Visitors at Deering Oaks soon may be able to grab a quick bite to eat and unwind with a glass of wine or beer.

The group Friends of Deering Oaks Park is looking to team up with two experienced restaurateurs to establish a cafe in a historic brick-and-granite building known as the castle. The proposal will be presented Thursday to the city’s Parks Commission, an advisory group to the City Council.

Originally built in 1894, the castle stands next to the pond and was designed to be a warming hut for ice skaters who for many years could sit by the fire and have hot chocolate or coffee and a snack. It was converted into restrooms in the 1950s and served that utilitarian function until 2005, when it was renovated to restore the stained glass and fireplace.

The building was used for several years by the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau as a visitor center, but has been vacant for the past two years. Now the park supporters see an opportunity to fulfill a long-term goal of offering food and drink as a way to increase use of the park and keep people there longer.

“We’re very excited about it,” said Anne Pringle, president of the Friends of Deering Oaks Park. “We hope the city will agree that, in light of the building being vacant for two years, it’s time to try and make something happen. We’d really like to see something happen this summer.”

Diane Davison, chairwoman of the Parks Commission, said Thursday’s meeting will be an opportunity for commissioners to ask questions, and there is no set timeline for making a decision. “This is very preliminary,” she said.


Food service was a staple in the park from the 1970s until 1998. Most recently, The Barking Squirrel cafe served a limited menu in a free-standing building next to the castle. The business closed in 1998 and a fire destroyed the building in 2004. The friends group was unable to raise enough money to rebuild it.

After the castle was renovated in 2005, the group approached about 20 different restaurant owners about opening a cafe in the 750-square-foot castle. “To our disappointment, no one responded,” Pringle said, noting that the building’s small size and historic designation limits what can be done there.

Now, however, the group believes it has solved that problem. Norine Kotts and Cheryl Lewis, who have owned and operated restaurants in Portland since 1985, say they are up to the challenge.

“I love a challenge – kind of like turning an old gas station into a taqueria,” Lewis said. She and Kotts were the general managers of El Rayo Taqueria on York Street until last summer.

“It’s adorable,” she said of the castle. “It’s got a little fireplace, these beautiful stained-glass windows and turret. It’s a shame it’s not being used.”

The historic designation of the castle would prohibit the installation of hood vents necessary to cook with open flames and the grease traps necessary for deep frying. But Lewis envisions a simple menu of hot dogs, grilled cheese, soups, salads and vegetarian options.


For Lewis, serving hot dogs would represent a major shift from her other local ventures, including Cafe Always, a fine-dining establishment that was her first Portland restaurant, and Aurora Provisions, an upscale market she established in the West End.

“Our goal is something that is really user-friendly (for) a wide demographic, and all-American (so) everyone can relate to it,” Lewis said. “We originally thought about crepes, but in the end, it’s really got to be something everyone is familiar with.”

Though the space is small, Lewis is excited about the potential for both indoor and outdoor seating, including a beer garden that would have a couple tap beers and wine, as well as nonalcoholic beverages such as root beer and smoothies.

It’s unclear whether the vision can be fully realized, and if so, whether the cafe would be open this summer.

Obtaining vendors for public buildings typically requires the city to go through a public bidding process, and the friends group is researching whether it would be allowed to serve alcohol in the park.

City Councilor Jon Hinck, who serves on the Parks Commission, supports the concept, but believes the city should go through a public bidding process for a food service vendor. However, Hinck is keeping an open mind to the proposal by the Friends of Deering Oaks Park given the past indifference that other restaurateurs had for the site.


“The compromiser in me says to put this out to bid rapidly and for a short period of time,” Hinck said. “At least it would let us know if there are other people potentially waiting in the wings and would be able to mobilize.”

Pringle plans on pushing for an expedited process that would give Lewis the opportunity to prove that the concept works.

“We have people who are very experienced, who believe they can make a go of it,” she said. “It seems to me we have a bird in hand.”

Lewis sees this project as an opportunity to help the park’s supporters achieve a long-term goal.

“I don’t see this as a massive money-maker,” Lewis said. “I see this almost as community service. This is to meet the needs of the city’s most beautiful and wonderful park.”

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