SOUTH PORTLAND – JP Thornton’s Bar and Grille is named after a man who died when his daughter, the mother of one of the restaurant’s owners, was 2 months old. Tom Francis Howard wanted his maternal grandfather’s name to live on.
This winter, JP Thornton’s means a place to eat – and a lot of people seem to have heard of it. On a weekend night, a customer is likely to face a wait of 20 minutes as early as 5:30 p.m.
“A lot of people don’t want to deal with the bridge,” Howard said about the Casco Bay Bridge to Portland. He also credits well-lighted parking for his restaurant’s popularity.
But the most important appeal is on the menu.
“People today are looking for value,” Howard said. “If you look at the tablecloth restaurants, they’re down quite a bit.”
But if the recession has chewed up some restaurant business, good, inexpensive food remains a draw. “People can afford to come in a couple of times a week,” he said. “That’s what I’ve tried to do to get a great regular crowd, and it’s worked.”
Even though those who won’t eat steak and potatoes or crab cakes aren’t likely to visit JP Thornton’s, this place does serve a few things to eat off the Maine menu straightaway of grilled meat and fried fish.
And both the tried-and-true and the new stuff taste good – some of it better than good. Cauliflower and fennel puree held some resilient texture in its creamy mass and jumped with licorice, anise and earthy cauliflower. The sauteed small scallops next to it were good too, though one of the sliced fingerling potatoes was undercooked.
JP Thornton’s started in a little sandwich shop, formerly A.J. Kennedy’s, at 15 Evans St. in 2002.
The developer of the site of the original Newick’s seafood restaurant heard that JP Thornton’s building was changing hands and moving Howard out, so he signed him to the new space.
A few months down the road, Howard and co-owner Lee Goyette found themselves in charge of two businesses: a dinner restaurant and a next-door deli that sells beer and wine for off-premises consumption.
While other occupants of the little mall have come and gone, today Howard and Goyette are overseeing another expansion. A corner door will become the main entrance, with a vestibule to keep the cold away from the tables.
A new dining area will hold a mahogany bar, a fireplace and a banquet room, with another 70 seats at booths and tables. “People just love the booths,” Howard said.
There are already six big purple-vinyl-upholstered booths spanning two walls, with a corner filled by a curving banquette suitable for six to eight. In April, two more corner booths and many somewhat higher, longer booths will be ready in the neighboring room.
The walls reflect skinny diamonds of light shed by glass shades over wood tables. On one night, college teams played ball on the two TV screens above the bar.
Dona Paula Malbec ($7 a glass, $22 by the bottle) was among the 14 wines by the glass. Twelve draft beers, many of them local microbrews, are served as well.
But to get back to the food, two small-around and fat-through-the-middle crab cakes ($9) anointed with a zig-zag of spicy aioli got dinner rolling. Their contents were sweet, tender and redolent of Maine’s excellent crabmeat.
Goat cheese smooshed along the length of long crisp crostini ($5) had been kissed by heat, letting the taste of the cheese bloom under a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Caramelized sauteed onions contributed sweetness like a not-quite-ripe pear.
Ribeye steak and shrimp ($16) with mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus – nicely charred and tender but too few – comprised a reasonable meal with no pretensions and no demerits, the safe choice that this restaurant has mastered.
The hanger steak special ($15) wasn’t made with hanger steak – which had run out – but with a small filet mignon, a pale substitute with the merest wash of flavor set on mesclun with sliced cucumber. But fried parsnips and sweet potatoes pushed the plate into higher gear.
Excellent fish and chips ($13) surprised with the merest veil of coating – just a dusting of flour, perhaps, on a long piece of tender and delicate haddock fillet. Fries stood in for crunch – and the fish was better off without it.
Lemon cream cake from Fogarty’s in Berwick was a thoroughly delightful dessert, the buttery cake and the smooth lemon filling tangy with citrus. Curlicues of blackberry puree decorating the plate made a precise flavor counterpoint.
Coffee from Green Mountain, “highly adequate” in one companion’s judgment, filled big mugs and infused us with energy, as did the atmosphere and conviviality all around.
Anyone who wants to support the business with $500 can be a founding member of the Thornton Plate Club, a silver membership program. Members enjoy $600 worth of meals, and have their names engraved on a plate on the wall.
“Banks aren’t giving out money. This has helped finance the furniture and the bar,” Howard said. “I’ve raised $30,000. I think I’ve got quite a bit more coming in the next few weeks.”
N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.