September 12, 2013

New owners building an Empire

A pithy name, revamped space and restaurant await fans of the former Empire Dine and Dance. So does a similar commitment to music, new management says.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Todd Bernard hopes Maine music fans will notice the changes at the revamped and reopened Empire on Congress Street.

click image to enlarge

The upstairs bar and table area at Empire earlier this month. The Empire officially reopens this week after being closed since April for renovations.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Los Angeles-based experimental music duo El Ten Eleven is the first national act to play the newly revamped Empire, which has been closed since April. The show is at 9 p.m. Thursday.

Courtesy photo

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EL TEN ELEVEN

WHEN: 9 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Empire, 575 Congress St., Portland

HOW MUCH: $12 

WHAT'S IN STORE

THE NEW EMPIRE music room will host a mix of local and national acts similar to what the space hosted under its previous name, Empire Dine and Dance. ONE RETURNING feature will be the weekly "Clash of the Titans" series, in which groups of local musicians compete against each other while covering well-known bands.

HERE'S A LIST of upcoming shows:

Sept. 18 -- "Clash of the Titans": Strokes vs. Phoenix, 10 p.m., $6

Sept. 19 -- Elijah Ocean and Friends, 10 p.m., $6

Sept. 21 -- Maine Academy of Modern Music presents Playing for Change-Playing for Maine, time and price TBA

Sept. 25 -- "Clash of the Titans": Neil Young vs. Tom Petty, 10 p.m., $6

Oct. 2 -- "Clash of the Titans": Billy Joel vs. Elton John, 10 p.m., $6

Oct. 9 -- "Clash of the Titans": Adele vs. Amy Winehouse, 10 p.m. $6

Oct. 10 -- The Milk Carton Kids, time and price TBA

Oct. 11 -- The Neighbourhood, time and price TBA

Oct. 15 -- The Parkington Sisters, time and price TBA

But in some ways, he also wants people to feel the place is pretty much the same.

The changes Bernard hopes people will notice include a new 75-seat Chinese dim sum restaurant on the first floor, a newly sound-proofed music space on the second floor, new bathrooms, new paint inside and out, a rebuilt stage and a 12-foot-high, Art Deco-style "Empire" marquee lit by a hundred or more bulbs.

But he also wants people to feel they can expect the same eclectic mix of local and national musical acts that the Empire became known for during the five-year tenure of the previous owner, Bill Umbel. Umbel sold the business earlier this year.

"We're still going to bring in a lot of music -- eclectic, local -- just as this place always has," said Bernard, who runs the new Empire along with restaurateur Theresa Chan. "We want to capture the same energy."

The Empire officially reopens this week after being closed since April for renovations. The first national act to play the venue will be the Los Angeles-based experimental music duo El Ten Eleven at 9 p.m. Thursday.

So far, Bernard has four other national acts booked over the next few weeks. New York-based folk rocker Elijah Ocean "and friends" will perform on Sept. 19. California indie-folk rockers The Milk Carton Kids will play on Oct. 10.

Up-and-coming alternative rock band The Neighbourhood, also from California, will play Empire on Oct. 11. The Parkington Sisters, a four-sister folk group from Massachusetts, will play on Oct. 15.

And Empire will continue to host the weekly "Clash of the Titans" series, organized by local musician Spencer Albee, on Wednesday nights. The series features two groups of local musicians doing covers of well-known artists and competing against each other for audience approval.

Umbel had run the venue as Empire Dine and Dance, with a bar downstairs and a 200-plus capacity music venue upstairs. So the biggest change to the place is the replacement of the downstairs bar with a 75-seat Chinese dim sum restaurant.

The restaurant space has a similar feel to the upstairs music venue, with lots of exposed brick, timbers and beams. Much of the seating is made out of old wooden church pews, some of which Umbel had used in the bar, and many others he had stored in a barn on another property.

Bernard would not say how much was spent on renovations, but that it was "significant." He and Chan decided to re-name the place simply "Empire" because that was the name of a Chinese restaurant that was housed in the building from around 1915 into the 1950s.

Empire's restaurant will be open for lunch and dinner, so there will be some overlap with the music venue, making sound-proof panels necessary. There is also a separate entrance leading to the stairs to the music venue.

Empire's space for live music looks about the same, except the stage and a raised viewing area were rebuilt. Bathrooms were also added upstairs. Before, people watching a show upstairs had to go downstairs into the bar to use the bathrooms.

Because of the new kitchen that was built for the restaurant, Empire's music room can also be used to host parties and events with a full catering menu, Bernard said.

Bernard had formerly helped launch Space Gallery on Congress Street, a very eclectic arts and entertainment venue. He hopes to bring a wide variety of arts and entertainment to the new Empire as well.

"We're really open to just about anything," he said. 

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com

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