SEARSPORT, Maine — Inside the new Homeport Tavern last week, it was a blur of activity as the owners got ready for opening night on Friday, June 17.
With vendors dropping by and a dining room still under renovation, there was a lot to do. But the baby grand piano was already in place and a pot of gumbo was simmering on the stove — which both seemed to fit with the focus on hospitality and good food that owners Arnaud Lessard, Allison Lessard and Kip Dixon have in mind for the restaurant.
“We really want to have fun here. We want to bring live music and great food,” Arnaud Lessard, 45, said. “This is not going to be a seasonal restaurant. This is a commitment to our future and to this town.”
The Homeport Tavern, which is part of the Homeport Inn on East Main Street, is one of several new restaurants to open in Searsport within the past year, indicative of a restaurant boom in the small coastal town. It joins other newcomers including Rio’s Spiked Cafe, Hey Sailor! and RasDal Falafel.
Though in the recent past, the oceanfront community has been overshadowed by its southern neighbor, Belfast, Searsport is now having a moment — and he’s glad to be part of it, Arnaud Lessard said.
“I think that we’ve got a huge push for travel tourism in Maine, and I think that Searsport is really hitting its stride,” he said. “There’s a lot of great things going on here.”
The Lessards, who are married, and Dixon have a long history in the hospitality industry. They met while working in the same restaurant in Newburyport, Massachusetts, more than 20 years ago. Dixon, 53, who originally hails from Mobile, Alabama, is a chef. Allison Lessard, 49, who grew up in Farmington, Maine, has a degree in interior design and a background in project management. Arnaud Lessaurd worked in hospitality management for 25 years, and most recently was part of a team that opened The Whitney Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel on Beacon Hill in Boston.
But the work they are doing in Searsport, on a sea captain’s mansion built in 1865 by Captain John P. Nichols, feels different. The trio purchased the inn and tavern in February, after searching for a property on the Maine coast. The Italianate building, complete with an elaborate cupola, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
The Homeport Inn had been open seasonally, with the previous owners trying to sell it for a number of years. The tavern — formerly the Mermaid Pub — had been closed for seven years.
As the new owners got deeper into the project, they found water damage and a general feeling of benign neglect that they needed to address. One thing they haven’t been bothered by are the ghosts that allegedly haunt the inn. Despite the time they have spent refurbishing the building, Arnaud Lessard said they haven’t sensed any spirits.
Long work days flowed into each other, and over the last 13 weeks, they’ve taken only three days off.
“This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Allison Lessard said.
The results are worth it, they said.
“People say ‘it looks amazing,’” Arnaud Lessard said. “We’re proud of all the work that we’ve done. We’re reclaiming floors that had four layers of paint and covered in carpet. We’re just trying to bring the beauty and charm back out of this building and hope it’s well received.”
The tavern is a cozy, welcoming space with a stone fireplace in the lounge area. The restaurant originally was built in the 1980s for an owner who dreamed of opening an English-style pub, and the brickwork, wall sconces and inviting wooden bar all ring true to that dream.
“It’s a place you can come to relax, get away and almost hide. It’s a hideaway,” Arnaud Lessard said.
The separate dining room has a different appeal, with black-painted walls and the aforementioned piano.
“The vibe is black and brass and gold,” Arnaud Lessard said. “This is really simplicity in elegance.”
It’s a good backdrop for Dixon’s creations, which will incorporate both classic New England flavors and Cajun, Louisiana-style favorites. There’s the mouth-watering gumbo, a savory stew that serves as a satisfying postcard from his roots. But there will also be seasonal specialities like summer risotto and burrata caprese salad as well as sandwiches and burgers that will be on the menu every day. Other options will include bangers and mash and St. Louis cut smoked ribs, with most meats like bacon and pork belly cured and smoked in house.
Desserts may include specialities like bourbon praline bread pudding.
“I’m completely looking forward to all the seafood here,” Dixon said. “I want to use as many local products as possible. I do want to change it up. I want to keep people surprised and excited.”
He’s been pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome he has found since moving to Maine in February.
“I love Maine so far. I’m completely enamored with the hospitality here,” he said. “People are friendly. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
The Homeport Tavern’s dining room at 121 East Main St. in Searsport will be open from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. on Wednesday through Sunday. The bar will be open until 10 p.m. on those days. For more information, visit the website homeporthistoricinn.com or call 207-548-2259.