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Every year, a crush of humanity arrives in Maine for one of three things: the ocean, lakes, or mountains. Biddeford, a former textile mill town that sat quiet for decades until recently, has none of the above. What it now has, instead, is oceans of talent and mountains of collaboration—a swell of creative energy that’s beginning to rival the allure of Portland, as well as Maine’s other seasonally congested coastalfront towns.
Biddeford is rapidly becoming an updated model for how to take a negative—defunct former mills, in this case—and transform them, into not just nice shops and restaurants, but concepts that are cerebral and infectious. Think affordable incubators for culinary creatives, visual artists, and plant-based fashion designers; art-centric hotels in what was once a hotel desert; and innovations by aquaculture and agriculture visionaries.
“There’s a very chicken-and-egg effect here,” says Don Lindgren, owner of Rabelais, which sells (by appointment) one of the finest collections of rare cookbooks in the country. “Talented people are bringing other talented people, and they meet up and hash out ideas for other new businesses, and then that attracts even more talent.”
Those meet-ups go down at spots across the 35-acre mill district—places like Elements, which arguably kick-started the town’s creative resurgence when it opened nearly a decade ago, offering the winning combination of book clubs, terrific pastries, their own micro-roasted coffee, and beer from Banded Brewing Company. The latter also proffers brews and snacks—the jalapeño grilled cheese is heavenly—in its tasting room in the Pepperell Mill, just next to Round Turn Distilling, home to cocktails laced with citrusy, house-made Bimini gin.
There’s plenty of brainstorming happening over sustainably grown vino at Lorne Wine—part community hangout, part bar and wine shop—which partners with Rabelais on regular events. Almost everyone lines up at The Palace Diner (another early pioneer of “The Biddaissance,” as locals call it) for Greg Mitchell and Chad Conley’s outstanding spin on vintage comfort food slung in an equally vintage dining car.
“When we first came here five years ago, we were incredibly impressed by all the people paying serious attention to the artist of what they’re making,” says chef Bowman Brown. He and his wife Anna own Elda, their fine dining gem that’s reaped national adoration (including a recent James Beard nomination). “That sensibility made me feel like I was in the right place.”
Since then the couple has opened Jackrabbit Cafe, where they’re doling out astonishingly good Scandinavian pastry using heritage grains, and serving joe from nearby Time & Tide Coffee. “They’re the roasting experts,” says Anna. “Likewise, if people come in before their table is ready, we send them across the street to Lorne Wine. Each business has its own part to play in town.”