December 5, 2012

Soup to Nuts: Multiple listings for local chefs

Harding Lee Smith, Jay Villani and Masa Miyake are among several successful local chefs and entrepreneurs who are opening second, third, even fourth establishments in the red-hot dining zone known as the Portland peninsula.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

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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

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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

Additional Photos Below


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.

Source: National

Restaurant Association

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy," Smith said. "You have to be crazy to be in the restaurant business. You have to love it, first of all. You have to love the business, you have to love food. You have to really care about it. There are plenty of places that open that think opening a restaurant's a great idea, but they don't really have any idea what it takes to operate them."

Grotton says he is "very excited" about Smith's new concept, but confesses: "If he can do it four times, I will bow and kiss the ring."

Smith's new space on Custom House Wharf has a long history as a restaurant. Boone's was a Portland landmark that first opened as a lobster house in 1898. It's said that Alexander Boone was one of the first chefs in the country to serve baked stuffed lobster.

Smith says he is "very confident" of his concept for the new restaurant because he's followed the same thought process he did with his other businesses -- look for a niche to fill, and offer good food at reasonable prices, making up for the smaller profit margins through higher volume.

Smith hopes to open the seafood place by mid-April or early May, but he's got a lot of work to do first. He's putting in a new kitchen, floors and walls, and dividing up the cavernous rooms into smaller dining areas. Last week, he traveled up to Farmington to snap up some handmade red oak chairs at an auction.

Smith is sharing the cost of shoring up the pilings underneath the restaurant with the landlord, Custom House Wharf Properties, but is still going back and forth with the Portland Water District about the timing and cost of improving the water pressure for the building's sprinkler system.

"What it entails, unless you come up with another solution," he said, "is cutting up the street from Commercial Street down and putting in 200 feet of an 8-inch water main, replacing a water main that was installed in 1892 and has not been bored out or replaced since then."

Learning how to deal with these types of issues when starting his first three restaurants has been a big help in opening a fourth, Smith said.

"Knowing what is required from the city as far as the inspections go, the timeline it takes to get the inspectors there, letting those people do their jobs and understanding how their jobs work so you can work with them, that was a huge advantage," he said. "Going into Boston, I would be lost. You don't know who the players are in City Hall that you want to talk to, who can steer you in the right direction, who can make things go smoother."


GROTTON SAID restaurateurs like Smith have several advantages over newcomers, on top of their reputations. They have a good knowledge of how the local restaurant industry works, and of the community and what people here will go for on a menu. The biggest advantage, he said, is their understanding of the business model.

"They have all sorts of data, so they know what labor's going to cost," Grotton said. "They know what utilities should run. And they can do financial projections that are really meaningful to a lender to help them get the money they need if they don't have it themselves."

Villani says it's important to go in with conservative projections, "very moderate" expectations and the willingness to change direction, if need be, in midstream. "You've got to be flexible to roll with a punch, and there are plenty of punches in the restaurant business," he said. "It's not a golden road, that's for sure. It's a tough one."

If all of these new restaurants from established chefs do well, what does that mean for the young chef who dreams of owning his or her own place? Will they be squeezed out of the market?

Garfield says he thinks there's always room for a new restaurant in Portland as long as a chef has an idea that's different and it's expedited well.

Smith said he thinks new restaurants from established owners will raise the bar for newcomers. First timers won't be able to just open a place with paper plates, dirty bathrooms and unswept floors, and expect to stay open.

"There will always be diversity," Villani said. "Somebody hot and new is going to come along. Restaurants aren't infinite, they're finite."

And that's OK with him.

"You know, I don't want to go eat at my joints all the time," he said. "I like going out to eat. The more, the merrier. It's exciting."


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

Twitter: MeredithGoad


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Additional Photos

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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

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The former Boone’s on the waterfront, where Harding Lee Smith plans to open a new seafood restaurant.

Press Herald file photo


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