New Italian restaurant opens in Kennebunk, Maine
KENNEBUNK, Maine – 101 years ago, the SS Wandby crashed on the rocks off the Kennebunks, its stranded crew to be inundated with accommodations, food and entertainment from locals.
“It was kind of like the start of hospitality here in Kennebunk,” said Matt Dyer, who along with his wife, Mariah, opened Wandby Landing Restaurant this month.
The couple are the newest stewards of the 19th-century farmhouse at 46 Western Ave. which for the past 30 years has served as a restaurant, most recently On the Marsh Bistro.
The Dyers hope Wandby Landing can live up to the story behind its name with fine wines, cocktails and an Italian menu built around handmade pastas.
“It’s something we aspire to,” said Matt, 40, who with Mariah, 38, lives in Kennebunkport.
The couple have worked over the past 18 months to update the farmhouse which was built around 1850. Matt said they were expanding the restaurant’s bar from eight to 22 seats, tending to its gardens and adding a pizza oven which will soon be operational.
“We wanted to pay homage to what was here, but also create a comfortable space for us,” Matt said.
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Mariah, who also runs her own flower and garden business Wild Aster Farm, builds on the gardens around the farmhouse which overlooks the nearby marsh. The couple also plan to use their 144-seat, two-story restaurant for weddings and receptions.
“It’s a beautiful space, beautiful gardens. We really want to take advantage of it,” Mariah said. “It’s really close to the city center, but also feels a bit far from the world.”
The Dyers have been together for about 15 years and have worked at other local restaurants like Earth at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport. Wandby Landing is their first attempt as sole proprietors.
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A meaningful name
The Dyers discovered the SS Wandby while researching the history of the Kennebunks as they considered a name for their new restaurant. Mariah went to the local historical society and found an account of the ship’s accident and the town’s reception of the crew. She also found letters written 30 to 40 years after the crash from the crew thanking local families like the well-established Eldridge family for hospitality until they could find a way home.
Bringing their vision to life has taken longer than expected, with the coronavirus pandemic slowing construction and increasing costs. The couple bought the farm in December 2020 and they said the pandemic set them back about 10 months in their efforts to open.
To get by during those extra months, the Dyers took on what Matt called “mercenary work” with their friends’ catering and hospitality businesses. Mariah has also expanded her gardening business, which includes winter tulips which she says have brought joy to customers during the cold months of the pandemic.
“I got a lot of comments, ‘Oh my god, your tulips really get me through some dark times,'” Mariah said.
A “staple in the community”
This summer, the Dyers still had a lot of work to complete, but set an ambitious schedule to open on July 1. Matt said there was still plenty to finish with two days to go before opening.
“It was a race to the finish line, as these projects usually are,” Matt said. Reception over the past month has been encouraging, he said. Guests have returned during the month and Wandby Landing’s has already booked weddings.
Wandby Landing chef Michael Bergin has worked in restaurants along the East Coast, including New York where he worked under celebrity chef Missy Robbins. He said he had a background in French cooking but came from an Italian family. He said working in Italian kitchens in New York brought him back to his Italian roots and honed his craft of handmade pasta.
“People have come back three or four times for the same dish,” Matt said, “which speaks volumes about the quality he (Bergin) produces.”
Bergin and the Dyers all say they know that Kennebunk is a vacation town with peak season between July and August. They say Wandby Landing’s vision is to do more than serve tourists, and they hope to integrate into the community so locals visit a few times a week or month year-round.
“I think we don’t see ourselves as a tourist destination,” Matt said, “but hope to be some kind of community base.”