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Despite the new realities of the COVID era, a new Mediterranean restaurant is set to open next month on Hammond Street in downtown Bangor, drawing inspiration from Greek, Lebanese and Turkish cuisines.
Bangor native Rachel Moyse has been working on the idea for Utopia Mediterranean Cuisine for months now, and over the past two months has been transforming the space at 96 Hammond St., formerly the home of Massimo’s Italian Cucina, which is now closed.
Moyse said that preparing to open a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been all that stressful, all things considered, with finding staff being the only main challenge. Moyse says she is aiming for a mid-August opening.
“It’s not really fazing me,” she said. “Our space is all set up to seat every party six feet apart, and really, the fact that everything has slowed down has allowed me to really take my time and be totally ready to open. I’m not rushing. I’ve got time to get it right.”
Utopia is not the only new place in Maine that serves food or beverages to open while people are being encouraged to not rub elbows to prevent the spread of the disease.
Pronto Burrito, a “fast-casual” Mexican restaurant opened Monday at Aroostook Centre Mall in Presque Isle. In Ellsworth, Wicked Munchies opened for business on High Street just weeks after the pandemic began forcing the temporary closures of schools, restaurants and other businesses.
Others that have opened or expanded during the pandemic include Orono Brewing Company, which opened an expanded outdoor patio last week. Fogtown Brewing, which operates a tasting room in Ellsworth, also announced plans to open a second location in Bar Harbor, and signed a lease on a space at 33 Cottage St. in downtown.
Inside the restaurant space on Hammond Street in Bangor, Moyse has replaced the formerly dark-colored decor with bright painted cheerful blues, yellows and whites.
“I want this to be a very happy, light kind of place,” said Moyse. “Everything fresh, everything seasonal, lots of stuff to share, lots of healthy stuff. That’s why I’m calling it Utopia.”
Moyse, who grew up in the Little City neighborhood, worked at Dysart’s as a teenager and later studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, graduating in 2014. She’s since lived in Portland, working in restaurants and catering for the past six years, eventually managing a country club. Her plan was always to come back to Bangor to open a restaurant, however.
“You always kind of want to go back home,” said Moyse. “Portland is great, but my family is here. And I want that kind of intimacy that Bangor has.”
It was in Providence and Portland that she fell in love with Lebanese and Turkish food, eating kebabs in Providence and adoring the food at Portland restaurants like Emilitsa and Baharat.
Head chef Albert VanDine, who formerly worked for Bar Harbor Resorts, is set to lead the kitchen at Utopia, which will focus on local produce and grilled seafood and chicken, mezze plates, house-made bread and pasta, and classic dishes like souvlaki, moussaka and spanakopita. A cocktail and wine list will round out the menu.