It’s no overstatement to say that, 20 years ago, Rebecca Charles single-handedly changed the way New Yorkers think about seafood. Her first restaurant, Pearl Oyster Bar, opened in 1997: a tiny, tiled space in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan that quickly earned the attention of critics. Indeed, more than a decade ago, it was one of the first restaurants I ever reviewed.
Charles’ polished approach to casual, seafood-shack eating became so popular that patrons lined up down Cornelia Street just to snag a table. And the lines didn’t disappear after a few weeks – they persisted for years.
It wasn’t long before Charles’ employees and partners took notice and, one by one, brazenly decamped to open nearly identical, mitotic copies of Pearl, sometimes just blocks away. Their imitation was so flagrant that Charles even sued her former longtime sous chef for stealing intellectual property: everything from her English muffin croutons, right down to the color of the wainscoting on the walls. He settled out-of-court and changed his concept … almost imperceptibly.
But it is a testament to Charles’ original brilliant idea that Pearl Oyster Bar (and every one of its clones) is still in business to this day. New Yorkers, it turns out, adore the idea of casual, shore-style dining. Charles hopes southern Maine, where her family has been coming for a century, does too.
Clearly, Pearl Kennebunk Beach faces more of an uphill battle with Mainers. After all, we are no strangers to seafood shacks. So Charles has adapted her original template, building the new version of Pearl into an expansive, lodge-like space, with a huge working fireplace and walls painted in muted neutrals. At the center of the dining room is a big-boned, unpainted wood table that seats 16 people – a quarter of the capacity of her entire New York restaurant.
The differences don’t stop there. On the menu at Pearl Kennebunk, you’ll find more non-seafood dishes than you might expect…