The way owners Morey Highbarger and Ian Miller describe him, Ralph “Pepper” Martin, Highbarger’s grandfather and the namesake of their new restaurant in Old Town, was like a cross between L.L. Bean and the Most Interesting Man in the World, from the Dos Equis beer commercials.
Pepper’s Landing opened this week at 170 Main St. in Old Town, the third of three locations in Maine and New Hampshire for the seafood-focused eatery, in a riverfront building that has housed three other restaurants over the past 20 years, including most recently the Boomhouse.
Martin, a lifelong Old Town resident, is the inspiration for the entire Pepper’s Landing business, from the fresh Maine seafood on the menu to the aesthetic of the interior — which directly overlooks the river, including a section of it that was colloquially known as Pepper’s Landing, in Martin’s honor.
“The more I learn about him, the more I’m just kind of in awe of him,” Miller said. “I wish I’d known him the way Morey did. He just seemed like that kind of ideal of the self-sufficient, tough Maine outdoorsman. Kind of a legend.”
Martin was born on French Island in 1914. He was a registered Maine Guide, avid hunter and fisherman, carpenter, boxer, brewer and champion water skier. According to family lore, he could fix anything, build anything, tell a great joke and dance up a storm.
As a young man, he would paddle goods over to Indian Island, in the days before the bridge was built. He was an avid amateur boxer, Miller said, and legend has it he was the first to waterski on the Penobscot River. As an adult, he was famed in Old Town for his smoked fish, and his fiddlehead foraging skills. He loved to dance, and loved music — everything from the swing bands of his youth to R&B and soul in the 1960s and 70s. And according to Miller, he was exceedingly handsome, too.
“People say he looked a little bit like James Dean,” he said. “He just doesn’t seem real. He seems kind of larger than life.”
Martin died in 1996 at age 82, but much of his family still lives in Old Town. Highbarger lives in Kennebunk, however, not too far from where he and his other business partner, Shawn McEwen, operate their main business, seafood wholesaler Sea Salt Lobster, which today is one of the largest lobster distribution companies in the U.S.
Miller, a Connecticut native, has spent nearly 20 years in the restaurant industry, as a chef and consultant. In 2015, Miller was chef at MC Perkins Cove, an upscale restaurant in Ogunquit. He met McEwen and Highbarger that year, and then went to work for their seafood restaurant in South Portland. Miller wanted to open a new restaurant with the two of them, but hadn’t landed on an idea for one that really resonated until Highbarger began telling stories about his grandfather Pepper.
“He told me about all his amazing exploits, and said there’s actually a place on the river in Old Town called Pepper’s Landing,” Miller said. “It was just like, ding ding ding. That’s it. That’s the restaurant. It all kind of snowballed from there.”
The business partners opened the first Pepper’s Landing in Brunswick in 2019, followed by a second location in Rochester, New Hampshire, in 2020. Not long after that, the Boomhouse in Old Town closed, and the three saw an opportunity to bring Pepper’s Landing home, in a sense.
As with the other two locations for Pepper’s Landing, the Old Town location will primarily feature fresh Maine seafood. Lobster dinners and fried baskets are available, as are lobster rolls — traditional, with just mayo, or as a lobster BLT or a southwest-style roll with cilantro-lime aioli and pico de gallo. Dishes like lobster mac and cheese, baked stuffed haddock and fish tacos round out the menu.
Pepper’s Landing opens in the midst of the early stages of what city leaders hope to be an economic revival in Old Town. Over the past 18 months, six new businesses have opened in downtown Old Town, including restaurants Kanu and Kostas, art gallery the Minor Gallery, Indigenous artisan boutique Kin, Portuguese food purveyor Pastries de’Amor, and coffee roastery Blind Tiger Coffee.
“At the end of the day, we just want to serve really great food in a really cool environment,” Miller said. “The fact that we can do this in a community that’s on the rebound is a huge bonus. And it’s where Pepper’s from. It just all makes sense.”
Pepper’s Landing is open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week.