Forest Gardens is a bustling place shortly after noontime on Friday.

Only three beers are on tap at this cash-only establishment. And the food orders – mostly hamburgers, hot dogs and fries – are served on paper plates.

A simple “Thank You” is written on a mirror that hangs on the wood paneling. In the window is a license plate that reads “Pog Mo Thoin,” a salty Gaelic expression for telling someone to kiss the body part used for sitting.

“One thing about life: If you have a conscience, you’ll be all right,” owner Richard Piacentini declares as he emerges from the kitchen to join a conversation at the bar.

“And if you don’t have one you can be president,” a patron shoots back from across the room to laughter.

Piacentini is selling Forest Gardens, a beloved dive bar on Forest Avenue where he has slung suds for the last four decades.

It will close after last call Sunday and reopen under new ownership and a new name.

Forest Gardens has a special place in Portland lore. When it was at risk of being torn down for a new CVS a couple of years ago, patrons mobilized and convinced the city to recommend protecting it as a local landmark.

Longtime patrons filed in Friday afternoon to pay their respects to Piacentini. And on Saturday afternoon, a retirement party is planned.

“It’s like a wake,” said 68-year-old Greg Loring, who has been patronizing Forest Gardens for about 40 years. Though he’ll miss seeing his favorite bartender, Loring isn’t worried the place will lose its charm. “All the same people will be back.”

Piacentini will be turning over the keys to Tyler and Lindsay Holden. The brother-sister team expects to make few changes, other than the name, which was a request of the landlord.

Lindsay Holden said her brother went to Deering High School with Piacentini’s son and frequents the bar, which will be closed for a week while the floors are replaced. When it reopens Aug. 5, it will be called 371, but she said the name is the only thing they plan to change.

“Ricky wanted to carry out the tradition and sell it to someone who was willing to keep it as close to the way it is now,” Holden said. “The fact that people are so passionate about it and the fact that we want to leave it like it is – it will be an exciting adventure.”

Patrons mobilize to support the preservation of Forest Garden in 2016, when it was at risk of being torn down. Staff file photo by Whitney Hayward

That passion was on full display in 2016, when Forest Gardens and other adjoining buildings were going to be demolished to make way for a new CVS pharmacy.

Longtime patrons – who had celebrated birthdays, weddings and sporting events and mourned the loss of loved ones at the bar – mobilized to protect their neighborhood watering hole, forming the Save Forest Gardens group.

The public outcry and the passionate testimony about the importance of the 82-year-old institution ignited a two-pronged effort to preserve it.

The city’s Historic Preservation Board decided that the buildings were worthy of historic protections. And the City Council received a recommendation from the Planning Board to change the zoning to prevent a suburban-style development at the site.

CVS ultimately dropped the plan, even though neither the zoning proposal nor the historic preservation was enacted.

“Both of these efforts are under way and we anticipate the Planning Board and Preservation Board to discuss them in the next few months,” City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said of the rezoning and preservation efforts.

Forest Gardens bar on Forest Avenue in Portland will close after last call Sunday and reopen under new ownership and a new name. “All the same people will be back,” says patron Greg Loring. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Jill Piacentini said her 66-year-old dad, who does not like to be interviewed, was looking forward to retirement, since he’s largely run both the bar and kitchen by himself, though both she and others lend a hand on the weekends and during the busy football season.

“He’s excited and anxious,” she said.

Jill Piacentini, 30, said her dad was living with her grandmother when he bought the bar, which needed some work. He’s not offended when people call it a dive bar, she said.

“He owns a dive bar and he loves every part of it,” she said.

She can remember sitting in the back room of the bar, watching cartoons, doing her homework and eating bar food. She said children often come in with their parents and look forward to getting a Tootsie pop from her dad.

It was that familylike atmosphere that drew people to the place, she said. Before cellphones, women would often call the bar looking for their husbands, she said.

Jill is looking forward to spending more time with her dad. She got married this summer and had wedding photos taken in the bar. She’s expecting her first child in January.

“He’ll be a great stay-at-home nanny,” she said.

Neither she nor Holden, the new owner, expect Piacentini to sit on the sidelines long. He’s already expressed interest in returning occasionally as a guest bartender.

While patrons credit Piacentini for making Forest Gardens a home away from home, the humble and media-shy Piacentini disagreed.

“It says more about them than it does about me,” he said of the outpouring of support. “They’re all good people. They’re Forest Gardens – I’m not Forest Gardens.”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

filed under: