The only restaurant in the Waldo County town of Brooks has a story behind it that rivals any other eatery in Maine. Ralph’s Cafe co-owner Frank Champa is a soft-spoken guy, but ask him, and he’ll tell you why he and his mother, Susan, and partner, Mike Switzer, uprooted from New York City to move to a tiny, rural town and open up a restaurant.
“We moved because of Sept. 11,” said Champa, who was a costume designer in New York for nearly 10 years, and worked just a few blocks from the World Trade Center when it was attacked in 2001. “And my father died unexpectedly a year later. We bought a house here after we were on vacation here for a week, and then we saw that the coffee shop down the street had closed. So we bought that. It had always been my Dad’s dream to own a little restaurant, so here we are.”
In the eight years since, Ralph’s Cafe has built up a solid reputation among locals and tourists alike for its eclectic combination of comfort food (meatloaf, pancakes, biscuits and sausage gravy) and dishes featuring cuisines from around the world. Stop in for Friday or Saturday night dinner, and you could be eating Moroccan lamb, or an Indian curry, or anything else that Champa feels like putting together.
“I’m a little ADD about food,” said Champa. “At first, people really wanted traditional Maine kinds of food — not that there’s anything wrong with that. But over the years, I think they’ve really opened up to the kinds of things we try here.”
Champa is still involved in theater — he leads the Marsh River Theater, Brooks’ community theater group, which is in its second weekend of its production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” with shows set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19-21, at its theater in Brooks. And his flair for design is still just as strong. Nearly every available wall surface at Ralph’s is decorated with items from Champa’s collection, which he started as a teenager in New Jersey. Movie posters, old fliers, antiques, knick knacks, toys, retro advertisements and hundreds of other handpicked collectibles make it almost as fun to look around the place as it is to eat.
“When I was in high school, this is what my bedroom looked like,” said Champa. “Some people have brought stuff in to me as well … It’s sort of like my life story on the walls.”
Ralph’s Cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday;7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. It is at 12 Purple Heart Highway in Brooks, at the corner of Routes 139 and 7. For more information, search for Ralph’s Cafe on Facebook.