It was only natural that Mark and Brenda Liston chose to spend their retirement living and working in the Victorian-era Captain A.V. Nickels Inn in Searsport. Just as the captain himself traveled around the world in the late 19th century, so did the Listons in the 1990s and 2000s, during and after their careers in the military. The decor, the attitude and the food in and around the Inn reflect that.
“We were able to travel all over the world over the course of our lives and careers, so when we happened upon this place, it just seemed right,” said Brenda Liston, who retired in 2011 after decades working in personnel for the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense. “It helped that we had collected all kinds of furniture and decor from around the time period the building was built. It was easy to decorate.”
The Listons are no strangers to running a restaurant. From 1990 until 1993, while they both worked at Loring Air Force Base, the couple ran a prix fixe eatery called the Inn at One Riverside, out of their home in Fort Fairfield. When the base closed, they lived in both Charleston, S.C. and in Virginia, traveling all over Europe in between military assignments.
Prior to the Listons buying the Inn in 2011, the A.V. Nickels was in disrepair for more than three years. Its five rooms and two suites were empty, and its many period touches — like the widow’s walk, the grand ballroom and the massive white fountain in the back courtyard — were slowly crumbling. The Listons were looking for something to do in retirement, and as they drove up Route 1, the inn, built in 1874 during Searsport’s shipbuilding boom, spoke to them.
“We fell in love,” she said. “The rest is history.”
The couple already has put a lot of effort into the building, including adding a deck, repainting, major landscaping on the wide green front lawn, installing brick paths leading to the sidewalk and parking lot, turning the glassed-in porch into a bar and transforming the enormous ballroom and adjoining rooms into dining rooms. Not to mention the actual guest rooms, each equipped with modern amenities and decorated with items from the Listons’ large collection of antiques.
The inn boasts not just bed-and-breakfast-style lodging for summer travelers, priced between $165 and $225 per night, but also casual fine dining four nights a week, courtesy of Brenda’s son, Chef Mark James. In the years before the Listons bought the inn, James spent time farming and cooking in kitchens in New Mexico, Atlanta and Charleston. Last year, his mother and stepfather asked if he’d like to come to Maine to run their kitchen at the inn, which he agreed to, and this year began a new menu.
“We tried to design a menu that’s kind of around the idea of Captain Nickel traveling around the world, visiting all these various locations,” said James, who recently added a garden to the grounds to supply greens and other produce for the kitchen. “We wanted to have food he might have eaten. We wanted all those diverse flavors.”
There are two ways to dine at the A.V. Nickels Inn. The Captain’s Table option is a four-course prix fixe meal (priced between $38 and $44) that prominently features their house-aged steaks, and comes with wine pairings. For a more informal meal, the tapas menu features a huge array of small plates (priced between $5 and $9) drawing from a variety of culinary traditions. The Portuguese Aviz Pork & Clams sits next to Korean-style Pickled Prawns; the Sicilian Lamb Sliders pair well with the spicy Chipotle Pork Medallions. House-made ice cream and a selection of local cheeses round out the menu.
“We wanted it to reflect the history here,” said Brenda Liston. “There’s such a rich history of seafaring and travel throughout Searsport. It’s definitely an inspiration.”
The A.V. Nickels Inn is open from May 1 to Dec. 31 for lodging and for dinner. Dinner is served from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. For reservations, call 548-1104 or visit captain-a-v-nickels-inn.com.