Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell had been looking to open a restaurant in Portland until they set eyes on the Palace Diner in Biddeford, which dates back to 1927 and is believed to be the oldest diner in the state. Conley worked with Rob Evans, who co-founded Hugo’s, before working at restaurants in New York, and Mitchell also worked at New York restaurants before landing in Maine. Both spent time working on farms and learning how the process of putting food on customers’ plates begins. They opened the Palace last month for breakfast and lunch and plan to add dinners, on weekends initially, starting April 18. Conley, who was the head chef of Gather in Yarmouth before starting at the Palace Diner, spoke on behalf of the two business partners.
Q: Did you go to culinary school?
A: I had planned to. I was working with Rob (Evans) and had put a deposit down for culinary school, and about a month before I was about to leave, he (Evans) said, “I really don’t think you should go, and I’ll give you the education you’ll need plus you won’t have to pay for it.”
So I worked with him for a while longer and from there, I traveled around a bit. Something I like about the culinary field is, it’s accepted you can write to a restaurant you’re interested in and you can check it out for a day or two and they get free labor and you get to learn what they’re about. After doing that for about six months, I wound up in New York, where I worked for a three-Michelin-star restaurant call Jean-Georges. It was pretty intense, but I think Rob prepared me well for that environment. What’s hard is the stakes are so much higher at high-end restaurants, and there are so many cooks out there looking for work and only so many positions that you’re a disposable piece of machinery pretty much and treated as such, but it was really fascinating for a bit.
Q: Where did you go from there?
A: I went up to Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in Tarrytown, N.Y.). We got a tour of the place and it’s a farm/restaurant/food education center, and it opened my eyes to organic farming. I decided to get in touch with one of the people that helped design it and that was Eliot Coleman, who owns Four Season Farm in Maine. My focus was still on cooking, but I wanted a change in perspective and wanted to learn about the food before it hits the restaurant doors. It creates a greater appreciation for what it takes to produce food. Gather was a good test for me as a chef to apply what I learned on the farm and helped me to develop good relationships with suppliers, especially suppliers that are small farms. It helped me understand where they’re coming from. Chefs have been used to picking up the phone on a Wednesday and getting what they want on a Thursday at a good price, and farmers need to see that I don’t think that’s the way it has to work.
Q: How did you meet your business partner?
A: We met farming, and we always had this idea that it would be fun to do a food-related project together, probably a restaurant. Greg had recently moved to Maine and we just started looking at it last summer. The original idea was to start it from scratch in Portland, but after months of searching, we decided to expand our horizons. On a whim, we just came down (to Biddeford) for a morning and probably got more accomplished in a couple of hours than we had in months in Portland. The landlords have all the leverage in Portland, and in Biddeford, landlords are hungry for tenants, and town officials were really excited, and there’s a great organization called the Heart of Biddeford. Delilah (Poupore), the executive director, just dropped everything and gave us a walking tour an introduced us to a whole bunch of people.
Q: What did you think when you saw a small, 87-year-old diner?
A: It shows its age in a very charming way. We realized it was for lease and that was nice and it was a fully functioning restaurant up until recently, so everything was in place and we didn’t have a massive build-out that we had been anticipating in Portland. Interestingly, Greg and I had named our business Palace LLC when we were still looking at Portland, so we thought, this is a sign. That sort of sealed the deal.
Q: How difficult is it to base a restaurant in a place with only 15 seats?
A: It’s a blessing in that the place is really charming, and part of that is that it’s small and there’s one counter and I don’t know where else you can find that. But having a restaurant with 15 seats and trying to support two owners is probably a little crazy, so you promote takeout. We’ve been walking around to local businesses and showing them we’re a viable option, especially for lunch, and then turnover is another key. Before our opening, we had a few Sundays where we opened the doors and cooked some of the food we were thinking about and getting a little money for the startup and running through the systems, and that was the first time we saw the carrying capacity – the diner would fill up and people would have coffee and wait for seats to open up, so that showed us it could work.
Q: How did you decide what was going to be on the menu?
A: There’s a few big things that we had to consider. One was the concept of being in a diner, so we knew it had to be diner food, classic diner food. But we’re also both chefs and want to cook food that’s well-prepared with good ingredients, and we want to put as much effort into a corned beef sandwich has as we would in a $30 dinner at Hugo’s. We also wanted it to pay the bills but also be accessible to people, so there’s a tension and a balance with those things. There are other big factors, such as the limits of space – it’s a tiny kitchen without much storage space and within the limits of time. There’s two of us and we’re pretty stretched thin, so we had to set it up so we weren’t working around the clock.
Q: But doesn’t opening for dinner mean you’ll be working around the clock?
A: It’s difficult, but the principle that’s worked well for us is simplicity in general, and we’re doing things that work for us. If you overextend yourself, your ability to control the quality really drops.
Q: How has the public responded to the new old Palace?
A: It’s been really great. There’s a burden that we carry because people have been coming here for generations in some cases and they have expectations of what this space should be. For some people, were just not going to live up to those expectations because we’re different and that has worried us, but that worry has disappeared and the majority of people with a long history with it have been surprised and delighted that we’re here.
Q: What’s next? Will you expand?
A: Physically adding on to this would be a shame, because the dining room is so perfect. It wouldn’t be right to change the outside appearance. I can’t imagine just knocking out a wall and adding a booth because it would be good for the bottom line. But the town has expressed an interest in letting us do some outside stuff, and long-term for us, both Greg and I see doing the diner as us running a small restaurant to learn to do it well. Who knows where that will lead us?
Q: I have to ask because it’s painted on the diner: Under your management, is the policy still “Ladies Invited”?
A: Ladies are absolutely invited. That’s been so much fun. If we had come up with that today, it would be sleazy and weird, but it’s on there already and it’s perfect and fun, and people crack a smile when they see it, so we just had to use it. We’ve had a lot of fun with it.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: