No one can ever accuse Ken Macgowan of not having a sense of humor.
The new owner of the Porthole on Custom House Wharf, a restaurant that was closed down last fall because of a rat infestation and other issues, has been busy gutting, updating and expanding the kitchen, and doing everything else that needs to be done to bring the restaurant back and repair its not-so-appetizing reputation.
His target opening date? April 1, a choice he says is “the greatest April Fool’s joke in the world.” He adds, laughing, that’s he’s considered putting something like ratatouille on the opening day menu.
Despite the jokes, when it comes to turning the Porthole back into one of the city’s most popular breakfast and brunch spots, Macgowan is completely serious.
“We’re not afraid to bring up the rat issue,” he said. “If someone comes in and says ‘What about the rats?’ we’re going to tell them what we did to take care of that issue. Come out to our kitchen. We’ll welcome you into our kitchen and you can see what we’re doing in there. We’re going to have a nice kitchen, and it’s going to be open. If anybody wants to go out and meet the chef, he’s going to be fully available.”
The chef at the new Porthole Restaurant & Pub will be Jesse Poirier, a Portland native who has worked at some of the city’s best-known restaurants, including Miyake, Cinque Terre, Vignola and the Front Room Restaurant and Bar. After stints as executive sous chef and executive chef at some restaurants in Florida, Poirier returned to Maine in 2010 and helped re-open and redesign the menus at Diamond’s Edge and the Falmouth Sea Grill.
Poirier said he thinks the re-opening of the Porthole, along with the efforts of his former boss, Harding Lee Smith, to open a seafood restaurant at the old Boone’s on Custom House Wharf, will “bring some new life” into the area.
“I’m very excited to be a part of this,” he said, “and kind of help rebuild what we lost over the last year.”
STRONG FAMILY HISTORY
Why would a businessman like Macgowan want to tackle reopening the Porthole when he’s never owned a restaurant before, which is something like going to bat for the Sea Dogs when you’ve seen plenty of baseball but have never actually played the game? And what are the challenges he’s facing?
Macgowan had a couple of reasons for wanting to buy the Porthole. First of all, Custom House Wharf has been in his family for decades, and his stepfather, John Macgowan, was one of the original owners of the Porthole, running the place after the Korean War, through the 1950s and early 1960s. (Family rumor has it the Porthole first opened in 1929.)
At that time, the Casco Bay Lines ferries were docking at Custom House Wharf.
“Back then, people could come down here and wait for the ferries, and it was more like the old (Miss Portland) diner, just a long, skinny room with a counter,” Macgowan said. “You had a couple of pinball machines and a jukebox, and you came in and got your bottle of soda and a toasted cheese sandwich or a hot dog and got your butt out of here. I don’t think he was open at breakfast time.”
But it’s breakfast that the restaurant ultimately became known for, and that’s the reason Macgowan wants to bring it back to life. When former owner Oliver Keithly decided he’d had enough, about seven or eight other restaurateurs contacted Macgowan wanting to take over the Porthole, “and I did get the feeling from every one of them that they didn’t want to make it a breakfast place,” Macgowan said.
“They wanted to make it lunch and nighttime atmosphere,” he said, “and I always felt the thing that made the Porthole the Porthole was its brunch. Saturday and Sunday brunch was a hit, and the breakfast for the people working down here. If they’re not going to Becky’s, they were going to the Porthole.”
Macgowan turned to close friend Steve DiMillo, owner of DiMillo’s on the Water, for advice on turning the Porthole around. He has hired Poirier to run the kitchen, and the general manager will be Beth Poitras, who is also manager of Casablanca Cruises and has worked in the restaurant business since she was 15.
Macgowan says he’s spending about $100,000 on renovations, including rat-proof flooring. Most of the work has been done in the tiny, maze-like kitchen, which has been opened up and now covers about the same square footage as the 76-seat dining room. All of the sheetrock in the kitchen had to be replaced.
“We’ve basically remodeled and done everything we can kitchen-wise to make it as clean as possible,” Macgowan said on a recent tour of the space. “It’s basically a new kitchen. We took out the old freezer that had been there for years and was rotten. We’ve got a new walk-in cooler coming. The flooring was ridiculous down here. It was costly. It’s tough to do when you’re open. I’ve had the advantage of being closed for several months and having the time to do it right.”
The original flooring — layers of plywood and subfloors that were not made of pressure-treated wood — was taken up and replaced with pressure-treated wood, which rats won’t touch. On top of that is a new three-inch layer of concrete, which also goes partially up into the walls. Those changes, along with the fact that there’s no food around anymore, means “the rats have gone elsewhere,” Macgowan said.
Some of the changes were recommended by the restaurant’s new pest management company, which will now be conducting regular inspections.
Macgowan said he thinks the city health inspector was right to close the restaurant down when she did.
“She was absolutely right, and I say it to this day: The Porthole should not have passed,” he said. “The Porthole should not have been open. It was not a place that I would have deemed safe at that time.”
In addition to rat-proofing, there’s now a new dishwashing area, as well as large areas for prepping food, refrigeration and storage.
Macgowan also plans to spruce up the deck, mostly by installing better lighting. The large deck can seat a couple of hundred diners.
COPPER COUNTER WILL STAY
Macgowan is adding three new booths to the dining room. The Porthole’s famous copper-top counter, along with its old metal seats bolted to the floor, will be saved. He estimates the counter is at least 60 years old.
“We’re adding a drink rail to it because it’s such a skinny bar, and we never had a place to mix drinks before,” he said.
The walls will be painted in nautical colors, a light bluish-gray. “We’re kind of keeping the retro charm, but with 2013 standards,” Poitras said.
As for the food, the restaurant will be serving breakfast and lunch year-round, and will be open seven months out of the year for dinner, serving mostly seafood.
Poirier said the menu will retain “the staples that made the Porthole famous in the first place.” That includes the fish fry, the Florentine, the lobsterman’s breakfast and the lobster Benedict.
“I’ll take those and give them more of a fresh twist,” Poirier said. “I want to stick with local, keep all the fish coming in from Portland. My idea with the menu is to keep everything simple and fresh and kind of let the ingredients talk for themselves.”
The old Comedy Connection next door, which will become a pub serving food out of the Porthole kitchen, is expected to be open by May 1, and it will be open year-round from 11 a.m. to closing. “Closing” doesn’t mean late night, because Macgowan feels that “being around water, you just don’t want to be the last place people go at night.”
The pub will be a tan-beige color, and the old black ceiling will be painted over. High tops are being added along one wall, the location of the stage has shifted, and there will be a dance floor and a couple of big screen TVs installed.
Richard Grotton, executive director of the Maine Restaurant Association, said Macgowan “pretty clearly has an additional burden” with re-opening the Porthole because of its past. He said Macgowan should make sure to get community buzz going by keeping members of “the foodie community” and local politicians informed about the changes he’s making. He suggests holding a preview night so people can see the changes first-hand.
The one thing Grotton would do differently? Change the name.
Grotton said he understands the restaurant has a long history operating under its current name, “but it’s a double-edged sword.”
“My initial reaction is that 99 percent of consultants would say ‘Change the name.’ But in our small-town environment, even if you change the name it’s still going to be known as ‘where the Porthole used to be’ for a while.”
Macgowan, who will be going before the Portland City Council Monday for his liquor license, is confident the changes he’s making will bring diners back in and make the Porthole “a clean, safe place to be.” People have always loved the restaurant’s location, he said, noting that customers still came back to eat there even after they found out about the rats.
“Location, location, location,” he said. “It’s just like buying a house. There’s nothing better on a hot day than to be down here with the sea breeze and seeing what’s happening down here.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: