Franny’s Bistro offers ‘accessible gourmet’

By John Maguire | Jan 10, 2019
Photo by: John Maguire Franny's Bistro owners Jack and Jennifer Neal pose in their dining room. They have been open for about a month and business is good so far, they said.

Camden — Jennifer and Jack Neal, owners of the newest little Camden eatery, Franny’s Bistro, want their neighbors to feel at home while eating reasonably priced gourmet food.

“This is something we always wanted to do together,” Jennifer said, sitting across from Jack in their dining room on a Thursday afternoon following the new year. Visitors will notice that Franny’s has a warm, welcoming atmosphere with light, earth-tone colors, patterned rugs and couches that provide space in such an intimate setting.

Sous-chef Adam McKinlay barely glanced up as he poured hand-cut potatoes into a bin for frying. The sound of chopping and the faint scrape of a pan being placed on a stovetop emanated from the open kitchen located behind a wraparound bar as Jennifer and Jack sat out front. They were expecting a large dinner crowd, and as it turned out, they filled all 50 seats in the bistro that night.

Residents and returning Camden visitors will remember Francine’s Bistro, which drew national attention to this small, 1950s-era white clapboard house at 55 Chestnut St. For 15 years, patrons dined at this highly successful restaurant run by chef Brian Hill, who in January 2018 closed his business and moved to California.

Someone bought the building and searched around for a tenant who would open up another restaurant. According to a July 2018 article in Mainebiz, that someone was Mark Senders, co-owner with his wife, Becky Neves, of the ever-popular Bagel Cafe in Camden. The Neals are happy about having Senders as a landlord.

“He’s done a lot to the building and cares a lot about it,” Jennifer said. “And I think that has helped us with our opportunity in coming in, that he saw us as a good fit for the place.”

The name is a catchy, abbreviated version of its previous tenant, kind of like a daughter or a niece, but the food chef Jack Neal is cooking up has its own unique flavor and style.

Patrons may remember chef Hill’s “Squid From Hell,” crispy calamari or the chicken with ricotta, smoked mushroom syrup and creamed spinach. Some of the menu descriptions might have intimidated potential guests, such as the use of “black butter” with mussels, but the restaurant got five-star ratings for all the years it was there.

Camden resident Charles G. describes his December visit to Franny’s on TripAdvisor as, “A Promising Replacement for an Old Favorite,” but one should not make the mistake of comparison.

Jack’s menu, reflecting the seasonal local ingredients that are available here in Midcoast Maine, looks robust, earthy and mouthwatering. Fusing together influences of Asian, American Southwest and east, Mediterranean and others, he describes his menu as New American Bistro.

He kept the favored steak frites on the menu, but it is described this way: “Wood grilled bistro steak served along with grilled romaine, goat cheese aioli and garlicky fries.”

There’s also a unique twist on the classic Caesar salad with garlicky goat cheese aioli, grilled focaccia shards and parmigiano reggiano cheese. Some might come for the cider glazed pork belly alone or the smoked shrimp spring rolls. The menu can be viewed on the restaurant's website: frannysbistro.com.

Jack brings decades of cooking experience to the table. He worked at some of the more innovative restaurants in the Portland area, starting in the early 1980s. For example, he said he ran restaurants for Mark Loring, owner of Saltwater Grill, and for restaurateur Walter Loeman, who has opened several restaurants since launching Perfetto’s and Walter’s Café in Portland. Jack also mentioned having cooked in the Bahamas, but the Maine restaurant scene called him back.

Jennifer, who redesigned Franny’s interior, said she has been working in floral design and landscaping for the past 20 years (her website is: jennifernealfloraldesigns.com), but added, “I’ve grown up working in restaurants.” Her mother was a waitress and bartender. She worked in the industry, as well.

Running a restaurant and a floral design business is a lot of work, Jennifer admitted, but speaking of her staff, she said, “I feel confident that they’ll flourish and grow with us. Having the right people around you is really important.”

Jennifer and Jack have two sons, ages 15 and 11, whom they hope will want to work in the restaurant, too. “Fifteen is the right age for starting in this kind of business,” Jennifer said, “and learning from the dishwasher, up. That’s how I started.”

They’re hoping the restaurant will be something they can leave their sons, a legacy, as well as a familiar spot in the community. They want Franny’s to be welcoming to families, couples and singles who live here year-round, and not just to summer visitors.

“We’re more local, neighborhood-oriented,” Jack said.

Many restaurants have a tough time keeping their doors open in winter, so the Neals are focusing on their winter guests. They don’t want Franny’s to be yet another restaurant that just survives on the chaotic summer season in coastal Maine.

“If you cook good food, people will come,” Jennifer said. Jack chimed in, “It’s all about good quality food and a great environment. The things I’ve always enjoyed about cooking is creating an experience for someone, creating a memory that they’re always going to have and they’re always going to cherish when they look back on it. It’s the space that allows them to have that experience and that memory.”

They want people to know that Franny’s Bistro is not fine dining, so guests can either dress up for the occasion, or feel comfortable coming for dinner in blue jeans. Jack calls the experience, “accessible gourmet.”

Franny’s Bistro has been open just a month, but the Neals say it has been good so far.

To see their menu, ask a question or make a reservation, visit frannysbistro.com or call: 230-8199. They can also be reached by email: frannysbistro@gmail.com.

Chef Jack Neal at work in the kitchen at Franny's Bistro in Camden (Courtesy of: Jennifer Neal)
Pan-fried cod loin and rope-grown mussels with creamed corn and bacon over cheddar grits ($27). (Courtesy of: Jennifer Neal)
Franny's Bistro comfortably seats 50 people. (Courtesy of: Jennifer Neal)
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