'Nothing like it': Cundy's Harbor still hankers for the Block & Tackle

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HARPSWELL — When it’s hot and humid in Cundy’s Harbor, fishermen find their shade in Watson’s General Store.

The store is a meeting place down by the docks, no matter the weather; even during the winter off-season, owners Robert and Karin Watson open the place up Sunday morning for coffee, doughnuts and conversation.

Karin Watson recently leaned over the register’s glass countertop and remembered a time when the locals gathered not only at her store, but at the nearby Block & Tackle restaurant.

“(The Block & Tackle) was the locals’ first choice,” Watson recalled, gesturing to her husband, who nodded in agreement from his perch on a stool beside her.

The Block & Tackle closed two years ago, after 79-year-old Dawn Bichrest decided to quietly shut the business after 35 years.

“We ran on the other day on all the stuff we were missing,” Watson continued.

“Corned hake,” Robert Watson added. “That brought old-timers from all around the area.”

The restaurant is still there, seemingly frozen in time on a sloping portion of Cundy’s Harbor Road, just where the narrow pavement bends into the harbor wharves of the centuries-old fishing village.

“I think all lobstermen (in Cundy’s Harbor) have bought lobster rolls at the Block & Tackle,” recalled Kevin Griffin, one of several lobstermen who stopped into the store as the Watsons reminisced.

But Bichrest, who lives in a stately white house beside the former restaurant, said she has no plans to reopen or lease the business. She hasn’t even taken down the specials board that hangs above the varnished, wood counter, or thrown away the paper “closed for the season” sign that hangs on the front door.

She’ll keep it that way as long as she lives, she said, just in case one of her 14 grandchildren or growing number of great-grandchildren are interested in taking over the place.

It’s a hope that the Watsons are keeping alive.

Karin, for instance, hasn’t removed traces of the Block from her store, either. Fitting her wiry frame over the store counter top last week, she plucked a creased piece of paper from a rack beside the register: a Block & Tackle menu.

While Watson spoke, fisherman Troy Bichrest, Dawn’s son, walked in and recognized the topic of conversation. “The grease-pad!” he teased.

Asked whether it would reopen, he repeated what his mother said: it depends on the grandkids.

“(But) oh, don’t we try,” Karin chimed in. Even her grammar kept the Block suspended in the present tense. “There’s no place like it.”

‘A labor of love’

While the Watsons reminisced down the hill, Bichrest was in her home kitchen, baking a buttery batch of chocolate-chip cookies.

After handing Troy three on his way out the door, she went up to the restaurant the afternoon of June 15 for only the third time since she closed it nearly 20 months ago.

In her plain-spoken manner, Bichrest said she opened the restaurant because she wanted to stay out of her kids’ way. The oldest of her five sons had just married, and she needed something to keep her busy.

Besides, Bichrest said, she had always wanted her own restaurant after working at her father’s seafood stand on Lookout Point Road.

Thinking she’d start with hot dogs and clam rolls, she remembered that local favorites like shrimpster stew, turkey Tuesdays, and corned hake came later, after the restaurant blossomed into what locals fondly remember as a hub of socializing, game nights and hearty food.

“It’s hard to be somewhere where you wish you were working,” Bichrest said, entering through the restaurant’s back door. She passed by the metal-topped counters of the kitchen, pointing out grocery lists and tubs of seasoning, and followed the narrow, crescent-shaped passage to the front counter.

That was Bichrest’s view of the restaurant on most days, because she did nearly all of the cooking. “If I wasn’t cooking (though), I would be sitting there. I would sit with any of them,” she said of her familiar customers.

Though the seasonal restaurant attracted summer tourists, Birchrest said 90 percent of her customers were area residents and fishermen who congregated for end-of-the-day meals and games of cribbage every Wednesday night.

“(The Block) made it easy to not cook over a hot stove after a long day on the water,” Kevin Griffin recalled inside Watson’s.

Unless it was a Sunday morning. That’s when the Block showcased its “guest cooks”: volunteers, mostly fishermen, who would take a stab cooking for weekend diners.

If they didn’t know how to make something, it wasn’t available, Bichrest said.

Rummaging in the back room where the cribbage games took place, she pulled a photo album from a shelf that contained hundreds of old photographs of laughing fishermen wearing aprons.

She pointed to a photo of a young John Eastman, who once got flustered with a growing stack of orders and walked out of the kitchen, fuming. Another showed her husband, Frankie, wearing an apron and “waitressing.”

The deal was, Bichrest said, if customers didn’t like the volunteer-cooked food, they didn’t have to pay.

“But everyone paid because they had a good time,” she said.

Family matters

Most days, though, it was Bichrest behind the stove, cooking up homemade food that embraced the seafood-supported livelihoods of Cundy’s Harbor without regard for trivial things, like calories.

“Hundred-degree weather, she suffered,” Troy Bichrest said. “But she loved it.”

“She knew what was in it to make it taste good,” Watson said: salt pork and evaporated milk in the haddock chowder, or fresh-caught shrimp in the shrimpster stew – a menu staple invented for a customer on a spur-of-the-moment request.

Many area kids had their first jobs serving such delicacies.

“Gave them all a chance to know what it was like to earn a little money,” Griffin said.

In that sense, the restaurant reflected what Bichrest called the most important thing in her life: family, and what Watson also described as the essence of Cundy’s Harbor life.

Putting family first also led Bichrest to close the restaurant around Memorial Day weekend 2016.

“Oh, they couldn’t believe it,” she said, remembering the community reaction. “They couldn’t believe there wasn’t going to be a restaurant.”

As the second summer season begins without the Block & Tackle, some still can’t.

“You can’t find corned hake anywhere,” Robert Watson said, the appetite apparent in his voice. “We might not see another restaurant that makes corned hake.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson

Dawn Bichrest in the dining room of the now-closed Block & Tackle, with a photo album from the Cundy’s Harbor restaurant’s golden years.

Dawn Bichrest in front of the Block & Tackle in Cundy’s Harbor. The restaurant has been nearly untouched since she closed it two years ago.

Dawn Bichrest in the closed kitchen of the Block & Tackle restaurant, the Cundy’s Harbor institution she ran for 35 years. She hasn’t leased the business, and area residents still hope she’ll reopen it.

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.