Francine Bistro, a popular Camden restaurant with a chef who was a semifinalist for a James Beard award eight times, has permanently closed.

The restaurant closed for the winter in November with a sign on the door that indicated it would reopen in May. But chef/owner Brian Hill confirmed Wednesday that he has shuttered the restaurant for good after 15 years, citing a combination of “insurmountable debt” and a desire to spend more time with his young daughter, who lives with her mother in southern California.

“The restaurant is indeed closed,” Hill said in a phone call from Los Angeles, where he is now living and working. “We were just going to close for the winter, but the bank decided not to cover our last round of checks, and the payroll run didn’t go through.”

Hill said he will probably have to declare bankruptcy.

Francine, located in a converted cottage at 55 Chestnut St. in the picturesque resort town, had garnered good reviews, regionally and nationally – it received four out of five stars last May from the Maine Sunday Telegram’s restaurant critic – and was popular with locals, too.

Camden’s town manager, Audra Caler-Bell, called Francine “an institution here.”

“Of course, the owner was a very talented chef, and it’s one of those places that made Camden a destination for food,” she said.

Over the past couple of months, locals have closely followed persistent rumors about the eatery’s status.

Amy Rollins, member services director at the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, said staff heard second-hand that the restaurant was closed, but couldn’t confirm it.

“We elected to not include them in our (visitors) guide this year because we needed to get some answers,” Rollins said.

Jenna Lookner, who sits on the town’s Select Board, owns the Francine building with her brothers. Lookner said they will be looking for another tenant, but she would not comment on whether Hill owes them money, calling it “a private situation” between landlord and tenant. She said their relationship was not adversarial, and that she wishes Hill well.

“There’s no litigation or anything like that,” Lookner said. “To me, it’s a very, very sad loss for the community.”

Francine’s closure puzzled many in the community. How could a place that appeared so outwardly successful fall into such big financial trouble?

Hill said he was “so proud” of the food that he and his staff produced at Francine over the past 15 years, but that it was “tough doing business there in the winter.” With no financial backers to help support the restaurant, the debt just kept accumulating, he said, no matter how hard he and the staff worked. In the last days that Francine was in business, “I was not taking any money home,” he said.

He declined to say how much money he owes.

“Every single day you’re open in Maine, you’re wondering if you’re going to close,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

In the end, Hill decided there are “only so many battles you can fight.” He said he also was missing his daughter, who just turned 5. Hill is now living in Los Angeles and is working at a restaurant there, but he declined to identify his employer. He plans to stay in California indefinitely because “to not see my daughter grow up is too insane.”

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

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