Harding Lee Smith, chef and entrepreneur, is building an empire one Room at a time.
When he was just seven years old, Harding Lee Smith would perch on a stool at a restaurant owned by his father in Ogunquit. There, he’d eagerly wait for a lobster to be ordered, so he could run to the tank, pull one out, and drop it into the steamer.
After 17 minutes, the lobster would be laid on a cutting board where the young “sous- chef,” wielding a big knife, would chop it into manageable pieces for a lucky diner. Smith’s first kitchen lessons were a success, a precursor of what he would become later in life. Today, Smith lifts an oversized lobster out of a full tank at Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room. He places it on the scale and finds it weighs over three pounds. With a legacy of seafood behind him, Smith knows many ways to serve this behemoth: pan roasted, baked stuffed, or heaped into a toasted New England-style bun for a gigantic lobster roll. Or perhaps it will be simply steamed in seaweed, the way he first learned so many years ago.
Boone’s is the latest addition to the prior trio of restaurants—the Front Room, the Corner Room, and the Grill Room—all owned by the chef. Boone’s has a long legacy in Portland as a dining destination, dating back to 1898. He admits that opening this place was the most challenging. “I saw a need for an old-school seafood house, and opening Boone’s gave us a unique opportunity to reinvent a part of Portland’s history,” Smith tells me. “We stripped it down to the rafters, and then it became my own to work with.” The restaurant sits on Custom House Wharf, as close to working lobster and fishing boats as possible. Two seasonal outdoor decks provide diners with the sights and sounds of Casco Bay, as well as its flavors. Lobsters are a best-selling item, but the chowders, wood-oven pizzas, and a long list of daily specials are worthy of attention too.
Smith’s first place, the Front Room, is a neighborhood gathering spot on Munjoy Hill that he opened in 2005, after returning from working in Hawaii. Smith was walking in the East End when he came upon a “For Lease” sign pointing the way. “I always knew I would come back to Portland and turn the town on its ear, but I had no idea how to do it. I worked hard to make it happen,” he reminisces, “It was a real grassroots effort.” He feared no one would show up the first day he opened the Front Room. But people did come, and they keep coming because the place fills a need for hungry East Enders in search of well-thought- out comfort food. Brunch items are served until late in the afternoon, a plus for the neighbors, and others, who awaken late. Potato gnocchi with sautéed spinach, bacon lardons, and poached eggs with a creamy hollandaise sauce is a divine combination no matter the time of day.
In 2008, Smith opened the Grill Room and Bar, which he refers to as an “urban steakhouse.” The open kitchen features a wood-fired grill and pizza oven that turns out juicy steaks and chops as well as seafood. Ten different sauces are offered for your meat, from a classic béarnaise to chimichurri. Side dishes go the traditional steakhouse route—truffled creamed spinach and potato gratin—or the updated, such as Brussels sprouts with bacon and Smith’s famous Maine sea salt fries. Everything is also available at the bar, where you can watch your cocktails being mixed from the comfort of a cushy leather stool.
At the other end of the block on Exchange Street is the Corner Room Kitchen and Bar, Smith’s paean to casual Italian food, especially handmade pasta. “This is the one that speaks to me the most,” says Smith. It could be because some of his formative years as a chef were spent in Italy, including a cooking stint in Venice, where he absorbed the art and soul of Italian cuisine. Smith likens the Corner Room to a trattoria, a busy, convivial place where people drop in for a glass of wine and some antipasti and bruschetta to share. With its open kitchen adding to the casual feel, the Corner Room has become a popular gathering spot in the Old Port. Happy hour brings a crowd that often stays through the dinner hour, ordering a pasta dish, a pizza, or one of the daily seasonal specials. The wine list, full of bottles from many regions of Italy, has been recognized for its excellence for the past three years by Wine Spectator magazine.
When asked if he’ll stop at four restaurants, Smith very quickly and definitively answers, “No.” He turns to expedite an order, admiring a lobster roll coming off the line, then turns back. “The restaurant business is like sailing,” he explains. “You have to keep moving with purpose, focusing your eyes on where you’re headed next.” He’s considering options, perhaps even outside the city. Four rooms can easily make a house, but there’s always room for an addition.
Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room
86 Commercial St. | 207.774.5725 boonesfishhouse.com
The Front Room
73 Congress St. | 207.773.3366 thefrontroomrestaurant.com
The Grill Room & Bar
84 Exchange St. | 207.774.2333 thegrillroomandbar.com
The Corner Room Kitchen & Bar
110 Exchange St. | 207.879.4747 thecornerroomkitchenandbar.com