ELLSWORTH — “Going to ‘the Turtle?’” You hear that line among locals looking to grab a bite to eat and a beer or drink with co-workers, neighbors or friends at the Tan Turtle Tavern in Northeast Harbor.
That repeated phrase might just catch on in the Hancock County seat, where year-round residents late last week flowed into the newly opened The Turtle Restaurant & Bar at 200 High St. The Turtle succeeds the Italian restaurant Primavera.
Whether they were feasting on locally harvested mussels with hunks of hearth-baked ciabatta bread or digging into a platter of hot chicken wings, customers were pleased with the food and service.
“It’s really good so far,” declared Josh Colson of Gouldsboro on Friday. He and his wife, Jenna, and their daughters Cali and Caysyn were trying out the new restaurant with Allan and Crystal Church of Gouldsboro.
“We are just down-to-earth people. We were not expecting this turnout,” admitted Mindy Foss. She and her husband, Steve, who co-own and run both Turtles — the one in Ellsworth and the other in Northeast Harbor — were delighted with the steady flow of customers on Day 2.
Behind the scenes in the kitchen, line cooks Matt Cuff, Tim Martin and Albert Webb were in synch putting out orders of fried clam and popcorn shrimp platters, pulled pork and corned beef Reuben sandwiches and various burgers containing 10-ounce beef patties.
The Fosses’ teen sons Willie and Jordan were at work in the kitchen too, setting up plated dishes with coleslaw and other sides before being whisked off by wait staff.
“You are only as good as your help,” Steven Foss remarked.
Originally from Bangor, Foss got his start in the restaurant business through the Penobscot Job Corps Center’s culinary arts program. His very first job was working for the Geaghan family’s well known Roundhouse Restaurant near where trains turned around and were repaired.
Over the past 30 years, Foss has gained considerable experience cooking on a very large scale from Ocean City, Md.’s Bonfire Restaurant, which boasted a 150-foot prime rib and seafood buffet with 560-person seatings twice a day, to Centerplate, an event catering and hospitality company serving food at convention centers and sports arenas in Nashville, Tenn.
The chef’s most memorable experience was volunteering in the Louisiana town of Lake Charles following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He and a crew turned out 20,000 hot meals per day.
“I was working 18 hours a day and cooking with flashlights,” he related. “Everyone around you had lost everything and yet they were so nice. It made you humble.”
Throughout his career, Foss has learned to keep his cooking and menus simple. He says the fewer steps you take with food the better.
In Northeast Harbor, especially in the summer, the Tan Turtle Tavern’s clientele ranges widely from local lobstermen to billionaires stepping off yachts. No matter how big their wallets, though, no one gets special treatment.
“I think one of the reasons that we have been successful is that everyone at the Turtle gets treated the same way,” Foss said.
The Turtle Restaurant and Bar is open seven days a week opening at 11 a.m. and closing at 1 a.m. For more info, call 276-4000.