In their 30 years at Galyn’s restaurant on Main Street in Bar Harbor, Rick and Gail Leiser have amassed an impressive collection of Maine art. PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

Galyn’s celebrates 30 years

BAR HARBOR — A little more than 30 years ago, a young couple living and working in the restaurant business in Memphis, Tenn., packed up all their worldly possessions, buckled their infant daughter into the minivan and headed north.

After living a rather peripatetic life managing other people’s restaurants, Rick and Gail Leiser decided they wanted to manage their own place and put down deep roots in a new community. Although she was from Memphis and he from New Jersey, they agreed that New England might be a nice place to try.

As they drove up the eastern coast, they stopped at various towns along the way. Finally reaching Maine, they visited Camden and Rockland, looking for just the right town to start their new life. But nothing quite fit the bill until they reached Bar Harbor.

While camping out at Blackwoods in Acadia National Park, they found an empty building on lower Main Street with a beguiling view of Agamont Park and the harbor beyond. After jumping through some hoops with a bank and convincing family and friends to buy shares, the Leisers became the proud owners of a century-old, three-story building that was gradually sinking into the sloping earth beneath it.

They shored it up with new pilings, spruced it up with plaster, varnish and paint, and named it in the traditional manner of Maine lobstermen after Gail and their daughter Lindsey. On May 16, 1986, Galyn’s opened its doors for business. It has since become one of the most popular eateries on Mount Desert Island.

“We originally thought it would be a seasonal restaurant,” said Rick, who worked his way up in the restaurant business, starting as a dishwasher. “But we soon realized in order to make a go of it, we would have to stay open year round.”

In those early days, he and Gail often took turns sleeping in the little upstairs office catching a few hours of sleep after cleaning up from the evening shift and before rising at dawn to start preparing for brunch.

Nowadays, they serve only lunch and dinner and manage to take off some rejuvenating months in winter, which they usually spend right here.

The Leisers give much credit for their success to Larry Jones, their kitchen manager, who also jumped ship in Memphis 30 years ago to join them here; their sous chef of 22 years, Steve Piskura; John Duley, the assistant manager who came on board 20 years ago; and their wait staff, many of whom have been also been with them for decades.

Several of their former employees have gone on to start their own successful restaurants, most notably perhaps The Burning Tree in Otter Creek, Red Sky in Southwest Harbor and the Riverside Café in Ellsworth.

Gail insists that the menu, which while heavy on the seafood, also offers a variety of meat, vegetarian and gluten-free entrees, is an ever-evolving collaborative effort. There is no deep-fat fryer or microwave on the premises.

“Gail is the one who can step in anywhere that’s needed at any time,” said Rick. “She is the glue that binds it all together.”

Running a busy, resort-town restaurant for three decades would be plenty of reason to applaud the Leisers. Raising three children at the same time – their twin boys Andrew and Stephen were born here – is also praiseworthy, as is their active involvement with local charities including the Bar Harbor Food Pantry.

But somehow over the decades, the Leisers also – more by accident than design, really – have amassed what may be the largest privately owned and publicly displayed collection of Maine art in the state, if not New England.

“Aside from our Main Street-facing windows in the front room, we really didn’t have any view to offer our customers,” said Rick, “so we thought a few nice pictures of Maine scenes would create a pleasant interior view.”

They started with the ubiquitous Andrew and Jamie Wyeth prints.

But one day after wandering into the Main Street location of the Argosy Gallery, which specializes in Maine landscape artists, they encountered Amy Sidman, who manages the gallery with her husband Charles.

“We really knew nothing about art,” said Gail. “But Amy has been amazing. She seems to know all her Argosy artists personally and all about the various techniques they use and what makes them special.”

That day, they walked away with a small original oil painting of colorful dories rafted up at a dock by Kathleen D. Johnson. It now hangs in an upstairs hallway.

“We have made it our mission to buy at least one new painting every year,” said Rick. “Most of them are Maine scenes we find here, but a few we have found while traveling.”

Fortunately, their restaurant, like their art collection, has grown over the years, providing more wall space for the paintings that Galyn’s diners now appreciate perhaps as much as the good food.

“Yes, we love it when our customers ask if it would be all right if they walked around to see all the art,” said Rick. “We’re very proud of this collection and are happy to share it.” So happy in fact that every March when they get ready to reopen the restaurant, the walls of their home look as if a gang of art thieves has been through, leaving empty picture hooks in their wake.

For the last 10 years, the Leisers also have shared their love of Maine art with the Sidmans and their Argosy artists by hosting an artists’ reception and exhibit of recent works at the restaurant.

Last weekend, once again, Galyn’s put on a sumptuous spread of both art and food in a large upstairs dining room for an event that has become so popular it usually attracts more than 100 art enthusiasts.

The Sidmans, who are celebrating their own 20 years as gallery owners – with two locations now – also preside over the event. They seem like successful marriage brokers when they talk about the connections they have helped establish between their stable of fine artists and art collectors.

“What they have collected here is pretty much a who’s who of many of the best painters who live or work in Maine,” said Amy Sidman. “Artists like Nancy Hill, Tom Hughes, Nathan Ward, Scott Moore, Steve Hileman … well the list goes on. Of course, I’m happy to have introduced Rick and Gail to many of those artists and their work.”

“I’m really tired when [the reception is] over,” said Gail. “But it’s such a wonderful opportunity for these artists to connect with one another and the public and for us to reconnect with them. A lot of their art is represented on our walls. So it’s all worth the effort.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an error. The assistant manager at Galyn’s is John Duley.

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.