SEARSPORT — Russell Manton, owner of Rio’s Spiked Café, said “people in the know” have started to take notice of his unusual restaurant, which opened about four weeks ago.

The Republican Journal spoke with Manton when he first announced plans to convert the former garage into a European tapas bar and eatery in July 2020. 

Rio’s Spiked Cafe head chef Tim Churchill, left, and General Manager John Sullivan Oct. 27. Photo by Fran Gonzalez

“I’m not going to blame it on the pandemic,” he said. Most of the holdups, he added, had to do with construction and issues with the building.

Manton, along with his wife, Oana, whom he calls the real boss, have created an eclectic esthetic in which to relax, sip a drink and sample multiple small plates of irresistible treats called “tapas.”

Russell and Oana Manton, owners of Rio’s Spiked Cafe, Oct. 27. Photo by Fran Gonzalez

Rio’s head chef, Tim Churchill, hails from Aroostook County and trained in Portland under Paolo Laboa of Solo Italiano fame, as well as learning from a stint in Rome. “My background is Italian and I want to stick with my Italian roots,” he said.

Russell and Oana Manton’s daughter can be seen in a photograph set into the stone fireplace. At left is Russell’s custom-made fan created with a 3D printer. Photo by Fran Gonzalez

At the same time, he is a native Mainer and knows the local produce. Churchill said he works with local farms for produce, meats and cheeses. Rio’s cheese platter, known in food circles as a “cheese flight,” contains different varieties of local cheeses, served with honey or saba, an Italian syrup made from grapes. 

Manton said, “Tim puts his own twist on tapas.”

“Our rotating cheese flight is 100% local,” Churchill said. “And our charcuterie board is getting traction.” That flight contains cured meats from around the world, along with local fruit and several rotating condiments. “Our menu changes with the seasons,” he said. 

Fluorescent bubbles adorn one wall of Rio’s Spiked Cafe. Photo by Fran Gonzalez

As if it were not apparent, Churchill said the restaurant does not take shortcuts. “Our veal stock is a long-time process,” he said, “Even our bones are local.” Coarse salt is not used, he said; instead he opts for gray sea salt from France, which, he said, has a certain softness you can feel because it is free of chemicals. 

Churchill’s focaccia bread is also racking up a lot of compliments. “My style is to adhere to the classics,” he said. He uses a type of grain known as “spelt,” which is high in protein, has a nutty flavor and is a healthy option. The rustic bread is served on the house.

When asked what entrees people gravitate to, Churchill said the grilled flat iron steaks from Pineland Farms are popular, as is the roasted salmon dish with butternut squash puree and toasted hazelnuts with coffee bean and local pea shoots.

Manton offered a tour of the open circular dining room, with a large central fireplace and a custom-made fan to circulate the air. “Everything you see here, we’ve made,” he said. 

The custom-made tables at Rio’s Spiked Cafe each have their own names. Photo by Fran Gonzalez

The fan, he explained, is based on one he had seen but was too expensive to buy. Using a 3D printer from his other business, Suretech Access Systems, which makes high-tech locks for hotels, Manton fashioned a fan to his liking that fit the space perfectly.

“All the tables have their own name and are different and individual,” he said, referring to the resin-top tables spread throughout the dining room. When asked about the picture of a young girl set into the stone fireplace, Manton said it was his daughter.

Rio’s Spiked Cafe General Manager John Sullivan stands behind the fully-stocked bar Oct. 27. Photo by Fran Gonzalez

In a restaurant he visited in Salzburg, Austria, he said, the whole back of the room had a large picture of the owner’s daughter. “I thought, what a great idea,” he said. “She might not like it when she’s 22.”

The café is a unique dining experience for any palate, with friendly, attentive staff who provide a welcoming space in which to relax and enjoy the little plates of yumminess.

Rio’s Spiked Cafe, 357 W. Main St., Searsport, shown here Oct. 27. Photo by Fran Gonzalez

Rio’s is open Wednesday through Sunday from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. with happy hour between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. Charging stations are available in the parking lot for electric vehicles. For more information, to see a menu, or to reserve a table, call 548-4016 or visit riosspikedcafe.com.