March 13, 2013

Soup to Nuts: A peek through the new Porthole

New owner Ken Macgowan candidly addresses 'the rat issue,' among many other topics, as he discusses the next incarnation of the venerable waterfront eatery.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

No one can ever accuse Ken Macgowan of not having a sense of humor.

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With general manager Beth Poitras, left, new Porthole Restaurant & Pub owner Ken Macgowan talks about the planned April 1 opening. Macgowan’s son Garrett, right, stopped by with daughter Aria, 11 months, to check out the improvements.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Guy Fieri left his mark when his Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” visited the old Porthole in 2011. New owner Ken Macgowan said he plans to preserve the image in the restaurant’s newly renovated space.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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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."


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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A 1984 view of the Porthole Restaurant.

File photo

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Jesse Poirier will be the chef at the new Porthole Restaurant & Pub. The Portland native has worked at some of the city’s best-known restaurants, including Miyake, Cinque Terre, Vignola and the Front Room Bar & Grill.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


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