The owners of Sonny’s, which has served Latin-inspired food in Portland’s Old Port for nine years, will close the restaurant and bar at the end of the year to make way for a new concept: Black Cow, a casual hamburger-and-shake shop featuring a classic soda fountain.

Nicholas Nappi, who will oversee daily operations at Black Cow, at 83 Exchange St., says he wants the restaurant to resurrect customers’ pleasant childhood memories of going to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal, “except have it be real food.”

Almost everything on the menu at Black Cow will be made in-house, from the sodas and hamburger buns to the ballpark-style mustard and caramelized tomato mayonnaise.

Nappi is a longtime chef at Local 188 and partner in the new venture with restaurateurs Jay Villani and Garry Bowcott, who also own Sonny’s, Local 188 and Salvage BBQ. He says he has long dreamed of opening a restaurant like Black Cow “because I love hamburgers and shakes. It’s as simple as that.”

“I’m a little obsessed with cheeseburgers,” he said. “It’s Americana. I was tired of doing food that didn’t feel like food I grew up with. Cooking French and Spanish and ultra-modern American, it’s super fun and challenging, but it didn’t resonate with me the way that going to McDonald’s did when I was a kid.”

TIME HAD COME

Nappi, who grew up in a restaurant family (his grandfather and uncle owned the Magic Muffin on Congress Street, where Nosh is now located) left Local 188 a few years ago to take a break and eventually landed at Eventide Oyster Co. and Hugo’s. He had been discussing the possibility of developing his own project with Villani and Bowcott before he left the Local 188 Restaurant Group. Seeing the long lines of people waiting to get into Eventide and Duckfat across the street convinced him that opening a casual hamburger place might work. When he returned to the Local 188, the idea was back on the table.

After searching in vain for a good space to open Black Cow (which is early 1900s soda shop slang for root beer), it was Villani who suggested that maybe Sonny’s time had come, Nappi said. The consensus was that it was time to make way for something new, Nappi said.

Villani said in a written statement that Sonny’s had “a great run” but he is “fired up for the Black Cow” and looking forward to seeing what Nappi and Bowcott do with it.

NO KITSCH OR GIMMICKS

Sonny’s will serve its last meal Dec. 31. The restaurant plans to hold special events in the coming weeks so regulars can say their goodbyes. (Events and news about Black Cow will be posted on Instagram @SonnysPortland.) Black Cow is expected to open six weeks later, following a few renovations – including the installation of the soda fountain, which is being built around a deep, two-bay soapstone sink Bowcott found at Portland Architectural Salvage.

Black Cow will be open for lunch and dinner. Nappi said while the restaurant will be a reimagining of the classic soda fountain and hamburger shop, there will be no “kitschy” or “gimmicky” touches – no paper hats, no waiters dressed as Buddy Holly, no photographs of ’57 Chevys on the wall. And there will be no menu with dozens of “specialty burgers,” he said, explaining that he wants “to do one thing very well.” That means classic toppings only, such as dill pickles, onions and cheese. As far as prices go, Nappi said he’s shooting for burgers that cost under $10.

The shakes, crafted from housemade ice cream, will come mostly in classic flavors such as chocolate, vanilla and strawberry (when strawberries are in season), as well as a few specialty flavors for floats with the housemade sodas – say fennel ice cream with blood orange soda. Sonny’s popular cocktail bar will remain.

Nappi said his goal, from trimming and grinding the meat properly to adding just the right amount of sauce to a bun, is “to really convey the joy of eating a cheeseburger.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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