Diners' club At Aroostook County eatery, 'having fun' is tops on menu
Originally from The Bangor Daily News

by Kristen Andersen

3/24/2004 - From afar, a flashing beacon on the roof of the Long Lake Sporting Club punctuates the darkness of an Aroostook County night when the ice is safe in the winter months and when the water is navigable in the summer months. As you enter the restaurant in Sinclair, lively conversation fills the air, and a roaring fire warms the lounge, where hungry diners anticipate their summons to the dining room.

Don't let the name fool you, even if you're not the sporting type - the only qualifications you need to get into this "club" are a sense of adventure and a healthy appetite.

"This is open to the public," owner Ken Martin said. "There's no dress code. We'll take anybody who comes in as long as they're into having fun. You can yell and scream, as long as you're having fun."

It's hard not to have fun there, but for a first-timer, eating at the sporting club can be a little confusing.

First, you're ushered into the lounge, where a waitress brings you a number, along with your drinks and appetizers. There are no menus, no specials, no prices, and no indication as to how the food is prepared. You choose your meal from seven options on a board on the wall: lobster, shrimp, scallops, a seafood platter, steak, and barbecued ribs.

When your food is ready, your waitress scoops you up and hustles you into a dining room decked out with snowflakes and Christmas lights that twinkle on mirrored walls. There, your dinner - and what a dinner it is - awaits.

"It's a limited menu. We like to serve the big meals," said Ken Martin, who owns Long Lake Sporting Club with his wife, Debbie. "This is the only place in the country that's heard of how this system works."

Though the club opened in 1923, the system originated later with "Black Joe" Frank, the son-in-law of the sporting club's original owner. Frank ran the bar, took orders, and did all the cooking. His wife made the ployes (Acadian buckwheat pancakes) and house slaw that still come with each meal. As she set up the plates, Frank would go into the bar and tell the customers their meal was ready.

When Debbie Martin's parents, Mark and Pierrette Peterson of St. Agatha, bought the club in 1971, they continued the tradition. At that time, there were six motel rooms in what is now the bar, a dance hall in the dining room, and a small area where they served steak, salmon and smelts. Over time, the dining area grew, the hotel rooms were replaced by a big lounge overlooking the lake, and the menu grew, but some things stayed the same.

"The salad and the ployes come from day one," Debbie Martin said.

"Whether you want it or not, it comes with the meal," Ken added, laughing.

The Martins, who were high school sweethearts, took over the sporting club in 1991. Today, their son, Neal, cooks and their daughter, Stacy, runs the bar.

"The third generation is starting to work it and run it and help us out," Debbie Martin said.

"They're giving us time out," Ken said.

Working at the sporting club is a family affair for the Martins, and they consider their employees part of the family. Most of the staff has been at the club for more than 10 years, including Pauline Migneault, who has worked as a waitress for 13 years.

"I moved from California after working there 17 years," Migneault said. "I came here the next day and I've never worked anywhere else since."

"It's too bad," Ken joked.

But Lisa Lajoie, a regular, jumped to her defense. Lajoie lives in Southington, Conn., but her father-in-law, Nelson Lajoie, owns a camp across the lake, and the family spends a week each winter snowmobiling in northern Maine.

"The service is wonderful," Lajoie said. "It's awesome."

A few minutes later, Nelson Lajoie pulled up on his snowmobile and joined Lisa and her son, Trevor, for a drink and a snack.

"I come all the way from Connecticut to have a lobster here," Nelson Lajoie, 65, said. "They've got the best lobster feed. We had a feed last Monday. They were big enough to saddle and ride."

Lajoie's grandson, 11-year-old Trevor, ate a 4-pound lobster on their first night in town. "It was goooood," he said, patting his tummy.

Lajoie grew up in Connor Plantation, the son of a potato farmer, and he has been coming to the sporting club since he was a teenager. Though he lives in Brooklyn, Conn., now, he dreams of moving back to the area. He spends a good chunk of each summer at his camp, and reserves at least a week or two each winter for sledding - and eating.

And there's never a shortage of food. On an average week, the Martins go through 300 pounds of ribs, 600 pounds of beef (which they age and cut in-house), and 1,500 pounds of potatoes. And there isn't a lobster under 3 pounds in the place. During a recent visit, Ken Martin held pulled a 5-pounder out of the tank that was as big as his 2-year-old granddaughter, Mackenzie.

For the Martins, hospitality goes far beyond good food and large portions. A few weeks ago, a man from Pennsylvania blew out a track on the lake. Ken Martin let him use his snowmobile so he wouldn't waste his vacation.

"Helping people, it goes a long way," Martin said.

Though the Martins often arrive early in the morning to prepare for dinner - Ken and Neal are the only cooks - they'll keep the restaurant open late if people show up cold and hungry after a long day of sledding. And if the portions aren't large enough, Ken will "feed you till your full" - at no extra charge.

"If we go 20 miles this way or 20 miles that way, everybody knows that there's no place to eat like this in the area," Lisa Lajoie said. "It's a snowmobilers' paradise."

Lisa's husband, Mark, agreed.

"They treat us like family here."

The Long Lake Sporting Club Restaurant is located on Route 162 in Sinclair. It is open from 5 to 9 p.m. daily. For information, call 543-7584. Kristen Andresen can be reached at 990-8287 and kandresen@bangordailynews.net.