Well-kept secret revealed at The Thistle
Last October, Dick and Anya Reid took a rare weekend away from their restaurant, The Thistle Inn, to celebrate their wedding anniversary. While in Boston, they started thinking if they ever wanted to be able to enjoy time together and with their children, they would have to start thinking about the restaurant a little bit differently.
One night they decided to dine at Loyal 9 which had earned two recent James Beard Award nominations. Dick remembered, “the food was casual, not pretentious. But there was artistry and care to the preparations. It was a truly great meal and we asked to see the chef at the end of the night. It turned out that the chef-owner was also enjoying a night off so second-in-command, Alex McDonald, came out to see us.” According to Anya, the three instantly hit it off. She said, “By the end of the conversation we had invited Alex to Boothbay Harbor to see if he might like to be our head chef.”
Turned out McDonald, originally from Massachusetts, really liked Boothbay Harbor. It was like everything was working out exactly as he had hoped.
While attending New England Culinary School in Vermont, he fell in love with small town New England. Later he traveled throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine while working his way through prominent Boston area kitchens including Island Creek, Aka Bistro and Regal Beagle. He was at Loyal 9 from before it opened and by the time he met the Reids, he was second-in-command to the chef-owner with no room to grow.
McDonald moved to Boothbay Harbor in November, but the Reids have purposely kept the addition quiet. They wanted to give the new chef plenty of time to build his kitchen systems and help the staff normalize before going public. Anya explained, “the winter was the perfect time to keep the menu traditional and to let Alex settle in. We need that break to recharge all our batteries.”
A few small hints of McDonald’s influence have been leaking out. The Thistle hosted a sold-out Italian wine dinner in March and plans a French wine dinner for April.
McDonald and the Reids also brought back the Downeast Steak, a classic menu item from 1965, but gave it a twist. It is a 36-ounce ribeye topped with a lobster and mushroom Newburg and served with creamed watercress and mashed potatoes. It must be ordered in advance.
Other summer plans include a pop-up dinner series at Squire Tarbox Inn in Westport Island featuring McDonald, guest chef collaborations, and menus inspired by Maine. The Reids described McDonald’s culinary point of view as rustic riffs on tradition and said we should expect more new menu items when the summer season starts. He is an enthusiastic fan of local products including Maine beer. "There’s nothing better than Boothbay Craft Brewery’s Thirsty Botanist," McDonald said.
As for the Reids, they still expect to be at the restaurant every day but, with McDonald in the kitchen, they hope to have more family time. Anya also hopes that gives the couple more time to contribute to the community. She said, “We need more opportunity. We have to be smart and stay relevant. We want to continue to provide good year-round jobs to our employees. If we focus on what is best for everyone and not just each of us individually, then we know we can tackle job creation, housing and the other challenges ahead as a community.”