SOUTH PORTLAND — Ginger Cote had been talking about opening a bar for a couple of years.

After playing in rock bands across the United States and Europe for decades, Cote had seen more than a few and knew the kind of place she’d like to run.

So when a friend of a friend sent her a Facebook message in February, telling her that The Griffin Club was for sale, Cote didn’t hesitate. She visited the landmark sports pub on Ocean Street every day for two weeks. She talked with bartenders. Got to know the regulars. Drank in the welcoming, working-class atmosphere that had been part of the Knightville neighborhood for more than 40 years.

“I totally got the feeling, ‘This is the place,’ ” Cote said. “Every day it got better and better, and I started getting a vision of what I would do here.”

After a bid from another buyer fell through in March, Cote and her partner, Penny Prior, became the proud owners last Monday of one of the most well-known commercial properties in one of the most desirable neighborhoods of Greater Portland. They paid $620,000 for a building and a quarter-acre of land that was listed for $599,900 by the former owners, who are family members of The Griffin Club’s founder, Eddie Griffin.

Cote and Prior intend to renovate the 1800s building into a bar and grill and live music venue, and they plan to call it Big Babe’s, which is Cote’s nickname. But it was clear by the end of last week that they have their work cut out for them, as workers ripped a gaping hole in the rotted floor where the old wooden bar and its rusted and leaking coolers once stood.


“We want to save the old building if we can,” Cote said Thursday, standing amid piles of foul-smelling construction debris that had been pulled from the floor, ceiling and walls. “A lot depends on what we find as we continue the project.”


Cote and Prior said they are well aware that high expectations come with the property, especially among folks who were sad to see The Griffin Club close June 1 and others who worry that Knightville is on the verge of overdevelopment. The initial bid on the property came from a Massachusetts developer that wanted to tear down the building and replace it with a multistory condominium, Cote said.

As residents of Cape Elizabeth, Cote and Prior said they are regular customers and supporters of many Knightville businesses, including The Snow Squall Restaurant and Smaha’s Legion Square Market. They plan to attend a City Council workshop Monday evening that will try to strike a balance between the push for redevelopment, including more housing and commercial opportunities, and the desire to preserve the neighborhood’s village atmosphere.

Cote and Prior said that’s exactly what they have in mind. They plan to renovate the building in a way that retains its best features – whatever bones are salvageable – and replaces everything else in a way that creates a warm, welcoming space for people of all kinds.

“We want it to be a nice, neighborhood bar and grill, and when we say neighborhood, we mean neighborhood,” said Cote, 50. “We want to continue a tradition that’s been here and we want to have a nice, clean, safe building that fits in the neighborhood.”


It’s a vision that Cote, who grew up in Limestone – which is in rural Aroostook County, also known as The County – shares with Prior, who grew up in a tightly knit community outside Washington, D.C.

“I’m going to avoid references to (the TV show) ‘Cheers,’ but I’ve always loved the idea of a neighborhood place where you feel comfortable and you can be yourself and have a nice time,” said Prior, 46, who is a technology teacher at Portland Adult Education.


Because major repairs and utility updates weren’t done for decades, most of the pub’s interior must be gutted and rebuilt, including the kitchen, bathroom and bar facilities, Cote said. What they’ll do with the two upstairs apartments, which also aren’t up to code, remains to be seen. Cote, who owns three rental properties in Falmouth, said she is familiar with renovations and commercial property management.

Still, Cote and Prior have enlisted their friend and real estate agent, Eric Flynn of Excellence Realty, to help them renovate the property and open in 2018. Flynn is also a restaurant and bar developer and consultant after working for many years in that industry.

“I’m the voice of reason,” Flynn said. “Whatever they want to do here, it really comes down to numbers.”


Cote and Prior plan to take out a business loan to finance the renovations and work with architects and engineers to make sure the work is done as cost-effectively as possible.

A quality sound system and soundproofing will be major features of the renovation, Cote said, because they plan to offer acoustic happy hours throughout the week and host local and national independent music acts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

A drummer since she was 6, Cote has toured with high-profile acts such as Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, as well as Portland’s own Cidny Bullens and Darien Brahms. She currently plays with The Cowboy Angels, a classic country band.

“I have a lot of ties in the music business and I really want to support the local music and arts community,” Cote said.

Bands will stop playing at midnight so they don’t disturb neighbors, Cote said, and she and Prior will work to address other perennial concerns in Knightville, such as parking and traffic. She said Big Babe’s will have an intimate club atmosphere similar to the Portland House of Music and the former Free Street Taverna in Portland.

As for the bar and grill, the food will be locally sourced but affordable, and the beer will range from Budweiser in a can to local brews on tap.

“It’s not going to be hoity-toity,” Cote said. “I’m a County girl. There’s nothing hoity-toity about me.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at:

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