Maine pub gets dressing down
'Skinny Dip' lunch offer taken off menu
The Black Frog's long dock was the launching pad for many infamous leaps. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff)
By David Filipov
Globe Staff /
March 11, 2009
GREENVILLE, Maine - They come to Moosehead Lake for the pristine shoreline, the teeming wildlife, the secluded pebble beaches. And for a while, some made the trek to this remote vacation spot to run bare-naked along a 100-foot dock, jump into the crystal-clear water, and receive a free meal.
The Black Frog, a lakeside pub and sandwich place with a penchant for the risqué, was handing out its "Skinny Dip Sandwich" to patrons who stripped and dove off its floating dock au naturel, part of owner Leigh Turner's constant effort to spice up his menu. It all went swimmingly - until someone took offense at the new take on the idea of naked lunch and called the police.
Now, Turner's liquor license is in jeopardy, threatening the popular restaurant with closure at a time when mom-and-pop shops do not need additional reasons to go out of business. Two patrons have been fined for their uninhibited plunges. And the question for this bucolic, family-friendly resort at the cusp of the Great North Woods is how much raunch to bear (bare?) to keep a prime tourist draw from going belly up.
"We'd heard complaints for a long time that there's this blatant violation. People were saying, 'I live up there and there's some bare-[expletive] kid jumping into the water,' " said John Simko, town manager of Greenville, which he said is home to 1,600 full-time residents. Most local restaurants close during the winter, he said, and the recession has already claimed one of the town's two grocery stores. The Black Frog "put us in a tight spot" by encouraging indecent behavior, Simko said, adding, "We don't want to lose another business."
Turner said he meant no harm with the promotion. He thought he had arranged it to prevent hungry exhibitionists from violating Maine law, which prohibits public display of genitalia, but not the baring of buttocks or women's breasts.
"We actually put some thought into it so that this would not be grossly offensive," Turner said in his matter-of-fact growl. "You actually never saw the front of the person. They were always running away from you."
The Skinny Dip gimmick started quietly enough in 2005. Turner, who has owned the Black Frog since 2000, said someone would take the plunge every two weeks or so. The stunt fit in with his motto - "You may do anything you like as long as people laugh" - a philosophy evident in the innuendo, puns, and wisecracks that populate the menu. (Example - "Cook's Salad: If we call it a chef's salad, he'll want more money.")
"Our menu sets the tone of the restaurant," Turner observed. He gazed from his enclosed porch onto the southernmost reaches of the 518-mile-long lake, a location that attracts not only flocks of visitors to Greenville in the summer, but also the snowmobilers and ice fishers who thrive in the subzero weather that often envelops Moosehead Lake in winter. On a recent Tuesday, it was 3 degrees above zero - positively balmy, by local standards - and the cold sun reflected dully from the crisscrossed paths left on the frozen lake by snowmobilers riding up to the Black Frog.
The Skinny Dip, thinly sliced prime rib au jus on a baguette, started making local headlines after the summer of 2007, when someone on an excursion boat docked nearby complained to police. The concern over public nudity struck some Black Frog regulars as strange for a shore where folks who own boats or docks say jumping in the lake without swimsuits is common. One customer, Bonita Doughty, said she and others had watched from the restaurant as State Police troopers skinny dipped.
"One guy did it right after the ice melted," she said. "Our faces were pressed right up against the glass."
Town officials suggested that Turner end the promotion, said Police Chief Scott McMaster, who hastened to add that neither he nor Greenville should be considered prudish. He said he realized that people often swim in the raw, though in his three years as chief, no one has complained to him about that. But he said he was getting a lot of complaints about the Skinny Dip.
Turner "runs a pretty good establishment out there," said McMaster, who, by the way, said he has never swum naked in the lake. "But we're a family-oriented, fun town. You have to realize our situation."
By last summer, two or three patrons were taking the plunge each week, Turner said. He said he considered canceling it.
"I don't like giving away free sandwiches," he grumbled. Turner added an extra precaution: Before anyone skinny dipped for the Skinny Dip, servers would make sure none of the diners, who were seated 75 feet away from the dock, minded.
Then last August, three Black Frog patrons, two men and a woman, were summoned for indecent exposure after a family with young children witnessed them streaking down the dock, McMaster said. Each man was fined $200 plus a $50 court fee (the charge against the woman was dropped). The town recommended that the state liquor commission deny Turner a license when it came up for renewal last October. Turner had no choice but to end the promotion.
"If I don't get the liquor license, I'm out of business," he said.
The commission has granted a temporary license, and after hearing Turner's appeal in January, it is deciding whether to extend the full license.
Simko, the town manager, said the town wants the restaurant to thrive - as long as it stops encouraging inappropriate behavior.
"We've been pleased that he's been able to keep it open," Simko said. "If he complies and the state issues a liquor license, we'll be tickled to death."
The Black Frog's menu still features the sandwich, but the explanation has changed.
"We used to offer this for free if you skinny dipped, but the selectmen objected, so don't blame us," it now reads. "There is no such thing as a free lunch."