Diners at an Italian-themed supper at the Monroe Community Church this spring packed the fellowship hall to capacity. Credit: Courtesy of Sharon Smith

Move over, The Lost Kitchen, there’s another hot-ticket Waldo County eatery that is putting would-be diners through their paces when it comes to making a dinner reservation.

This one, though, is located in a church fellowship hall in Monroe, not an old, atmospheric mill, as is the case with Erin French’s storied restaurant in Freedom. And although it’s so popular there is a long wait list for every meal, the organizers at Monroe Community Church haven’t resorted to a lottery system to ensure that people get a fair chance to eat there.

At least, not yet.

“I’m the person who takes reservations,” Joyce Hillman said of the church suppers that reliably fill the fellowship hall of their United Church of Christ congregation to capacity. “The menu hasn’t even gone up for the August meal and I’m half-filled already. There’s been a lot of jokes. We’ve had a few comments after meals or while reservations are being placed. ‘Oh, you’re the next Lost Kitchen!’”

So just what is it about the Monroe Community Church suppers that makes them so irresistible? For lots of us, the phrase “church supper” evokes images of hearty plates of beans and franks, served at friendly communal tables and followed up by slices of homemade pie and cups of coffee. That kind of church supper is great, of course, and popular in its own right. But in Monroe, the ladies who organize and prepare the meals with the help of a crew of volunteers want to up the ante — a lot.

For 10 years now, they have been cooking gourmet meals with recipes from countries and cultures all over the world. In July, they made food from Korea, including bulgogi, kimchi, spinach salad and special deep-fried cookies prepared with pine nuts and ginger, and the morning after the menu was shared online, the meal had sold out.

“It was that fast,” marveled Sharon Smith, one of the primary chefs.

Later this August, they will prepare a summer feast with recipes from France. Other cuisines they have visited over the years include Italian, Lebanese, Chinese, Polish and Moroccan. When church supper day rolls around, they switch out the overhead fluorescent lights for strings of twinkle lights, put linen cloths on the big, round tables and turn the fellowship hall into something a little different.

“I like to think of it as a nice little restaurant,” Smith said. “Like going to a restaurant in a community.”

Her daughter, Melissa Smith, said that the food served up there is restaurant-quality, too.

“The food is fabulous,” she said. “We’re all foodies.”

‘Nothing churchy’

The suppers started back in 2007 with a more modest mission. The first one, an Italian meal, was held as a gentle way to inspire more families to get involved with the church. Then Judy Nealley, a church member and supper organizer, went on a cruise with her family and came back inspired. They had enjoyed elegant meals with their shipmates, and she thought it would be fun to try to recreate some of that at the church. The women encouraged attendees to dress up a little, and make the room fancy, just for fun. It was a hit, and they kept it going. At first, they held the suppers once a month, but that was too much and decided to spread them out a little more. Now, every six weeks, 100 people or so fill the hall. Some bringing their own wine and beer to enjoy with the meal.

“There’s nothing churchy about the suppers,” Sharon Smith said. “There’s no prayers or anything.”

Which is not to say they would mind if some of the people who flock to the Saturday night suppers also wanted to come back the following morning to attend the church service. The congregation is not large, they said, with perhaps 20 or 25 people coming to church in the summertime.

“We’d like to be bigger,” Hillman said.

But even if the suppers are not religious, they certainly help to promote fellowship and community. Ned Lightner of Belfast heard about the Monroe church suppers a few months ago and decided to go to the Cuban-themed one with his girlfriend, Kathleen Kearns. They showed up wearing Carmen Miranda hats he had found on the internet, complete with fake fruit, and were met with enthusiasm by the regulars. Since then, Lightner and Kearns are quickly becoming regulars themselves.

“I think the dinners are great,” Lightner said. “I love the energy they put into the theme, and coming up with a very nice meal that’s affordable. A four or five course meal for $15 a head. How can you beat that?”

He and Kearns have enjoyed meeting new people at the communal tables and have felt welcomed by the Monroe community.

“It’s on my top 10 list of what makes Waldo County a great place to live,” he said. “This whole group of dedicated people working all day to make the meal. That sense of community and a sense of humor and fun.”

Army of volunteers

And the organizers do have a good time, although they certainly work hard to make the dinners memorable. The suppers are important to them and important to the church, with the money made there making up more than 20 percent of the church’s annual budget. And so they want the meals to be something special.

Organizers get together in January and choose their dates and cuisines for the rest of the year. Then they start poring over cookbooks and diving into websites such as Pinterest to get recipe ideas. Sometimes, they are inspired to choose a country because of community members who have connections to certain countries and cuisines. For example, they chose to feature a Korean meal last year and this year because Anne Devin of Chase Stream Farm in Monroe is half-Korean and was interested in sharing her family recipes with the community. Another meal came to be because the Boston-based son-in-law of a Monroe family came to a church supper and enjoyed it so much he wanted to come back to help cook traditional Moroccan food for the group. That meal was a big hit, too.

“People explain what it is you’re eating, and how it’s eaten traditionally,” Melissa Smith said.

The women laugh as they remember how hard it was to make 2,000 gnocchi for an Italian meal, or the “gazillion” crepes they made for a French-flavored evening. And they smile as they think back on the buzzy, busy sounds of the dining room during the church suppers. During one unforgettable night, a woman had a medical emergency (she was OK), and even as uniformed paramedics came in to the room to administer aid, other diners were so busy chatting and so engaged with their meals, they didn’t notice, the women said.

“The room just fills with all these people,” Hillman said.

They also rely on a helpful army of volunteers to pull off the suppers. A local couple, Eric and Alison Rector, usually make fresh bread for the meals, and others help to prepare the food and the hall and clean up afterward. The volunteers have ranged in age from toddlers to octogenarians.

“My grandson was here setting up chairs, and he’s 3,” Hillman said.

“We take what we can get,” Nealley joked.

There’s always a lot to do to pull off the suppers, the organizers said, but it’s all worth it.

“I think it’s the camaraderie and the finished product, seeing everybody who comes in here and has an enjoyable restaurant experience,” Sharon Smith said. “I think that’s what keeps it going.”

Upcoming church suppers include French cuisine on Saturday, Aug. 25, “Tourtiere to Go” on Dec. 7 or 8 and Slovak/ Hungarian on Jan. 19, 2019. Suppers begin at 5:30 p.m. and are $15 per person. To make a reservation, email goats.and.notes@gmail.com or call 525-9908.

Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.