By Matt Dodge
Growing up in Auburn, I’m used to defending the city’s reputation — usually by dumping on Lewiston, where the number one rule is to stay off streets named after trees. But the truth is that once you get a few blocks from the river and urban decay of downtown Lewiston-Auburn, it’s as safe and civilized as any Maine city. Sure, Bates College is always good for a museum visit or performance, and the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is one of the largest churches in New England, but the authentic Lewiston-Auburn (L/A) experience is a little grimier than all that.
1. (SAFELY) WALK: Something happened to Lisbon Street from the 200 block on down: It’s become Portland. Once a haven for empty storefronts and even emptier storefronts, Central Maine’s closest thing to a “downtown” has bounced back in the last couple years and is now nearly indistinguishable from most stretches of Congress Street. Park near the faded Uneeda Biscuit ad (corner of Cedar and Lisbon streets, paid parking) head toward Main Street and watch as the Halal markets, adult book stores and pawn shops give way to vintage thrift shopping, speciality olive oil purveyors and, well, more Halal markets.
2. SHOP: Forage Market (180 Lisbon St.) is Lewiston’s answer to Rosemont Market; a cozy organic store with a wide selection of beer, wine, speciality foods. There is plenty of space to dine-in, with a menu featuring a rotating “grilled cheese of the day” and pizza by-the-slice options, like the Buffalo Hunter (Huntsman cheese and buffalo chicken). Recently expanded weekend hours have made Forage a new brunch favorite for locals and bleary-eyed Bates kids.
3. THRIFT: Right next door at Downtown Handmade & Vintage (182 Lisbon St.) you’ll find another familiar little slice of the big city: the ubiquitous thrift/vintage/handmade shop. With a mix of knick-knacks, handcrafted goods and vintage clothes, the shop has the same funky-yardsale-meets-Etsy vibe as its Portland contemporaries and has mostly been kept afloat by vintage Bates-ies since opening 14 months ago. “Older Lewiston residents don’t really get it,” said owner Sheri Withers.
4. EAT: While it’s little surprise that Lisbon Street’s French-influenced Fuel and Marché have carved out an audience in this Franco-American enclave, the debut of Orchid (29 Lisbon St.) is a welcomed addition to the area’s chopstick scene. The menu includes Asian fusion, Thai, sushi and the only Vietnamese cuisine in town, but don’t miss the standout beer selection. The drafts and bottles go a little further than your typical “one Asian lager” to includes lots of Belgian ales and local favorites.
5. CHUG: The can-do kids over at Baxter Brewing Co. (130 Mill St.) have been mixing up their hoppy microbrews at Bates Mill Complex since 2010. A huge expansion last year added a new tasting room where you can try the latest limited-run creations before they either go into production (like Phantom Punch) or return to the mad laboratory from whence they came (cucumber saison anyone? No? Didn’t think so.). Baxter will host the inaugural Great Falls Brewfest on June 21 with 30 some breweries, food vendors and that ultimate beer pairing: a cornhole tournament.
6. DIVE: So you came to Lewiston for the Detroit-esque urban decay, and were disappointed to find a functioning city? Don’t worry, that seedy underbelly is still alive and kicking your butt at one of Lewiston’s storied dive bars. Blue collar meets blueblood as the townie and Bates crowds pack into the impossibly-small Blue Goose Tavern (69 Sabattus St.) and assault each other’s taste via the jukebox. If you’ve had enough to forget the ‘tree streets’ rule, end the night at La Cage (99 Ash St.), a dank little den in the shadow of the Basilica.
7. EAT: Having spent half of my birthday dinners at this cavernous, Vespa-strewn Italian favorite in the Bates Mill Complex, take it from me: fill up on the free garlic knots at DaVinci’s Italian Restaurant (150 Mill St.). It’s worth it. I usually follow with a Caesar salad ($7) and feel like I got away with something. The former mill vibe is also in full effect at the bar, where a motorized overhead track delivers mugs from across the room for mug club members.
8. ROLL UP: At Val’s Drive-In (925 Sabattus St.) you’ll find a throwback experience complete with car-side service, frosty mugs of homemade root beer and teenage waitresses — occasionally in poodle skirts. Blink your lights for service and enjoy the retro prices ($5 will get you a burger, fries and a float), but get there early; Val’s closes at 8 p.m. every night so those crazy kids can go race for pink slips up at the reservoir.
9 . WALK: Park anywhere downtown along Main Street/Rt 136, head toward the Androscoggin and you’ll stumble onto the Auburn Riverwalk. This 1.2 mile trail winds along the banks, under the bridge and over a converted railroad trestle spanning the river before ending at Lewiston’s Railroad Park (site of the annual Great Falls Balloon Festival, Aug 15-17).
10. GREASE: Forget Portland brunch rules. When in L/A, it’s all about value and how greasy you feel when you leave. Local stalwarts Rolly’s Diner (87 Mill St.) and Roy’s Allsteak Hamburgers (5 Washington St.) fit the bill with cheap eats, blue-hair waitresses and a watery brown tincture that passes for coffee in these parts. Rolly’s is known for their over-the-top seasonal decorations, while Roy’s daily breakfast specials are so cheap they almost make corned beef hash seem like a good idea.
11. MIX: For the true out-of-towner experience, Auburn offers a Thursday night doubleheader that will get you well familiar with the locals. Hit up Gipper’s Sports Grill (12 Center St.) for half-priced drinks before wandering a few parking lots down the drag to Club Texas (150 Center St.) where you’ll get another half-off admission. Beer pong, karaoke and the odd appearance of a mechanical bull tell you about everything you need to know about Auburn’s largest and most Texas-y club.
12. GRAZE: Headed out of town through Auburn and you’ll find a homey farm-to-table meal at Nezinscot Farm (284 Turner Center Rd., Turner). The Varney family’s 250-acre farm produces more than enough bread, cheese, meat and tea to put on a great brunch, served Thursday through Sunday. There is a music-and-pizza jam the first and third Saturday of the month, and “Fiber on the Porch” events throughout the summer including felting, dyeing, weaving and spinning.
13. EAT: Mac’s Grill (1052 Minot Ave.) is your typical hometown steakhouse, with the classic wood paneling and animal hide decor. The steaks rival any to be found in the area, but the real fun comes in choosing up to dress up your beef. Mac’s offers 10 different rubs and marinades, which you can sample before you order. Ask for a rub tray and sample flavors like Hickory Slather, Tumbleweed and Cactus Dust, then dare your friends to down the salty rubs.
14. HIKE: “There’s feldspar in them there hills!” might not have a great ring to it, but Mt. Apatite makes for a nice morning walk and the chance for some amateur prospecting. Park at lots on Small Road or Mt. Apatite Road and explore the former mine’s quarries. There is mica everywhere you look, but also tourmaline and quartz. Hands tools for excavating are allowed up to a depth of two feet, so don’t forget your trowel. Free.
15. TREAT: If you’re looking for that summer evening ice-cream in Auburn, you’re spoiled for choices. Dairy Joy (137 Spring St.) is a soft serve oasis amid the asphalt and railroad beds of downtown Auburn. I’m more prone to head toward Lake Auburn and follow up my cone with a bucket of balls at Taber’s Lakeside Stand (473 Lake Shore Dr.). The stand offers hot food, a driving range/mini golf course and a hook (erm… slice) of scenery overlooking the lake. Still got that sweet tooth the next morning? Bury your shame at Georgio’s Pizza & Donut Shop (740 Minot Avenue) with a doughnut and — if you still have room — try the U.F.O. (Unbelievably Filling Object) baked sandwich.
Special thanks to Amanda Pleau for additional Lewiston tips.