Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Postcards from Maine: Jordan Pond House

The Bubbles, the classic view from the lawn of the Jordan Pond House Restaurant,
where generations of visitors have enjoyed popovers, tea, and more.

For the past 80 years, a for-profit company, the Acadia Corporation, ran the restaurant and gift shop at Jordan Pond along with two more gift shops in Acadia National Park and several more gift shops in the town of Bar Harbor. I doubt that most park visitors realized that the National Park Service itself didn't operate Jordan Pond House, although locals and long-time summer families were well aware — and if they were smart, they held stock in the Acadia Corporation, which is based in Bar Harbor. I hear that Acadia's stock did rather well over the years, as park visitors paid cheerfully for their countless popovers, pots of tea, dinners, and souvenirs since 1933.

The big news when we arrived last month was that the Acadia Corporation's contract had not been renewed for this year. Instead, the National Park Service (based in Philadelphia) awarded the concession to a competitor, Dawnland, based in New Mexico. There was shock, dismay, grumbling, and litigation, but eventually, the Acadia Corporation emptied the Jordan Pond House of all of its company-owned equipment and furnishings, removed their inventory and displays from three gift shops in the park, and downsized their company accordingly.

We heard that a large number of Acadia Corp. employees were rehired by the new company, so there is that important continuity, at least.

Dawnland (a subsidiary of Ortega National Parks LLC), runs concessions in several parks out West, and this isn't the first time they've beaten out a long-time, local company — it happened in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, too. Being naturally rude and politically incorrect, we envisioned the Jordan Pond House servers, dressed in their usual khakis but accessorized with sombreros, serving popovers laced with cilantro and with a side of salsa instead of strawberry jam. (This is not such a bad idea, actually.) But before we went to experience the changes, we stopped in at the Acadia Shop in Bar Harbor, where we'd been told we'd find souvenirs of the old restaurant. And people are indeed buying up the indoor tables and chairs as well as the iconic wooden benches and green-painted tables that sat under the umbrellas facing the pond:

You can also buy both new and well-worn dishes with Jordan Pond logo, although they struck us as ridiculously expensive. The used ones were really used, and could have used at least one more pass through an industrial dishwasher, too.

Having absorbed all that, we drove to Jordan Pond with curiosity and trepidation. My husband had been eating popovers there since he was a kid, when he was terrified of the yellow jackets that swarmed around the pots of strawberry jam on the outdoor tables, but not so terrified that he stopped eating his popovers. He and his brother also remember running around with their butterfly nets on the lawn overlooking the pond.

The parking lot was not any less crowded, even in June. The first change we noticed was this sign, with a new, more detailed and more colorful logo. If you ask me, the representation of Bubbles maks them look less reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield in a sweater, and more like the Alleghenies or the Poconos. 

We made a reservation for later in the afternoon (we had to, the place was booked) and went for a walk along the carriage roads nearby. We also went partway around the pond. 

Distant view of blue sea and small islands from a hilly carriage road.

 The trail that circles the pond.

After our walk, we checked out the gift shop as we waited for our restaurant pager to go off and make us jump. The shop definitely is different: among other things, it no longer carries as wide a selection of books about Maine, wildlife, and Acadia, which is disappointing. But there are still plenty of other souvenirs, of course.

When we were finally escorted to our outdoor table (under new dark green canvas umbrellas) we noted that the new benches are now green plastic, not weathered wood. We're now remembering that the tables are synthetic now, too. The dishes look similar, but just have green stripes, no Jordan Pond House logo. Everything else seemed similar, but different, too, including the menu. No more curried chicken salad, no more baked Brie with grapes, tomato-basil soup, etc. And popovers no longer come free with every entrée; you must pay for them separately, which puts a damper on the experience, if you ask me.

I asked to see a dinner menu. The best thing about dinner was always the unlimited popovers... but now it seems there are no popovers on the menu at all.  It is early days. Mid June. When the influential [i.e., rich] , old-timer [Rockefeller, et al.] and celebrity [Martha Stewart, et al.] summer residents arrive on the island soon, I suspect the dinner menu will change, or we'll encounter protesters in madras shorts and Lily Pulitzer dresses waving "Bring Back the Dinner Popovers" next to the parking lot. I will update you on the situation when we return in August. I'm not too worried.

We ordered popovers and tea:

The butter, jam, and tea were about the same. My husband was taken aback to find a plastic liner in his jam cup, but he managed to adapt. The popovers were... terrible, I thought. They arrived barely warm, and were tough, dry, and nearly burned, leaving a bitter aftertaste that was just... nasty. Oh, well. We also tried their new chicken salad. It was all right, but not great. The former, curried version was a generous amount served with fruit and crackers, and we will miss that.

I mentioned our bad popover experience back at the inn, and the long-time islander who lives onsite and runs the place for the owners told me she finds that the popovers are usually problematic in June. She said it takes a few weeks for the kitchen to get into the groove of baking them correctly, so I should keep the faith and try again in August. She happens to know the lead popover batter maker, and said she'd have a quiet word with her. The new company is using many of the same vendors, so ingredients shouldn't be all that different. Not that popovers are complicated: the tricks are in how you handle the batter and bake it, rather than what goes into it.

We went back a second time and ordered popovers and tea, with uneven results. I had one good popover and another bad one, so the Jordan Pond House is batting .250 for me right now. We'll go back in August and try again. It's still wonderful to sit under a big umbrella and enjoy that view and the familiar, happy atmosphere that will continue, at least for a little while longer, no matter how strange the popovers taste. Even if we're all sitting on plastic benches now.

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