The owners of Cleonice Bistro, a fixture of downtown Ellsworth dining since 2002, announced Thursday afternoon that after 12 years in business they would be closing their doors on Jan. 1, 2015. The Maine Grind, the associated coffee shop on the first floor of the old Masonic Hall on Main Street in Ellsworth, also will close its doors in the new year.
“It’s been a long hard road, and the economy in this region is unrelenting,” manager Cary Hanson said in an email. “There seems to be fewer locals going out to treat themselves. While we had a solid summer and a good fall, we just haven’t been able to get ahead enough to make it through another winter.”
Chef Rich Hanson and his wife, Cary, moved to Maine from New Jersey in the late 1990s and began working in Hancock County restaurants before opening Cleonice in 2002. Their farm-to-table, pan-Mediterranean cuisine initially was met with a bit of skepticism from the locals. In 2002, farm to table wasn’t a household word like it is today. Having paella or wild boar or octopus on the menu was a big risk in those days.
“When we opened the restaurant in 2002 folks told us that Ellsworth wasn’t ready for us, that we could never sell octopus or other more adventurous food,” Cary Hanson said in an email. “Octopus continues to be a staple of our ever changing menu, and the squid has become our emblem.”
In the ensuing decade, the Hansons began growing their own produce on their property in Bucksport, and Rich Hanson was nominated twice for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast. They also became known for elaborate wine dinners, including their yearly dinner based on the meal served in the movie “Big Night,” another based on the show “Game of Thrones” and a yearly wild game dinner.
In 2009, the Hansons opened Table, another farm-to-table eatery in Blue Hill that only lasted two seasons. In 2011, Cleonice moved from its location at 112 Main St. in downtown Ellsworth up to street to the Masonic Hall, where it joined forces with the Maine Grind, offering coffee and breakfast menus in the morning, and a Cleonice lunch and dinner menu the rest of the day.
While Cleonice and the Maine Grind will close on Jan. 1, Maine Grind owners Leslie Harlow and Peter Rogers are actively looking for someone to reopen the coffee shop as soon as possible.
“We are already in talks with various parties about reopening a Maine Grind style eatery soon in the same space and we anticipate making an announcement later this month,” Harlow said in a Facebook post. “All of the shops and businesses in the Maine Grind building will continue operating as usual with ongoing support from the community.”
The Hansons are also hoping to find new employment for their displaced employees.
“We are proud of the fact that six of our former employees have opened restaurants and bakeries in the area,” Cary Hanson said. “Our staff from over the years has become an extended family to us. … We are hoping to help our current employees find positions in the area.”
One of those former employees is Jeff Kelly, who worked at Cleonice for years and was head chef at Table in Blue Hill until it closed in late 2010. In 2011, Kelly opened a lunch eatery called 86 This, serving up funky, flavorful burritos and wraps with a punk rock theme. Kelly will be moving his business from his tiny storefront at 2 State St. in downtown Ellsworth to a much more spacious location at 125 Main St. Renovations of the new space are underway.
Cleonice will offer its yearly Feast of the Seven Fishes holiday prix fixe dinner, from Dec. 16 and 20, and will offer regular lunch and dinner service all month, with the exception of dinner service on Christmas Eve and all day Christmas Day.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included photos from Cleonice. However, the photos were taken at the restaurant's previous location at 112 Main St., which has housed The Cellar restaurant since February 2014. The Cellar remains open for business.