Originally published in Maine magazine, September 2022.
Offering an upscale pub menu in a hip industrial space, State Lunch is a key part of Augusta’s renaissance.
In 2019, inspired in part by the city-led revitalization efforts of Water Street in downtown Augusta, longtime bartender Shawn McLaughlin and chef Matt Margolskee decided it was the right time to open a restaurant together. The two friends had met years prior in the midcoast when McLaughlin was managing the Cellardoor Winery tasting room and Margolskee was cooking at farm-to-table pioneer Primo, and they envisioned a neighborhood pub with a variety of handmade ramens and a strong cocktail program. Between the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene and resurging interest in the state’s capital city, it seemed like it was Augusta’s moment.
So the pair bought a derelict former deli on Water Street and performed an extensive renovation. State Lunch opened its doors for business in late February 2020 to an enthusiastic reception from the city. But “it ended up that it was the worst time [to open a restaurant],” McLaughlin says, since the onset of the pandemic meant they had to switch to takeout and delivery only three weeks after opening. But two and a half years later, State Lunch has fully rebounded, and the city has embraced it as a go-to spot for elevated comfort food and well-mixed cocktails.
So popular is State Lunch that, when I call a few days prior to my planned visit, the hostess tells me the reservations are full for Saturday night, but that they save plenty of tables for walk-in customers. When I arrive a few days later, the brick-walled bar and dining room are a hive of activity, with a large party of several generations enjoying a celebratory dinner and Augusta’s young locals filling the 12-seat bar. There’s about a ten-minute wait, so I walk down the street to the Oak Table and Bar, another relatively new restaurant contributing to Augusta’s downtown renewal, for a drink.
After only a few sips of my Earl Grey–infused vodka grapefruit cocktail, my table is ready, so I head back to State Lunch for a seat at the long stone bar. Above the bar’s extensive collection of local spirits, 85 of which are whiskey, two televisions play 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and then the 2005 remake. The classic film inspires me to order the Golden Ticket, a take on a whiskey sour with added complexity from the addition of amaro and a housemade chile syrup.
As I sip my cocktail, I peruse the menu, which proves to be a mix of familiar Italian American specialties, like rigatoni with Italian sausage and chicken Parmesan, and dishes with a pan-Asian flair, ranging from fried Kung Pao Brussels sprouts to pork belly steamed buns. I order a selection from both categories: an order of Rhode Island calamari and a Thai beef salad, both nightly specials, of which there are several. The calamari sports a thick, crunchy coating and is mixed with pickled peppers and arugula that deliver a zippy tanginess. The Thai salad is a fresh mix of seared beef strips and vegetables, tossed with a lime–fish sauce dressing and showered with chopped fresh herbs. An order of pork belly bao buns offers a rewarding contrast of fatty pork and crisp, pickled vegetables in a thick, pillowy bun.
My husband and I share entrees—the spicy shrimp shio ramen is a must for us, and while it’s difficult to narrow down our other choice, I ultimately am swayed by the seared scallops in an enticing pool of potato-leek puree with spinach, pork belly, and mushrooms. Six scallops with a perfectly crusty sear arrive on a large plate with nearly as many cubes of crispy pork belly. The vegetable puree creates a silky, cream-like base for the seafood, while floating dots of a green herb oil lighten the dish. The handmade ramen noodles and fat shrimp are surrounded by a rich, savory broth that Margolskee makes from a variety of roasted poultry and beef bones. He’s been developing the broth recipe since the restaurant opened and says it only gets better each week.
My next cocktail is a Hot Pursuit, a mezcal-based drink with a tropical blend of mango, jalapeño, and strawberry-infused Aperol. It showcases McLaughlin and his bar team’s talents behind the bar, which clearly are a big draw. Later he tells me that, while he never planned to serve margaritas, after offering them to-go during the pandemic they have become the restaurant’s top-selling drink. He now features a “margarita of the moment,” which changes frequently—recent iterations have included spicy blackberry-peach and strawberry-ginger.
McLaughlin and Margolskee recognize the give-and-take required to run a neighborhood place. They certainly have ideas about what State Lunch is and should be, but they also recognize that, to truly fit into a community, a restaurant needs to be there for its customers just as the customers are there for it. “At the end of the day,” says McLaughlin, “food is food, and you can get it at a lot of places, but the most important thing to me is the experience you give people and the way you make them feel.” And if that means serving margaritas alongside specialty cocktails with more obscure ingredients and preparations, then McLaughlin is happy to do just that.
State Lunch | 217 Water St., Augusta | 207.213.6025
A Serendipitous Discovery
Augusta’s Water Street was once a thriving downtown district that featured State Lunch, a diner that served breakfast and lunch. When the 2019 renovation of the long vacant space uncovered a stained-glass window that spelled out the restaurant’s name, McLaughlin was initially dismayed, feeling obligated to give his project the same name. Ultimately, he’s glad he embraced the location’s history. “Kind of like your kid’s name, you define your name and it becomes what it is,” he says. “Turns out, that’s who we are, and who we were supposed to be.”