2000s Archive

A Town Like Carla

Originally Published October 2003
It’s a picture-perfect setting, but something was still missing. Then a ten-table café opened and changed everything.

It happened, as so many things do in Carla Rollins’s life, very quickly. The landlord called to say the space in the picture-pretty town of York, Maine, was available—and Carla, who had been catering and, before that, selling baked goods out of the back of her station wagon at the now-defunct York farmers market, knew her time had come.

Not everyone thought the town needed a café. A spire-stabs-the-sky church had been converted into a crafts store. There was the requisite bank that was always changing its name, and the bike shop that those in the know knew sold ice cream cones. Surely the tourists weren’t looking for much besides lobster rolls, and the locals already had a hangout, outside of which they parked their trucks on a steep incline, routinely pulling too far forward and shattering the restaurant’s glass windows.

But Rollins doesn’t underestimate anyone or anything, including the small New England town where she raised her family. She knew who lived there. She knew who had a swimming pool, even if it could only be used two months a year. She knew who was practicing Jungian analysis and who was said to be the best acupuncturist. She was convinced that there were many people in the area who wanted more than they were getting. And tourists? Tourists tour: If you’re busy condescending to them, you forget that they may well have acquired an appetite for sophisticated things.

So, armed with a degree in culinary arts, Carla set out to create not just a café but an environment that she herself would like, a place where both she and her employees would take what they did so seriously they could afford to be irreverent and have a little fun while turning out really great food. In a frenzied five-week period, she and her husband, boatbuilder and New Hampshire native Paul Rollins, created Carla’s Bakery & Café.

And what, exactly, is the café? Well, it’s a tiny ten-table restaurant squeezed between a florist and a barbershop. But it’s also much more than that. As devotee Cynthia Hayes says: “In the winter, it’s like the best dream you ever had of your grandmother’s kitchen.” It is, but as Carla and her crew recognize, they are surrogates for the grandmothers many of us never had: When Granny was off to her job as a stockbroker, you can be sure she didn’t stop to put fresh-baked muffins on the table. At Carla’s, people experience the childhood they wish they’d had. Cape Neddick resident and café regular Nick Hubby describes Carla’s as “a warm place in a cold town.” He says, “What is Carla’s to the town of York? That’s easy. You do it by subtraction. She was closed for four days. The town was like a house without a kitchen—and besides, I had some stories to tell and listening to do, and the genial space for this was gone.” Local lawyers stop in and frown through their meals. Doctors from the nearby hospital inspect the daily specials, order nutritiously, then send the staff back for pastries. On the counter sits a vase filled with sunflowers so enormous they threaten to take over the café. For a place this small, a lot of life gets crammed in.

At the center of so much activity in a tiny space is Carla herself, who gets to work at 6 a.m., plunges bunches of just-picked mint from her garden into a pitcher to serve as garnish for iced tea, and begins making breakfast pastries, including the justifiably famous apricot almond scones, and blueberry crumb cake. (“That one’s a guy thing.”) Every day the ingredients of salads and soups, sandwiches, wraps, and one-dish meals are written in chalk on the blackboard. As noontime approaches, more and more customers stand before it to gaze intently, as if the stars of the sky have suddenly appeared vertically before them.

Just before the lunchtime rush, the staff look like they’re rehearsing a juggling act: One raises a bowl over another’s head, sliding past, while someone rushes from the kitchen and swoops a tray under somebody else’s arm. They’re by no means the June Taylor Dancers, but they’re attuned enough to one another to seem effortlessly graceful. (One of the cook-servers used to dance for Merce Cunningham; bowl swoops are her forte.)

A spirit of sharing and improvisation permeates Carla’s. There’s talk of Sid, who brings the great produce; talk of the iceman (“The ice chest cost a fortune, but the thing is, we love it. It makes us happy every day”); talk about whose daughter might ask whose son to the prom—familiar in-jokes, so the laughter begins immediately.

But beyond the banter, there’s a very real respect for food here. Much care goes into its preparation, much thought is given to how it’s displayed: pottery or glass bowl? One-of-a-kind tray? The café’s intimacy, its good smells and appealing colors and textures, can make it seem as much an artist’s studio as a restaurant. Behind the counter you’re seeing not just creators and servers of food, but jewelry makers and herbalists and weavers.

In the hectic summertime, they are joined by a slightly baffled male teenager, who listens hard to Carla’s prelunch game, Name This Food. You can hear him muttering, “Pignoli, pignoli.” And then there’s the intrepid Marj Rogers, whose idea of fun is biking 30 to 40 miles a night; to Marj, the long day on her feet must seem like sleepwalking. Like Carla, she’s full of innovations: A sprinkle of coconut? A curlicue of pasta? “Yeah, but tell them the salad’s not about tortellini,” Carla says, peering into the bowl as if it’s a crystal ball.

Subscribe to Gourmet