PORTLAND – City officials have shut down three waterfront businesses, including the well-known Porthole restaurant, citing numerous health code violations including a “serious rat infestation.”
The Porthole, the Comedy Connection and the Harbour’s Edge banquet hall, all owned by Oliver Keithly, were closed Thursday afternoon after health inspector Michele Sturgeon inspected them in response to a written complaint.
Sturgeon found “rat droppings everywhere” in the businesses’ liquor storage area and on shelves, as well as “rotting, decayed mouse traps,” according to her report. “TONS of flies all over the food” and “lobster and other exposed seafood,” she wrote.
According to past health inspection reports, the Porthole was last inspected in July 2008. That report noted a need to clean up around the Dumpster, improve general cleaning and get a follow-up inspection for plumbing violations.
City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said late Friday that electronic files showed a follow-up inspection was done in 2009, but the report was not immediately available, even though all past inspection records were requested Friday morning.
Keithly did not respond to calls for comment Friday, and employees at the Porthole said he was not inside. A woman who came outside as a reporter approached Keithly’s home in South Portland said he was at the restaurant.
Initially, employees and a sign in the window said the Porthole was closed because of “water issues.” Later, as reporters gathered, employees replaced the sign with one that read: “Closed, sorry for the inconvenience.”
Many would-be patrons were disappointed to find the Porthole closed Friday. The restaurant was featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” show in 2010.
“I guess this is the dive part,” said Al Purdy, 51, who was visiting from Iowa.
People who were turned away Friday evening said they were disappointed.
“I wanted fried scallops and the french fries with the vinegar,” said Jen Federico of Kezar Falls. “Ooh, they’re the best.” “It’s always good drinks, always good people,” said Rick Bedrcuist of Long Island. “It’s just a good place.”
The Porthole opened in 1929 as a coffee shop and candy store. In previous interviews, Keithly said he believed it was featured on the Food Network because of its “authenticity.”
He noted that the Porthole hadn’t changed much since he bought it in 1998. It has the same copper countertop and bar stools it had in the 1920s, an open kitchen so customers can see the food being prepared, and lobster buoys hanging on the walls.
The city inspected the restaurant Thursday, the day it got the complaint, which highlighted rat problems and said “several people got sick” from eating “bad potato salad” at a function at the Harbour’s Edge banquet hall.
Included in the city’s inspection report was a copy of an invoice to the Jensen Baird Gardner and Henry law firm, dated July 17, for a company event for 40 or more people. No one at the firm was authorized to comment on the event, said Tiffany Gould, the firm’s accounting director.
Douglas Gardner, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department, said the city never called the law firm to ask whether any employees had fallen ill after the event. That portion of the investigation was referred to the state, he said.
The city inspector found windows and doors propped open without screens, dish rags on the floor, and no “employees must wash hands” signs in the bathroom.
A section of her report on Harbour’s Edge noted “excessive violations — many repeat, not corrected from last (Imminent Health Hazard.)”
She also discovered a bar sink and a floor drain that lead directly into Portland Harbor, rather than the city’s sewer system.
Stuart Rose, who works in the wastewater compliance division of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said he learned of the violations Thursday.
“I don’t have any new details,” Rose said Friday. “This is the beginning of (the) investigation.”
Gardner said the Porthole’s management has called in a pest control specialist to deal with the rats and flies. Several issues still must be addressed, including general cleaning and sealing up areas that lead outdoors.
Owners of nearby businesses said they have not had a problem with rats. They said they do regular pest control.
“It’s a day-to-day routine,” said Jennifer Fox, co-owner of Andy’s Old Port Pub on Commercial Street. “You have to stay on top of it.”
Mark Cutter, who owns Port Bean on Commercial Street, said he hires Orkin pest control to inspect his cafe and its storage area every two weeks.
“It’s only $60, every two weeks,” he said. “I want to make sure we don’t have issues.”
According to city records, the Porthole was inspected seven times from July 6, 2007, to May, 21, 2008, and was out of compliance with codes governing plumbing, hand-washing stations, refuse and garbage disposal, and overall cleanliness.
Each inspection noted the need for a follow-up inspection to ensure that plumbing issues were fixed. But the city did not provide any inspection records from between 2008 and this year.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Friday, Clegg said a follow-up inspection was done in April 2009 and scored a 96.
No one on the staff was available at that hour to provide the follow-up report, she said.
Clegg said the Porthole was the third restaurant in Portland to be shut down for health code violations in the last year. La Bodega and Buffalo Wings-N-Things were closed, but Clegg could not provide any information about the nature of the violations or say how long the restaurants were closed.
Gardner said restaurants are closed when three or more critical violations are found. Numerous noncritical or repeat violations can also lead to closure, he said.
On Friday, Denise Lachance, 53, of Ottawa, Canada, was upset that she couldn’t experience the Porthole. She first tried to eat there 15 years ago, and it was closed then. She took photos of the restaurant, because it appeared to cater to fishermen, and made paintings of it.
This time, she had made her way up from Cape Cod eating seafood, hoping it would culminate Friday at the Porthole.
“You don’t know my frustration!” said Lachance, standing several feet from a black rodent trap. “I’m crushed.”
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: