Patrons take advantage of outdoor dining at several restaurants in Monument Square Friday. Several longtime restaurants have closed their doors in recent weeks, citing a desire to spend more time with family. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — As three of the city’s iconic restaurants, Brian Boru, Lolita and Silly’s, announced their impending closures this month, several others are working to open, expand or relocate, making for a busy time in the city’s food scene.

After more than 30 years, including more than 20 at 40 Washington Ave., Silly’s closed Sept. 1. Brian Boru Public House, a fixture on Center Street for more than 25 years, closed Aug. 26, and Lolita, a Mediterranean restaurant on Munjoy Hill, was shuttered on Sept. 2 after five years in business.

While Brian Boru’s, Lolita and Silly’s have wound down their operations, several restaurants are gearing up in new ways.

Evo Kitchen + Bar is planning to move from the corner of Union and Fore streets into a new food hall being constructed at Portland Company property at 58 Fore St. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Evo Kitchen + Bar is planning on relocating from its home on the corner of Union and Fore streets into a project at the Portland Company Complex that will bring together local restaurants, food providers and other players in the food scene. The relocation will allow EVO to double its capacity to 100 seats.

“We will be continuing the same concept in the new space,” said Casey Prentice, president of Prentice Hospitality Group, which owns Evo. “Our customers respond really well to the food and style of Evo, particularly the vegan/vegetarian options that have become increasingly popular. We’re excited to be increasing our seating capacity and offering more outdoor seating in a three-season style patio on the water. The goal is to be open during the late fall of 2020.

Jennifer Rockwell is on the cusp of opening the second location of Ada’s Kitchen, an Italian restaurant she started in Rockland in 2017.  The Portland location at 642 Congress St. will serve fresh pasta, homemade sauces and pizza, as well as local beer and wine.

Raquel and Jake Stevens has leased space at 85 Free St. to open up Leeward, a 50-seat restaurant that will feature handmade pasta, as well as seafood, vegetarian and meat dishes featuring local produce.

Elizabeth Legere and James Rose are teaming up to start Helm Oyster Bar and Bistro, a 50-seat restaurant in the new WEX headquarters at 60 Thames St. The restaurant, which they have described as an ode to the coast, will feature local seafood as well as Maine craft beers and cocktails.

Chris Tyl recently announced he sold Pat’s Pizza on Market Street to a new ownership group that will revamp the space,keep the pizza franchise on the first floor.  The restaurant will close for a bit as that work is done.

New owner Mike Lizotte told the Portland Press Herald that he is renovating the upstairs function space into “speakeasy ultra-lounge.”

“The experience will be unlike anything Portland has seen yet, featuring a cassette tape-lined stairwell, telephone booth front door and secret entrance into the Pat’s dining room,” Lizotte, the owner of The Drink Exchange in Portland, told the paper.

Brian Borus one of the three restaurants that have closed over the last week. Owners of Silly’s and Lolita have also closed. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, which represents 450 restaurants across the state, said while he doesn’t know the details of the specific business decisions that prompted the closure of Silly’s, Lolita and Brian Boru, he sees it as indicative of the problems the industry is facing in terms finding and retaining staff and being able to compete in a crowded restaurant and food market.

“This is an issue that isn’t going away. It is not a one-time thing. I see some of the longstanding restaurants closing as a bellwether of something we need to pay attention to,” he said. “The industry is strong, with a lot of players, but can be derailed by some of these issues.”

Hewins said operating a restaurant “is a lot more complex these days and can be a real challenge for most owners.”

“In the process of preparing fresh food, managing a staff and marketing against the intense competition that exists in Portland, it is a lot of work and what exacerbates that is lack of employees,” he said.

Burning out and the need to spent more time with family appears to be the reason the owners of Brian Boru, Lolita and Silly’s have decided to get out of the industry.

Lolita owners Guy and Stella Hernandez said closing the restaurant will allow them to spend more time together as a family.

“The restaurant has a sneaky way of cutting to the front of the line in life. It’s the thing that’s on fire (sometimes literally) that draws your energy,” the Hernandezes said in an Instagram post. “It’s been our way of life and it’s been absolutely grand. But now we’re ready for more – more time for us and our family.”

The decision to leave the restaurant scene, they indicate, was not an easy one, calling the Munjoy Hill restaurant “the best adventure of our lives – so far.”

Customers wait in line at Silly’s last weekend. The popular restaurant is closing early next month after more than 30 years in business. Courtesy photo

Brian Boru owner Daniel Steele told the Press Herald that it’s just time to move on from operating a restaurant. The reason, he said, was not financial.

“I just figured it was time,” Steele told the paper.

He didn’t disclose his future plans, or what could happen to the restaurant building, other than saying since he decided to close, he has been approached by numerous brokers and investors.

Colleen Kelley, who has owned Silly’s for the last 17 years, said the decision to close the restaurant didn’t come easy. Kelley bought the business in November 2002 from Stephanie and Deirdre Nice, who started the restaurant, named after one they saw in Jamaica, in 1988. The restaurant was noted for its eclectic decor and the creative names of menu items.

“I have been so fortunate and blessed and enjoyed every moment of it,” Kelley said. “Silly’s (has) been the love of my life and always will be.”

Ultimately Kelley decided to sell the building and close the restaurant in order to free up time to take care of her father.

“Silly’s requires my attention to thrive consistently and I am exhausted all the time trying to take care of my father and be a working owner,” she said in an Aug. 21 Facebook post that within the first 48 hours had 2,400 comments and 1,400 shares.

Kelley also noted that her business model of serving large portions of handmade food no longer fits Portland’s restaurant scene. But she has not ruled out reopening Silly’s in another location, or even in a food truck.

Before I (lose) the business, I am going to bow out gracefully of the new hipster artisan Washington Avenue that I really don’t fit into anymore,” she said.


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