like the below deck of a boat. A door leads out to the roof deck for summer dining and drinking al fresco. “The place really hasn’t aged in the past 15 years,” says Farrin.

What has been refreshed, quite significantly, is the food. “George’s original menu was very simple,” Farrin says. “Seafood, meat…and it never changed.” After his experience at Primo, the chef knew he could do better. “I want to cook things that hit home for me,” he explains, “like what my mom cooked but with a twist. I want to change the perspective on these classic dishes, show that they’re not ordinary.” He picked up an appreciation for fresh ingredients from his paternal grandmother, who fed him fresh vegetables from her garden and beef from her own cows when he was a child. “Tasting those things really sparked my interest in home cooking,” Farrin says. His menu looks basic at first glance with meat and seafood options, but there’s much more than meets the eye. The chef uses techniques he learned at Primo, along with local, seasonal ingredients, to raise the quality of dishes, while maintaining a level of familiarity. Each dish is listed with its ingredients, and the knowledgeable staff can elaborate on the preparation. Farrin’s grilled ribeye steak (“the first dish I ever thought of ”) is hugely popular, because he’s turned a standard into a star. The 14-ounce steak is beautifully grilled and served atop garlic smashed potatoes and fried Brussels sprouts with rich beef jus. It’s crowned by a wedge of onion, charred and smoky from the cast iron pan. “We have to stand out and be seen,” he says. “We have to offer what others don’t.” I’m pretty certain no one else in town is serving up pickle- fried chicken wings, a dish Farrin makes using the vinegary brine from a jar of Morse’s pickles to add a distinctive zing. The tart flavor contrasts nicely with a chili-honey drizzle and creamy gorgonzola dip. Traditional coastal favorites such as crispy fried calamari, fish chowder, and fish and chips all rise to a new level under the chef ’s experience and sure hand. He shows off a big bowl of fresh, pink Maine shrimp; a few minutes later, the shrimp have been sautéed with Creole seasonings and served over wilted spinach and creamy white grits with cheddar cheese, along with a perfectly seared piece of Scottish salmon. Bringing the whole dish together is a sofrito brodo, a spicy, smoky broth made with peppers, carrots, onion, celery, tomato, and tasso ham. “I make a shrimp stock from the shells,” he says. “That ties the broth together.” The dish is sure to be a standout when it appears on the Carriage House’s summer menu. Then Farrin mentions his secret menu item: pizza. “There’s an old Garland pizza oven that came with the place,” he tells me. “We already have all the ingredients. It’s neat to have that option.” He proofs and pre-grills pizza dough, so it’s always at the ready for friends or diners who know to ask for it. “It’s fun to play around with it,” says the chef.

The Carriage House is one of the few Boothbay restaurants that stays open year round. “All I wanted this past winter was to be able to pay the bills and make the locals happy,” says Farrin. “Last summer we hit the ground running,” adds Neese. “Now that we have a year of experience behind us, we have a better understanding of how things will go.” They’re planning a garden for vegetables and herbs behind the restaurant. The ice cream station by the front door will be stocked in anticipation of orders for brownie sundaes and house- made ice cream cookie sandwiches. Picnic tables will be set up on the patio to take advantage of the longer days.

Upholding, and improving upon, a piece of Boothbay’s story takes a lot of time. Before we go, Farrin tells me about his J24 sailboat, Island Woman, which was named for his grandmother. “I didn’t even get it in the water last summer,” he says. Sailing is in his blood, but the opportunity to restore a hometown fixture has been a priority. “I’d been away for so long,” he says. “It was time to come back and make something right for the locals.”