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Kittery, Maine, is no longer gritty, but a happening place these days

The crowd waiting for a table at Black Birch restaurant in Kittery, Maine, spills out onto the street on a warm summer evening. Men in plaid shirts – the kind worn by hipsters, not lumberjacks – and artfully tattooed women mix with folks in more conventional garb, including khakis, polo shirts and pastel skirts. Inside, those lucky enough to snag a table dine on deviled eggs, beer-batter- dipped fish and chips, and chicken liver pate topped with rhubarb gelee.

At the long, hand-hewn wooden bar, drinks are made with a variety of house-made bitters. Every half-hour or so, Al the bartender stops stirring and shaking to throw another vinyl LP on the turntable.

The Birch, as it’s known, is at the center of a culinary renaissance in this seaside community. Kittery, Maine’s southernmost town, which is best known for its outlet malls and the nation’s oldest continuously operating naval shipyard, has a new identity. With a recently opened ramen bar, an artisanal butcher shop, a soon-to-open microbrewery, as well as art galleries and a renovated dance hall that offers evenings of African dance, this formerly working-class community is suddenly the hippest place to dine, shop and party north of Boston and south of Portland, Maine.

The downtown area, known as Kittery Foreside, “has been going through a revitalization as creative small businesses pop up,” said Michael Landgarten, who owns two successful seafood restaurants – Bob’s Clam Hut and Robert’s on Route 1 in Kittery – as well as Lil’s Cafe, a pasty and sandwich shop in the heart of the “new” Kittery. “And the local community has supported these places with gusto.”

“It’s easy to feel the excitement,” Landgarten said. “There’s a sense of validation – something like, ‘We always knew there was something really special about this town, and now it’s clear as others discover it, too.’ ”

To many old-timers, the town center is virtually unrecognizable. When I moved to the area nearly 30 years ago, Kittery Foreside was a gritty neighborhood that catered to shipyard workers and commercial fishermen. Today, it invites comparisons to Brooklyn. It’s a vibrant outpost full of good things to eat and drink, along with a lively art and music scene.

Landgarten and his partners bought and renovated an old building in the center of Kittery Foreside that now houses six new businesses, including Lil’s cafe (where you can find what may be the world’s best cruller) as well as a fresh juice bar called the Maine Squeeze, housed in a repurposed drive-through bank kiosk; Folk, a craft and lifestyle shop curated by a local artist; and Anju, a trendy noodle bar (featuring excellent ramen and pork buns) owned by a chef and a wine geek with a side business making kimchi.

Also new on the block is MEat, an artisanal butcher shop offering local sustainably raised chicken, beef, pork and lamb, as well as local produce, cheeses, salamis and more.

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