Last year — about three years after she opened Salt Water Farm — Annemarie Ahearn’s cooking school and farm on her family’s oceanside property in Lincolnville began to outgrow its surroundings. Ahearn’s Full Moon Dinners, a supper club she held on the evening of the full moon of each month, were so popular that they’d sell out in less than 24 hours. She could hardly keep up with demand.
It was time to open a real restaurant.
“We were ready to enter into a commercial operation,” said Ahearn, 31, who grew up in both Wisconsin and Maine and cooked in New York, Paris and Barcelona before settling on the midcoast. “The supper club got very popular and it was originally a little home occupation at my family’s house. Basically, my parents said, ‘It’s time to open a restaurant, Annemarie.’”
In April of this year, Ahearn and her crew, including managers Irene Yadao, Andrew Kesserling and Alexandra Ruhland-Syquia, opened Salt Water Farm Cafe & Market in the recently-renovated Union Hall on Central Street in downtown Rockport. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays, as well as Sunday brunch.
It joins Chef Brian Hill’s nearby gastropub Shepherd’s Pie as one of two restaurants in the downtown area, a part of town that until just a few years ago had zero options for dining out despite being home to galleries, a bustling harbor and the Rockport Opera House.
“It’s really exciting to feel like we’re a part of the revitalization of this downtown,” said Ahearn. “There was no place to eat lunch in downtown Rockport, and now we’re providing that for people. The response has been amazing.”
With its casual, sunlit, rustic-feeling interior, Salt Water Farm Cafe is an easy place to stroll into and spend an hour sipping Maine-roasted coffee and nibbling on a house-made cookie or croissant, or snack on a sandwich and enjoy a beer or cocktail on the large deck overlooking the harbor. Until the cafe opened, there was no daytime eating in town.
“It was important to us to offer breakfast and lunch. We want to be a meeting place for the community,” said Ahearn. “And one thing that we’ve been really delighted to discover is the number of sailors and people on boats and yachts who have come in, who have said how nice it is to have a place to have a cup of coffee.”
Ahearn’s culinary focus has not changed since she opened the original Salt Water Farm in Lincolnville in 2009: local food, made simply and beautifully. At the cafe, nearly everything on the menu is from the midcoast, from Salt Water Farms’ own peppers, beets, kale and herbs to Belfast Bay mussels, rabbit from Freyenhagen Farm in Union and Lakin’s Gorges Cheese from Rockport. The dinner menu changes daily and includes an option to have a table full of diners order a three-course meal for between $42 and $48 each.
Though the focus at the business is clearly on the restaurant, there’s also a market element to the operation. During the growing season, fresh produce from Salt Water Farm and Golden Brook Farm in Camden is available daily, and inside there’s a lovingly curated selection of Maine-made food products, artisan oils, vinegars, condiments, baking supplies, canned goods and cookbooks. It has also hosted a variety of special events, including a beer dinner with Dogfish Head brewmaster Sam Calagione and a Historic Maine Supper with food historian and BDN columnist Sandra Oliver.
Though the cafe is currently only in its fourth month, Ahearn and company already have their eyes set on becoming a community hub for the Camden-Rockport area. They have partnered with Bay Chamber Concerts to serve cocktails and beverages at certain concerts and events, and plan to stay open year-round to further immerse themselves in the area.
“It’s a challenge, but we want to stay open so we can really be a part of the community,” said Ahearn. “We’re just getting started.”