Eaters chat over a meal at Harbor Cafe in downtown Stonington. The restaurant was recently taken over by Max Katzenberg and Matt Spector. Katzenberg is also reopening Dennett's Wharf in Castine. Credit: Courtesy of Harbor Cafe

A pair of seaside mainstay restaurants in Hancock County are getting a fresh but familiar look from a heralded New York City restaurateur.

Max Katzenberg, who worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant and owned two highly praised restaurants in Brooklyn, recently took over the Harbor Cafe in downtown Stonington and plans to reopen Dennett’s Wharf on the Castine waterfront next month.

While Katzenberg, who had previously spent summers in Maine and moved to Deer Isle during the pandemic, brings big-city credentials and acclaimed chefs to the two projects, he promised he and his team are focused on upgrading what already made the two local favorites great.

For the Harbor Cafe, a homey spot for locals and tourists alike, that largely meant a new coat of paint and a new recipe book that brought in more local ingredients but kept the classics.

“It’s always going to be that greasy spoon, diner environment,” Katzenberg said of the Harbor Cafe. “We just wanted to elevate it in the right ways.”

Katzenberg cut his teeth in the restaurant industry at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a Michelin-starred restaurant just north of New York City. There he was introduced to the famed seafood of Stonington and Deer Isle, and went on to source the island’s catch for his restaurant Olmsted, a 2017 James Beard award finalist.

Though he is now preparing for the summer crowds and putting the last touches on Dennett’s, Katzenberg didn’t initially plan to leave the Big Apple dining scene for the Pine Tree State.

When he and his wife Chloe, who was pregnant at the time with their son, David, moved to Deer Isle in April 2020, Katzenberg was still vested in Olmsted and his other restaurant, Maison Yaki, back in New York.

But when he learned Harbor Cafe was up for sale, he decided to partner with friend and Deer Isle dining veteran Matt Spector to buy the place to prevent the town losing the Main Street fixture.

“Nobody in the community, including us, wanted the cafe to go anywhere,” Katzenberg said. “It really is a community institution. I almost see myself more as a steward of the cafe, than the owner.”

He and Spector have made some tweaks to the menu — they changed the pancake recipe after running through 30 different options — and are trying to highlight the local catch wherever they can.

By the end of 2021, Katzenberg left Olmsted and Maison Yaki. He still has some peripheral involvement with other projects in New York, though.

As he and Spector got Harbor Cafe back off the ground, a friend reached out to see if Katzenberg knew anyone who might be interested in taking over Dennett’s Wharf, a down-to-earth restaurant and pub along the Castine waterfront that had closed.

Though he hadn’t planned on getting involved in this restaurant either, it felt like a great opportunity to revive an old-school community classic with the help of friend Ingrid Paronich and Taylor Hester, a former chef at Olmsted.

There he hopes to create a fun hangout with fresh seafood.

“We want it to be accessible to all,” he said. “I think people are going to get a kick out of it.”