Veterans and newcomers reflect on the Portland restaurant scene past and present.
In late July 2000, former New York Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller praised the Portland dining scene in the newspaper’s travel section. “For a city of only 65,000, Portland, Me., boasts more high-quality restaurants than more cities twice its size,” he wrote. Some of the places he praised are long gone, including Bakehouse Café (on the corner now occupied by Elevation Burger), and the “towering, blocklong bazaar” that was the Public Market before it moved to smaller quarters in Monument Square. But 17 years later, Miller’s other recommendations—Back Bay Grill, Fore Street, Street and Co., and Gilbert’s Chowder House—are still going strong, among the old guard in a city where the food scene’s rapid growth shows no signs of slowing down.
David Turin opened his eponymous Portland restaurant in 1992 on the corner of Middle and Market streets. Other than Street and Co. and the original Walter’s, “there really wasn’t much going on,” he remembers, but rents were cheap and landlords had empty spaces they were eager to fill. “Portland’s pretty special in that the ocean’s right there, and the farms are right here,” Turin says. “There’s also a financial dynamic that makes it possible for driven, slightly crazy chef-types to get in and pursue what they can’t pursue in other places.” Six years later, he moved David’s to its current location in Monument Square, and in 2007, he opened David’s 388 in South Portland. Despite the current boom, he believes that the cost of opening a restaurant in Portland is a bargain compared to larger metropolitan areas. “I think Portland was just an early place to get noticed,” he says, citing Minneapolis and Cleveland as two other smaller cities with newly notable food scenes. “It comes down to economics, because the absolute enemy of my craft is always having to consider the bottom line and the business model—nothing creative starts that way.”
Krista Cole is one of Portland’s newest restaurateurs, having opened Sur Lie on Free Street three years ago with her partner Antonio Alviar and chef Emil Rivera. Alviar was an industry veteran, having worked at restaurants in Portland, and then in Denver where Cole, who had been a nurse, got her master’s degree in management and organization. “In a big city, that’s where the investors come into play, and you don’t know the faces behind some of those restaurants,” she says. “But we know the faces behind Lolita, and Duckfat, and Piccolo— people that are chasing their own dream and who bring a lot of heart and hard work to the industry.” Both Cole and Turin stress the cooperative spirit that continues to define the city’s dining scene. “I’ve said for years that one of the awesome things about being a chef in Portland is that it was never competitive, it was always collegial,” says Turin.
“It’s a city that works like a small town,” says Leslie Oster, recalling the early 2000s, when she moved from Cape Cod to work at Aurora Provisions. She served as the general manager and creative director there for 16 years, until it was sold in June, and is now an events director for the nonprofit Full Plates, Full Potential. “That’s when we started bringing in lots of farmers, and we started forming these relationships—maybe somebody got a pig and they couldn’t use all of it.” Oster has deep appreciation for the path paved by chefs and restaurateurs like Sam Hayward, Dana Street and Rob Evans, who were “passionate about what it meant to live in Maine, and what it meant to be seasonal and inclusive,” she says. “I still do feel like we operate in this very special, privileged bubble, but now there are more kids on the block—the Goulds, Damian (Sansonetti) and Ilma (Lopez), the Volks, to name a few—who came in with a great respect for what was here and who continue to put new pavers on the path.”
The proprietor of three busy Portland restaurants, Jay Villani is an artist who landed in the industry somewhat by accident. He opened Local 188 in 1999 as a gallery with a small menu of tapas, in the storefront now occupied by Pai Men Miyake. “Longfellow Square was an empty, fallow place and rent was cheap up in that neighborhood,” he says. In 2007 he moved the restaurant to its current spot on upper Congress Street. “Everyone thought I was nuts moving into that big space; we went from 25 seats to 100 seats and the first night open we served about 300,” Villani says, shaking his head and smiling at the memory. In addition to Local 188, he now owns Sonny’s and Salvage BBQ; he is also a partner in Bunker Brewing. “I was very lucky to be able to surround myself with the right people,” he says. “It’s not about me getting fat; it’s about how we get to where we all want to go.”
Villani and other chefs acknowledge that the sheer number of restaurants in Portland has ramped up the challenge of finding and retaining quality staff. “They’re out there, but you gotta pay them; that’s the bottom line,” Villani says. Ten years ago, Matt Ginn worked two jobs—at Five Fifty-Five in Portland and the Black Point Inn in Scarborough—to afford his $700-a-month apartment on State Street. “Someone told me the rent there now is $1,300 a month,” says Ginn, the executive chef at Evo and the Chebeague Island Inn. “And wages have not changed that much in correlation.”
What has changed, Ginn says, is the quality of restaurant food. “I think even the old vanguard of Steve Corry (at Five Fifty-Five) and Larry Matthews at Back Bay Grill would admit that even though 10 years ago they were all doing good food, they’re doing much better food now. The diners’ awareness of ingredients and technique has elevated.” Other developments Ginn has seen over the course of his career include more ethnic restaurants, and expansion off the peninsula. “It’s not just on Congress Street, Fore Street, and Commercial Street anymore,” he says. “Chris Gould is brilliant out there at Tipo, and Woodford Food and Beverage is doing great—they set the standard for that neighborhood.”
The executive chef at Union, Josh Berry says he was surprised by the warm welcome he received when the restaurant opened two years ago. “To have a city embrace us so fast, especially with the number of restaurants that were here, and great restaurants, some that I really looked up to and still do, I think it speaks volumes to the Maine ‘you gotta stick together’ thing,” he says. In late June, Berry, along with Turin, Sur Lie’s Rivera, Guy Hernandez of Lolita, and Ilma Lopez of Chaval and Piccolo, collaborated for a dinner at Sur Lie to raise funds for the Maine’s Children’s Cancer Program. “Portland’s like a neighborhood city so all the chefs, we’re all friends,” Berry says. “Owning a restaurant is a lot of hard work, and a lot of people get energy from giving back to the community,” says Cole. “It’s really cool, the culture that we have here.”