Those who didn't grow up spending summers on Southport Island have probably never heard of Gus's, a place-that-time-forgot luncheonette/snack bar in Cozy Harbor. But Oliver's, the snappy-looking casual restaurant with a modern seafood menu that's replaced it, has generated buzz beyond this tucked-away corner of the Boothbay region.
Following the death of owner Gus Pratt, the town of Southport purchased the ramshackle building and wharf, citing the need to preserve access to the waterfront for local fisherman. In February of this year, bids were sought for operating the place - empty by then for four years - as a seasonal restaurant, which would clearly require massive renovation. In stepped liquor magnate Paul Coulombe (Pinnacle Cookie Dough vodka, Cake Jack rum et al.) a summer resident who offered to bankroll the project. But given the scope of his elaborate 18,000 sq. ft. estate on nearby Pratt's Island - every guest bedroom in the main house has its own sitting room and bar - some were concerned about his involvement. At a meeting with members of the adjacent Southport Yacht Club, which had long considered Gus's its defacto snack bar and had weighed buying it themselves, Coulombe said his only interest was in giving his grandchildren a place to go for a hot dog and an ice cream cone.
In the kitchen at Oliver's, named for a grandson, Coulombe installed his personal chef, Rick Skoglund, formerly sous chef at the Samoset Resort in Rockland and executive chef at King Eider's in Damariscotta. The menu is far fancier than it was in Gus's day, when a griddled hot dog, plainly presented on a paper napkin, was $2.50. Oliver's twin grilled hot dogs - with caramelized onions and aged cheddar cheese sauce - are $6.95 and the Black Angus hamburger is $8.95. All the sandwiches are now served with chips, which you had to buy separately when Gus ran the place. And you can now get fish tacos, tomato and mozzarella salad and lobster corn chowder. Although the town's bid document says "the sale or consumption of alcohol at the restaurant is prohibited," Oliver's is being advertised as BYOB.
The way it was ...
The ramshackle waterfront building on Southport Island with "E.W. Pratt General Merchandise" over the door remained unchanged for decades. Known by all simply as Gus's, it opened summer after summer with the same small menu, same line-up of freshly baked pies on the counter and the same rules - "no spinning on the stools," "no wasting ketchup," - that the young sailors from the yacht club next door knew to follow when they streamed in for lunch. They also knew that Gus, who manned the tiny flat-top grill in a white plastic apron, made their sandwiches - Gleesters (chicken patty) and Sturdilies (hot dog with cheese) - one at a time. His inefficient methods often befuddled visitors who stumbled on the place and didn't understand why it took an hour to get their crab rolls and sun tea, served in a paper cup with just one ice cube ("It's already cold," Gus would explain if one dared ask.)
Gus and his wife Em (baker of the pies) are gone now, and the old place has taken a giant step into the modern day. Will it be too cool (and pricey?) for quiet Cozy Harbor?