Tom’s Homestead still shining a light on fine dining

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

MAYBE IT’S STUBBORNESS — said Tom Doviak, shown standing in front of his restaurant on Main Hill in Bridgton, Tom’s Homestead — but he isn’t letting a broken ankle keep him from running the fine dining restaurant he opened on Main Hill in Bridgton in 1981. Tom’s Homestead is the longest continuously running restaurant in town, and one of only a few businesses that started in the 1980s that is still around. (Gail Geraghty photo)

The tough times don’t last. Tough people do.

“My grandmother used to say that,” said Tom Doviak, leaning his crutches against a linen-covered table next to the parlor stove in the dining room of Tom’s Homestead.

Despite being on one leg, he’d lit the antique stove that morning, with wood he’d cut and split from his woodlot on Route 93. He broke his ankle in late August falling from the restaurant’s roof while doing repairs. He had to close for a month, and won’t be able to put any weight on his leg for another four months.

When the accident happened, Doviak and his wife, Karen, had just celebrated 30 years of business, as the longest continuously running restaurant in Bridgton under the same ownership.

It was a bad break in hard times.

And yet Doviak, 54, isn’t wasting any time feeling sorry for himself. He is proud of the restorations he’s done to the old Baptist parsonage, bringing it back to life as Bridgton’s first fine dining Class A restaurant.

And while he doesn’t do near the business he did in the 1980s, when Bridgton’s camp rental business was thriving, he gets by — thanks to lots of hard work and loyal customers who value the fine dining and historic atmosphere he provides.

“People come here again and again for the food — they love our veal scallopine and our shrimp scampi,” perhaps following an appetizer of French onion soup, smoked oysters or escargot, Doviak said. Where else in Bridgton, he asks, can you get a homemade roast rack of lamb, wiener schnitzel or roast Long Island duckling? “When I first started in Bridgton, no one carried veal,” he said.

“I get it a lot from people” who come and are wowed by the elegance, the ambiance, the food and the service, and say “If you were in Conway or Windham you’d be packed,” he said.

He knows he could do better elsewhere — but Bridgton is his home. Although he was raised in Wayne, N. J., his parents and grandparents all have deep ties here; and he really likes the rural character.

‘You do the work yourself’

Doviak was a young man in his early 20s, operating a diner called Percy’s on Main Hill, when his friend Ken Hann suggested he buy the aging homestead, then owned by Barbara Belouf, and turn it into a Class A restaurant. He had no formal restaurant training, and had envisioned his future in agriculture and forestry. But he decided to go for it.

“The building had that charm about it — and I got it at a good price,” he said. In order to provide proper septic service, he had to buy a vacant lot one door down toward Main Hill and run a septic line.

While his mother got busy making curtains, his dad Bob Doviak, active in downtown revitalization efforts, did the wiring for the old house, built around 1790 for the town’s first Baptist minister. In 1821, the minister’s son-in-law, Dr. Kimball, a doctor during the Civil War, enlarged the home and raised the roof to give it a Greek Revival feel.

After working for a year to modernize the downstairs and making the upstairs livable as an apartment, he opened the doors on Aug. 19, 1981. In those early years, while operating on a shoestring, he benefitted greatly from the patronage of some of Bridgton’s oldest families, including the Stones, who ran Stone’s Camps on Highland Lake.

“I had a wedding for Jennie Stone that drew 100 people, and word got around,” he said. Many of Bridgton’s leading businesses, including The Bridgton News, regularly booked the restaurant for special occasions and Christmas parties.

“I caught this on the upswing,” after the depression of the 1970s, he said. “Throughout the 1980s, I was always full.” Initially, he closed the restaurant in winter, but in 1997 he stayed open year-round.

Since the economic downturn of 2008, he’s had to scale back, but he still plans to stay open in winter. “We’re just getting by,” he admits. “The 80s were the boom time up here for everybody. There’s not that many businesses that started then that are still around.”

The secret of his staying power, besides running a quality restaurant, has been from keeping his debt as low as possible by not hiring work out.

“You do the work yourself. If you have a broken faucet, you fix it yourself. We do all the cleaning ourselves. And we save between $4,000 and $5,000 a year by heating with wood I cut myself,” he said. The Doviaks don’t carry a mortgage, and also grow much of their own vegetables, such as squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, kale, fresh parsley and green beans, in a sizable garden they tend at the rear of the vacant lot.

“It’s little things that you do, so you’re not cutting corners on service or quality,” he said. “The man upstairs says not to be a slave to the lender.”

Staff costs are kept low as well. Karen serves as waitress, scheduler and dining room manager, while Tom does most of the cooking, with assistance from their only full-time employee, Russell Wade, who has picked up a lot of the extra work and running around Doviak has been unable to do since the accident.

Despite being on one leg, Doviak is literally kept hopping with cooking and other errands. Before his injury, he also supplemented the restaurant’s income by working part-time for his friend Ken Silverblade, doing landscaping, and worked in winter as an EMT at Cranmore Ski Area.

“You just have to do it because you have to make things work,” Doviak said. “Maybe it’s stubbornness, maybe it’s something else.”

These days, with less tourist traffic in summer, and less tourists willing to dine out on a regular basis — not to mention fewer businesses holding company parties — the Monday-through-Friday soup and salad luncheon specials and $9.95 haddock specials go a long way toward keeping Tom’s Homestead going, he said.

“Yes, I’d rather have it full every night, but we have to make the best of it,” Doviak said. “You really can’t do casual in this kind of atmosphere, and I’m not a big bar person,” although he serves both fine wine and liquor.

Doviak keeps a keen eye on economic trends. He knows, for example, that 68% of Bridgton’s property taxes are paid by out-of-state residents.

“The locals are our bread and butter, but the tourists are our gravy,” he said. “I just can’t believe it’s been 30 years, it seems to go fast. I hope to keep going, and to keep making it better, try to add new dishes. I also will keep up with the restoration of the old place and preserve the historic building for generations to come.”

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