For years, Wharf Street in Portland has been known for its wild bar scene. On any given weekend night, patrons spill out of the myriad of bars and nightclubs and onto the narrow cobblestone street to shout, celebrate and, in some cases, fight.

Kassadi McPherson of Cumberland lets out a shout of revelry on Wharf Street during a recent Friday night. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

But as Portland’s reputation as a tourist destination for food and craft beer lovers has grown and attracted investments in new hotels and improved storefronts, the former back alley may be poised to sober up.

Upscale bars and restaurants are replacing nightclubs and taverns. Police say the number of service calls and arrests in that area have declined, and it’s safer despite the late-night crowds.

And now, a new property owner plans to turn a former popular nightclub into a coffee shop and other uses that he hopes will mix things up on Wharf Street.

“This block has been the bar block forever,” Joe Cooper said. “We feel this will be the first step in diversifying the tenants.”

This map shows current bars and restaurants on Wharf Street:

STEPPING UP

Wharf Street is just two blocks long and runs parallel to Fore and Commercial streets in the heart of the city’s trendy Old Port.

Its history is nearly as difficult to traverse as cobblestones in high-heeled shoes after last call.

Before Commercial Street was built using landfill in the mid- to late 1800s, the area now known as Wharf Street was largely submerged by the ocean, which came up to Fore Street. Afterward, the street was mostly used as an alleyway for businesses on Fore and Commercial streets to get in and out of their storage areas, according to Earle Shettleworth, a Maine historian.

It’s unclear when Wharf Street was officially named. The name does not appear in any of the city’s directories until 1929, but even then it’s defined as extending from Pearl Street to Silver Street – about a block east of where it is now.

What is now Wharf Street took shape in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when a city directory included the current two-block stretch between Moulton and Union streets, bisected by Dana Street.

A collection of merchants had set up in the former alley and, in 1979, the city invested nearly $200,000 into the 600-feet stretch with the intent of turning it into a pedestrian walkway.

Nancy Lawrence, owner of Portmanteau, an artisan shop that makes bags, jackets and cloaks, remembers watching the project from her Wharf Street storefront. She said workers laid the cobblestones, planted trees, added benches and built gates to limit vehicular traffic to delivery trucks.

“These were big beautiful timber gates,” she said.

City directories from around that time show a goldsmith, jeweler, an Ugg boot maker, a kite shop and art galleries. However, the directories show a rapid amount of turnover, suggesting it was a difficult place to do business.

Patrons carouse within the outdoor patio at Bonfire Country Bar Portland on Wharf Street. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

In the early 1980s, merchants on Wharf Street banded together in an effort promote the area, which literally was not on any of the tourist maps at the time. The city even allowed artisans and farmers to hold open-air markets on the street to increase foot traffic.

Dana Street opened Street & Co., a Mediterranean seafood restaurant, on Wharf Street in 1989 because he liked the area’s authenticity. There weren’t as many bars on Wharf Street in 1989 as there are now, he said, but the fishermen and others who drank there were more salty.

“It was relatively rough and tumble,” Street said of the early years. “There were fights that would occur.”

In the 1990s and early 2000s, nightclubs and bars came to dominate the storefronts on western side of Wharf Street, from Dana to Union streets. Clubs like Industry, Iguana and the Forge (now the Oasis) became fixtures. Their close proximity to one another often led to rowdiness and altercations, especially after last call.

Lawrence said the bar scene became too much for her, so she left her Portmanteau’s original location at 9 Wharf St., in 1990 and moved elsewhere in the Old Port. The space became home to Gritty McDuff’s, a brew pub. She noted that one Commercial Street bar located across from her shop was so rowdy that people were known to drive motorcycles into the bar itself. Other bars at the corner of Wharf and Moulton streets were poorly run, she said.

“Those were horrific, which is one of the reasons I left Wharf Street,” she said. “The drinking was day drinking and night drinking. It was out of control.”

One of the larger nightclubs, 51 Wharf St., opened in 2006. The 5,000-square-foot club at the corner of Wharf and Union streets boasted having more of everything – floors, rooms, bars and private VIP areas that were “ideal for partygoers to mix, mingle, frisk, frolic and cavort the night away in supreme style. … You’ll know you’ve arrived the moment you saunter into Wharf Street with the stunning outside activities and lights,” declares the company’s Facebook page.

The nightclub closed last fall and the building at 51 Wharf St., along with several others on Fore and Wharf, were recently purchased by Cooper, a local developer who plans to subdivide the building into three smaller spaces and lease them primarily to non-nightclub businesses.

Cooper said he bought the buildings at 432, 434, 436 and 446 Fore St. and 42 and 50 Wharf St. in January from Dreamport 3 LLC for $7.5 million.

Dreamport, the investment and development arm of New Jersey-based U.S. Real Estate Advisors Inc., had bought them in 2012 for $5.6 million and later unveiled ambitious plans to completely transform the block. But those plans never came to fruition.

Cooper has already pulled permits to renovate 45 Wharf St. into a high-end coffee shop with desserts and Maine-made gifts to be called Higher Grounds. He also hopes to establish a space where a few food vendors can share a common kitchen and sell food, kind of like a smaller version of the second floor of the Public Market in Monument Square. And in the other space, he’d like to attract a brew pub owner, he said.

“I’m just trying to make it a better place for everybody,” Cooper said.

A WALK ON THE LESS-WILD SIDE

Cooper’s plans come as Wharf Street has slowly been evolving again.

Today, a walk down Wharf Street looks much different from a decade ago, although drinking establishments such as Oasis, the Stock Exchange and Bonfire Country Bar remain and draw large crowds on weekends.

Dana Street said the area seems to be headed in the right direction, though noise continues to be an issue. “It is a street that still has a lot of action, but there are fewer acts of violence,” he said.

Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch said the city has worked hard over the years to tackle the rowdy bar scene not only on Wharf Street, but on Fore and Exchange streets as well. The City Council adopted an ordinance requiring businesses with entertainment licenses to be at least 100 feet apart, and the police department has occasionally persuaded councilors to deny liquor licenses to owners of trouble bars.

Young people converge on Wharf Street, where a new property owner plans to turn a former popular nightclub into a coffee shop and other uses. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“Things are good down there right now,” Malloch said after surveying his lieutenants Friday. “They were positive and pretty upbeat about it. It’s still very crowded. It’s very popular. And that’s what we want. We want a vibrant nightlife in the city, but we also want it to be safe and that’s where we’re at.”

Street & Co. has been joined by other restaurants, including the lower level of Central Street provisions, Vingola, Cinque Terre and Jager, a Bavarian pub. And the Mash Tun, which offers grass-fed burgers and a wide selection of local craft beers, and the Bar of Chocolate seem to cater to more sophisticated drinkers.

Lawrence moved Portmanteau back to Wharf Street six years ago.

Joe Redman has been there through it all. He’s the owner of Joesph’s, a high-end clothing store for men, and said he landed on Wharf Street in 1974 because it was literally the only storefront available.

“We were on the edge of the redevelopment and now we’re in the middle of it,” Redman said. “We were on the furthest edge of the new Old Port. We were pioneers.”

Redman said he’s happy with the recent evolution of Wharf Street, although he said the vibrant bar scene still makes retail nearly impossible after 8 p.m.

“I think the quality of the businesses has improved – they’re more professionally operated businesses than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” he said.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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