Have you ever been to Scarlet Begonias? Wait, have you even heard of Scarlet Begonias? Not the song; the eponymous restaurant a 10-minute walk from campus, by the train station.
Sadly, if you’re a current student here, your answer to both of my above questions is probably no. Despite its convenient location—and despite its being a Bowdoin community favorite for decades—my Orient editor tells me she’s never been and suspects that’s the case for many students here. But if you love Ben Gatchell and Dog Bar Jim (like I do), you’re missing out on that same inimitable vibe here. And you may not have many more chances, as the Cheers-like neighborhood bistro faces imminent closure.
Chef-owners Doug and Colleen Lavallee have hand-mixed meatballs, dressed what I think is Maine’s best Caesar salad and grilled Bisson’s Farm burgers tirelessly since 1995. The couple met in 1978, during freshman year of culinary school at Johnson & Wales. In their popular eatery’s ensuing 30 years, Deadhead-meets-devout-Catholic Doug, 63, said he’s never taken a sick day, the five days a week that his longtime joint is open: Tuesday through Saturday, 12 p.m. -7 p.m.
This labor of love has taken a toll. Doug and Colleen, 65, and their three kids, are burned out and have been looking to sell for almost two years now. After decades on their feet, they survived the stress of Covid-19, pivoting then to takeout and patio orders only, navigating staff shortages and divisive mask mandates. But without the right buyer, they’re not sure how much longer Scarlet Begonias can continue.
“We always try to be a part of the community,” said Doug, who has donated a big pasta dinner for guests at Tedford Housing’s downtown shelter once a month since Scarlet Begonias opened. “That’s what America is supposed to be about.”
So what? Restaurants close, right, no biggie? Well, Brunswick is a pleasant and surprisingly sprawling and diverse place—but it lacks eccentricity. Especially for a college town. Many aspects of Brunswick are, well, bland—including much of the food. We do have a few “hipsterized” spots now. But the goal of those spots is to give Brunswick a taste of Portlandia and Carroll Gardens and is less about being unique.
Scarlet Begonias is one of few local spots left where this isn’t the case. It’s one of a kind. The garlic flows as freely as the tangle of Christmas lights bedecking the sunlit space, named after the Grateful Dead song and filled, without any irony or a hint of pretension, with Boston sports paraphernalia, Dead posters and assorted kitsch. The cozy bar room is especially funky, tucked behind a backlit Douglas Fir accent wall designed by Bath architect David Matero.
Classic movies play on screen and, of course, some “Dead” on for background music, played at a pleasant volume.
“It’s an intimate and engaging affair,” said my neighbor, Southern New Hampshire University creative writing instructor Jacob Powers, recently spotted dining with his third-grade child. “It doesn’t feel like a ‘rush in-rush out’ establishment.”
And the from-scratch food, cocktail list and draft beer are consistently good. Like I said, best Caesar around and best Love Light grilled chicken sandwich, too, slathered with that famous Caesar dressing. But don’t just listen to me. Over a decade ago, orthopedic surgeon Josh Lamb ’00 first recommended it to my family as one of his two favorite places to eat off-campus. Morse High School teacher Bree Candland ’01 raved about a pre-concert meeting of “a bunch of friends for dinner at our favorite Brunswick restaurant, Scarlet Begonias,” in a 2012 blog post. During his freshman year at Bowdoin, Rob Najarian ’99 fell in love with the cheesy, whole garlic clove-studded Must for Gus—“the best hunk of bread anyone will ever have”—and, especially, the seductive Rose Begonia pasta. “The holy trinity of bacon, chicken and mushrooms all mixed in the most divine tomato cream sauce,” said the actor, who lives in Los Angeles (and Boston). On every trip back to Brunswick, Najarian orders this dream dish from Scarlet’s, which, incidentally, once catered many Bowdoin couples’ weddings.
No doubt, everyone misses crowding into Scarlet Begonias’ storied cash-only location up the hill, closer to campus, at 212 Maine Street. Some never warmed up to the less edgy, current “Maine Street Station” spot next to Byrne’s Irish Pub, where the Lavallees relocated in 2009. But that’s a moot point now, with the Brunswick Hotel’s plans to renovate the now depressingly deserted strip where Lemongrass, Flip, and previously Benchwarmer’s, and before that, the original Scarlet Begonias once stood proud.
“We were the darling of Bowdoin,” recall Doug and Colleen. who then topped the list of “50 Things to Do Before You Graduate” (bring a date to Scarlet Begonias) and starred in a “Bursting the Bubble of Bowdoin” guide students produced to try to get people to leave campus. “Probably 35 percent of our customer base were the students, at least. We were also BYOB, and they loved that.”
One night in those early years a Bowdoin kid from Manhattan came in for takeout, declaring Doug’s pizza better than anything back in New York, recalled Bohemian Coffee House’s Peter Robbins, owner of his even more veteran cafe (where Dog Bar Jim’s Ben worked) since 1998. “He has the best food in town,” Robbins tells customers.
Now the Lavalles need someone to carry the torch into 2024. This brave new world of DoorDash, ApplePay and QR codes. If only her toddler son were older, perhaps loyal “Servant at Scarlet Begonias” daughter Sallie, a dishwasher since age 12 who now lovingly tends bar and waits tables, could take it on. The Lavallee son who could have done it is now at Bath Iron Works and “very happy to be out of the business,” Doug said. It’s a succession struggle similar to those faced by his farmer friends at Bisson’s Meat Market in Topsham.
So this is an unabashed plea to current students, faculty and staff to drop by now while you still have the chance. Even better, perhaps some loyal alumni or intrepid community members, might step in to save Brunswick’s funkiest, most garlicky and (one of our) most long-standing family-run-and-family-friendly establishments.
Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick resident and spouse of Associate Professor of Economics Daniel Stone.