Sunday, April 20, 2014
PORTLAND - For months, rumors have swirled that chef Harding Lee Smith is going to open a new seafood restaurant on the waterfront, but little was known about the concept -- or why Smith is taking the gamble of opening a fourth "Room" on the Portland peninsula.
Jay Villani, owner of Local 188 and Sonny’s, and his partners plan to open a barbecue restaurant in this space at 919 Congress St.
Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
Harding Lee Smith works happy hour at The Corner Room, one of his three – soon to be four – “Rooms” on the peninsula.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
HERE'S A PARTIAL LIST of other Portland restaurants that are owned by the same chef or restaurant group:
• Five Fifty-Five and Petite Jacqueline
• The Green Elephant and Boda
• Hugo's and Eventide Oyster Co.
• Nosh and Taco Escobarr
• The Dogfish Cafe and The Dogfish Bar & Grille
• Benkay Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar and Kushiya Benkay
MAINE'S RESTAURANTS employ 62,700 people, making up 10 percent of the workforce. Sales in Maine restaurants are projected to reach $1.9 billion this year.
In a recent interview, Smith confirmed that his new restaurant will be located at 6 Custom House Wharf, the former location of Boone's Restaurant and Harbour's Edge, the banquet hall that was recently caught in the same net as the Porthole by the city's restaurant inspector. Smith has taken over the space and is transforming it into a full-service, mid-scale seafood restaurant with outdoor dining, an oyster bar on the second floor and a fireplace to keep things cozy for the locals in winter.
"The lobsters will be steamed over seaweed rather than just boiled, kind of like you would see along the coast on your way to Bar Harbor," Smith said. "You see those places with the wood fire burning outside, and they have the lobsters cooking for people. I'm trying to bring that experience into Portland, without it being just a shack."
Smith is just one of several established restaurateurs in the city who have recently announced they are opening up a third, or in his case, fourth restaurant on the Portland peninsula.
Jay Villani, owner of Local 188 and Sonny's, announced in his most recent newsletter that he and his partners are opening a new barbecue joint called Salvage BBQ and Smoke House at 919 Congress St., the former home of Portland Architectural Salvage.
Last week, word leaked that chef Masa Miyake and his business partner, William Garfield, plan to re-open Food Factory Miyake on Spring Street, much to the delight of the tiny eatery's adoring fans. That will bring Miyake's restaurant count to three.
David Turin just opened his third place (his second in Portland), David's Opus 10, right inside David's Restaurant in Monument Square.
Will these well-known chefs be spreading themselves too thin? Can the city support more restaurants at a time when it already seems saturated with food choices and the competition is fiercer than it's ever been?
RICHARD GROTTON, president of the Maine Restaurant Association, says he thinks there may still be some room in the Portland market for more restaurants, but opening a new place before the economy recovers may be "a big gamble."
Portland diners have less cash on hand and pickier palates than ever. Established restaurateurs have an edge because they already have a big fan base, Grotton said, but if the food in their new restaurant disappoints, it won't matter who they are.
"Everybody's going to be interested in the new place, and that's a huge advantage," Grotton said. "But you'd better live up to your reputation."
Jay Villani says he gets that.
"I do not take for granted people walking through the door, and I try to stress that to my staff," he said. "Once we start taking for granted that people are coming in, we're doomed."
Villani's Local 188 has been a success, but he says he wouldn't open a restaurant like it again unless it was in another town. His barbecue place, opening next spring, will have "a completely different vibe."
"If we were to do another Local someplace in Portland," he said, "now that would be a big mistake."
Villani says he gets his kicks these days being the "executive producer" of a restaurant. A former sculptor, he likes trying to create energy and flow in a space. "I'm really into this part -- building them out, the flow -- the whole project from beginning to end," he said. "At this point in my life, that really excites me."
(Continued on page 2)
click image to enlarge
Masa Miyake, shown here cooking at his restaurant on Fore Street, plans to reopen his Food Factory Miyake on Spring Street.
Press Herald file photo
click image to enlarge
The former Boone’s on the waterfront, where Harding Lee Smith plans to open a new seafood restaurant.
Press Herald file photo