Inns on the Maine coast have always had history, views, charm—and mediocre food. Three talented chefs are changing that last part.

In summer, Route 1, the tourist road that winds along the coast of Maine, can look like the world's longest yard sale. But just 10 or 15 miles off the highway are country lanes that follow river valleys and curve around tidy settlements that were already ancient when the Civil War was fought. Sturdy old wood-frame houses called Capes, built low to the ground with their backs to the north wind, sit on hillsides facing the water, while in the villages, handsome mansions in the local Greek Revival style, built by long-dead sea captains and other nineteenth-century community fathers, bespeak the rewards of righteous living.

The glorious elms that used to arch over village streets are gone, but there are still green lawns, rambling rose bushes and back gardens where zucchini flourish next to struggling tomato plants. Small children still fish from bridges over tidal streams and the ladies of the parish still gather for their annual Strawberry Festival. This world remains defined by the whine of a boat-builder's saw, the lap of waves on the incoming tide and the smell of the sea.

Until recently, travelers off the beaten path in Maine had to be content with sights, sounds and smells. Tastes were something else. Coastal hotels might boast drop-dead views, but the food was often plain, to say the least, and kitchens frequently closed at 7:30 p.m. with nothing but that Maine standby crackers and milk thereafter. "Fine dining" usually meant baked stuffed lobster and blueberry pie. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but even the most avid lobsterphile starts to long for variety; as for the food connoisseur, a sauce or two that didn't originate in a bottle begins to seem like a reasonable request.

The good news is that—for the first time in its history—there are now enough wonderful restaurants along the coast of Maine to make it a culinary destination. Best of all, many of the most outstanding new restaurants are attached to homey inns in the most beautiful places.

The Lure of Rural Simplicity
Take Castine Inn, in the historic bayside village of Castine, 15 miles south of Route 1 at Orland. Built in 1898, the inn had just entered its second century when Tom and Amy Gutow bought it, attracted by the child-friendly village as much as by the prospect of owning their own place— after Tom's years of working for other chefs, like Michel Guérard, David Bouley and Bernard Loiseau.

With wide verandas and basic but comfortable furnishings in its 19 rooms, the inn still exhibits the kind of rural simplicity that has drawn visitors since it was built. The location is a great one for exploring the dramatic coast—from Cape Rosier to Stonington on Deer Isle, continuing to Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. Or one can while away the afternoon in a rocking chair on the veranda (perhaps reading a novel by Mary McCarthy, who, rumor has it, purchased her Castine home with the proceeds from The Group), gazing out in classic rusticating fashion at the lovely landscaped lawns and gardens and the placid harbor beyond. Adventurous souls will want to take advantage of the superb biking and hiking routes nearby, or hire a boat for a day sail around this island-studded reach where the Penobscot River empties into Penobscot Bay.

The best days end with dinner in the inn's pretty dining room with its cool, green murals, painted by a previous owner, of Castine village views. Tom Gutow's superb cuisine is a fine example of what happens when an imaginative, classically trained chef meets up with the best local ingredients. My choices on a balmy night were a cold potato-and-green-garlic soup that was light but rich with flavor, followed by a piece of oil-poached salmon, served warm—not hot—with a hot-and-sour broth. The combination of Asian sweet and sour flavors with the velvety texture of the salmon was stunning. I would happily travel to Castine for another piece of Gutow's strawberry Napoleon, made of caramelized phyllo sheets layered with a sweet, almost jammy strawberry puree that had been spiked with a tantalizing hint of cayenne. The wine list is not copious, but there are bottles in a range of prices, and the quality of the selections is equal to that of the food.

A Quintessential Down East Inn
South from Route 1 at Damariscotta and Newcastle is Pemaquid Point, which is as quintessentially Down East as you can get. Lovers of Sarah Orne Jewett's tales will feel at home here, where granite and basalt ledges that resemble petrified corrugated cardboard are topped by dark forests of pointed fir and spruce (with wild chanterelles and porcini in abundance for foraging) and wild rose bushes. Below a stout lighthouse erected during the administration of John Quincy Adams, surf throws up towers of spume and fishermen fling their lures into the sea when the striped bass are running.

Just behind the lighthouse and the adjacent Fishermen's Museum is Beth and Warren Busteed's Bradley Inn, another comfortable century-old hotel surrounded by flower beds landscaped around stone outcroppings; the earth's skeleton is very close to the surface here on the point. With 16 guest rooms, including a couple of cottages, the inn is nicely located for exploring this small but delightfully diverse peninsula at the tip of Penobscot Bay. New Harbor is a working fishing village, and Bradley Inn chef Judith Carinhas buys seafood from local fishermen (inn guests often join the chef on her excursions). New Harbor is also the departure point for boats to distant Monhegan Island, an artists' destination. Across the peninsula is Pemaquid Beach, a crescent of clean white sand—most unusual along this rock-bound stretch of coast; colonial history buffs will want to visit Fort William Henry and the archeological site of the seventeenth-century settlement overlooking the beach.

Carinhas arrived in Pemaquid after working with chef Melissa Kelly in the Hudson Valley (for more on Kelly, see page 148), and in Miami. Like Kelly, Carinhas has an eclectic take on local products that lifts them to another level altogether—like big-bellied Maine clams that she fries until crisp and serves with an anchovy mayonnaise, or Atlantic halibut, seared and presented with a Tuscan contorno of white beans and bitter greens. Carinhas has been in the area only a short time, but she already shows a deep understanding of its possibilities.

Half Penobscot Bay, Half Caribbean
It's not necessary to head out along one of the many peninsulas on the Maine coast to find an old-fashioned inn with an elegant dining room. Right on Route 1, where it becomes Elm Street in Camden, is Michael and Mary Jo Salmon's Hartstone Inn, a restored early-Victorian mansion in the heart of this lively community on the western shore of Penobscot Bay. The inn has just 10 rooms, all handsomely furnished with antiques and reproductions of styles from the nineteenth century, when Camden enjoyed its heyday as a shipbuilding town. Locals mingle happily with "people from away" in Camden, one of Maine's friendliest resort communities. Hiking, cycling and swimming opportunities are plentiful in the Camden Hills State Park and at Lake Megunticook, and both day-sailers and weeklong cruising sailboats call Camden home port.

From the Hartstone, it's an easy stroll down to the public landing to watch the big windjammers and other sailing craft, along with a few lobster boats; Camden and neighboring Rockport, moreover, offer art, music and theater, in summer and winter, and there are a number of good restaurants in the twin towns and nearby.

But the Hartstone's beautiful dining rooms are special—under Mary Jo's direction, they even include crystal knife rests. Michael trained in classic French techniques, but he also spent many years in the Caribbean and shows a strong appreciation for the spices and seasonings of a part of the world that has historic links with the Maine coast. You might find a salad dressed with peppery papaya seeds, or diver-caught scallops with mangoes and fresh chiles. The lobster with a vanilla-flavored beurre blanc is half Penobscot Bay, half Caribbean.

What I like best about these restaurants is the insistence on local products—lobsters and clams, yes, but also mackerel, smelts and sweet little Maine shrimp from bays and inlets, rabbits and chickens raised wholesomely on Maine farms, the mostly organic produce from Maine gardens and orchards, mushrooms from Maine woodlots, and butter, cheese and cream from Maine dairies. But it takes more than great ingredients and determined chefs to create great cuisine; it also takes a sophisticated public that is willing to pay for it. And that's what has changed in Maine more than anything.