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Don't be discouraged by the restaurant sign at Exit 127: There's more to Waterville, Maine than Applebee's, McDonald's, and Pizza Hut. The old mill town that Colby College students call home may not be New York or Boston, or even Amherst or Ithaca, but there are some great eats: raspberry pie and hot mulled cider, lobster rolls as big as Philly cheesesteaks, and the best apricot jam in New England, tire-sized pumpkin pancakes, and Thai curry to rival any at big-city restaurants. You just have to know where to look.
In lieu of cheesy breadsticks from the now-shuttered Waterville location of Spanky's pizza (RIP), Waterville House of Pizza, or "WHOP," makes a buffalo chicken calzone that Colby students use as a midnight beer sponge. (If hot sauce and a dunker of blue cheese isn't your thing, no worries; there are also about 20 other calzone options.) Even better, the downtown pizza joint has gotten IT-savvy (or just tired of taking calls from drunk college students) and now offers online ordering.
Everything at Big G's is huge: the menu (more than 100 items), the whoopie pies, the homemade breads—and the sandwiches they make with them. Unless you've got a lumberjack's appetite, a half a sandwich'll probably do you (Thanksgiving fans love the Miles Standwich; veggies fill up on the Zonker Harris). And if you're hungry enough to come back for breakfast, the pumpkin pancakes are the size of Frisbees, and way better than what you'll get in the dining hall.
We miss the classic split-top bun, but honestly it's not big enough for the amount of lobster The Korner Store piles on. The torpedo-style roll (buttered and toasted, if you request it) houses several handfuls of tender claw and tail chunks lightly dressed with mayo--and nothing else, if you don't want the shredded lettuce.
There's usually still snow on the ground, but that day in late March when North Street Dairy Cone reopens for the season is worth bundling up for. The mom-and-pop stand--Waterville's first ice creamery--has been going strong for more than 50 years, churning dozens of homemade flavors including coffee fudge, rum raisin, and Grape-nut, plus half a dozen soft-serve options, slushies, shakes, and Hungry Jacks (translation: Blizzards).
Bonnies Diner is your quintessential country Maine diner: gigantic blueberry pancakes, dirt-cheap prices (eggs, home fries, and toast for under $3), and a heaping order of small-town hospitality. Owner Eva Turner, who bought the Winslow eatery from its previous owners in 2008, starts at sun-up baking breads, biscuits, and muffins from scratch (though they may or may not be whipped up from a box mix--an above-average box mix). Sit at the counter to chat her up as she cooks. And if you're not feelin' eggs or pancakes, word has it that she'll serve you a bowl of homemade soup for breakfast if you ask. Also good for breakfast: The Early Bird in Oakland.
Want a refuge from the library? Jorgensen's Cafe, a crunchy downtown Waterville institution, has everything you need: free wifi, free coffee refills, made-to-order sandwiches (including breakfast burritos), a whole case of Kennebec Chocolates, roomy booth seating that makes it easy to spread out with textbooks and a laptop, and plenty of peace and quiet.
I still remember the phone number (207-859-8900), because I probably called Pad Thai Too more than any other number during college (sorry, Mom and Dad). The fried dumplings, homemade curries (chileheads, ask for 5 stars), and namesake noodle dish are really well executed--and not just by central Maine standards. Also, three updates since my time: First, "Colby Sizing": for an extra $2.50, you can get an extra-large helping of pad Thai or select other noodle/rice dishes. Second, the college discount (10% off for all local area students). Third, a sister shop called Mum Mum on the other side of town that serves Asian-inspired sandwiches. (During lunch hours, Pad Thai also offers these sandwiches.) Both locations deliver to campus, meaning you'll never make it to the dining hall.
Upperclassman living off-campus or in the Senior Apartments should give up their meal plan and spend the cash at this Main Street storefront instead. Barrels Market is like a mini indoor farmer's market, fully stocked with everything local: raw milk, sauerkraut from Morse's in North Waldorboro, fresh chicken from Maine-ly Poultry, bulk bins of dry beans and grains, smoked salmon, hard cider, farm eggs, and Matt's wood-roasted coffee. Plus, the folks who run it are just plain nice.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Brenda Athanus of the Green Spot makes the best apricot jam I've ever had. Same goes for her plum, and the raspberry she makes from her sister, Tanya's, homegrown fruit. The two run this charming Oakland market seasonally, so save some cash (these aren't central Maine prices) and get in there before Columbus Day, when they close up until spring. The must list: jams, pickles (try the kimchee bread and butters), locally made butter from Sylvia, homemade ice creams, hand-pulled mozzarella, pasta sauces, and fresh-baked bread.
You can't beat the setting at Riverside Farm Market and Café overlooking the Kennebec River or the homemade raspberry pie and hot mulled cider. But while this picturesque Oakland café/market has in recent years built itself up to be a full-service (and pretty pricey) lunch-dinner operation, I'd stick to what the place does best: wine. The right side of the building is a dedicated vault of well-chosen imported and domestic bottles, including a small selection made from grapes grown on the restaurant's own tiny vineyard.
When Someone Has a Car
The Liberal Cup is an above-average brewpub that's worth the 30-minute drive down to the riverside town of Hallowell. Half a dozen of their own beers rotate on the taps and are siphoned either into pint glasses or into sampler flights of six: highly recommended. The food is hearty and appropriately offbeat, and the portions are generous. Start with an order of the house special garlic-parmesan wings, and move along to beer-cheese soup (the beers and cheeses rotate regularly), the ale-brined bird, or the fish and hand-cut chips, and don't forget to check the specials board.