Jeff Pellerin raises a glass while Vince Keely pours another at the WonderBar, which opened briefly for family and friends, on St. Patrick’s Day. The Biddeford landmark, owned by Keely since 1992, with a history that goes back decades, is for sale. Tammy Wells photo

BIDDEFORD — Vince Keely grasped the tap handle and deftly poured a pint of Smithwick’s ale on St. Patrick’s Day morning.

He was in a familiar spot — behind the bar of the WonderBar restaurant, a Biddeford landmark for more than 85 years. A trio of musicians, one of them keeping time with a bodhran, sang Irish tunes. A bagpiper arrived, pipes playing. There was laughter and talk, adults and children dressed in green for the day — and a hint of sadness too.

While St. Patrick’s Day is a day to make merry, a sign in the window of the Washington Street restaurant and bar said it all. The WonderBar is for sale.

Vince Keely, left, pauses for a St. Patrick’s Day photo at the WonderBar restaurant with daughter-in-law Molly, son Brian and granddaughter Brianna. Keely has made the decision to sell the Washington street landmark. Tammy Wells photo

The restaurant and bar, owned by Keely since 1992, was closed for much of 2020. He and his manager, son Brian, tried offering take-out food — during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic it was the only option available to dining establishments — but it became clear that wasn’t the answer.

“We saw the writing on the wall when September came around,” said Brian from the restaurant on St. Patrick’s Day morning, where family and friends gathered briefly for camaraderie, and perhaps a celebratory refresher before they all walked over to City Square to raise the Irish flag. “Going into winter we just didn’t think it was viable,” he said, noting the stringent limits when dining-in was finally allowed, and so the WonderBar remained closed.

A few days before St. Patrick’s Day, his father put the “for sale” sign in the window.

The WonderBar has had a handful of owners over the years. In the past, it was known as a “must stop” spot for candidates seeking their political fortunes and a fine place for wedding receptions, anniversaries and other celebrations.

The Droggitis brothers – Jimmy, Archie, Charlie and Alex – operated the WonderBar restaurant from its beginnings until 1982, and were recently inducted into the Biddeford Cultural and Heritage Center Hall of Fame for 2020. Courtesy photo

Jeff and Anna Pellerin, there on St. Patrick’s Day with daughter, Eleanor, 4, hosted their wedding reception at the WonderBar in 2014. The couple said Eleanor regards Vince as one of her grandfathers.

“This is the saddest day of my life,” said Jeff.

The popular landmark’s beginnings are familiar to many. Charlie and Archie Droggitis started Charlie’s Cafe in 1935, selling beer and sandwiches in their parent’s former shoe repair shop location on Washington Street, said Charlie’s son Spiros Droggitis. A couple of years later, Archie bought a mahogany bar in Boston, had it shipped to Maine, and another brother, Ted, suggested changing the name to WonderBar. Soon, four brothers were involved in the business — Jimmy and Alex joining Archie and Charlie.

An Oct. 18, 1976 Portland Press Herald clipping referred to the WonderBar as “a place for lamb and politics,” Droggitis’ research shows. Ed Muskie stopped by in 1968 as the nominee for vice president. Republican Congressman Dave Emery politicked inside, as did U.S. Senator Bill Cohen. In 1954, a young Maine Republican named Robert Jones stopped by with U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy, said Droggitis. McCarthy was backing Jones in a Republican primary against popular incumbent U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who went on to beat the newcomer 6 to 1.

Missy Raymond, right, serves breakfast to Louis Hebert at Jonesy’s Main Street Cafe on St. Patrick’s Day morning. The popular venue will close on March 28. Tammy Wells photo

“I remember my father and Jimmy speaking highly of Biddeford Mayor (Louis) Papa Lausier,” said Droggitis. The longtime mayor, who served in the role for 15 years and was later elected to the Maine Legislature, used to frequent the WonderBar with colleagues after City Council meetings, plotting strategy and hashing over what had transpired earlier in the evening.

And there were others.

“Edward R. Murrow broadcast his radio show from the WonderBar sometime in the 1950s,” said Droggitis.

Former Maine Senate President Dennis “Duke” Dutremble said he made it a stop when he was running for office in the 1990s.

“When the polls closed and people started counting ballots, we always went to the WonderBar as a good luck charm; we’d have a beer and wait for the polls and then start making the rounds of the poll sites,” Dutremble recalled in a telephone interview. “It was a political hotspot, a lot of political banter went on there.”

Droggitis said his family sold the business to Donald Crepeau in 1982, who operated it for a few years, before it sold again.

Keely, who emigrated to the United States in 1960 from Ireland, lived and worked in South Boston for several years before buying a home in Biddeford. And then came the WonderBar.

Jonesy’s Main Street Cafe in Biddeford will close March 28, owner Brian Mawhinney has announced. Tammy Wells Photo

“I had no intent of buying when I came to the auction,” said Keely. By then, the venue had been closed for a couple of years. He bought the property in 1992, and after undertaking some renovations inside, opened a few months later.

Tom and Jean O’Hare were among those stopping by on St Patrick’s Day.

“Vinnie is a wonderful person, and he made this a very warm and welcoming place,” said Tom.

Asked for his thoughts on the closure, Vince Keely’s answer was short, but matter-of-fact.

“I don’t like it,” he said.

The WonderBar isn’t the only longtime Biddeford restaurant to shutter these days. Jonesy’s Main Street Cafe, operated by several owners over the years, will close on March 28, owner Brian Mawhinney announced on the restaurant’s Facebook page, citing the difficult pandemic year.

Missy Raymond, serving a plate of crepes to customer Louis Hebert on St. Patrick’s Day, said she had worked for three owners over the years at the cafe, and planned to make the following day her last.

“After 15 years of being here, it’s hard to say goodbye,” she said.

Mayor Alan Casavant said both businesses had their niche.

“Jonesy’s, for example, always had a large breakfast following, with all of the basics, which appealed to local tastes,” said Casavant. “The WonderBar was centered on Vince’s personality, as he was renowned for his pourings of Guinness, with a shamrock.”

The mayor pointed out that the heritage of those who worked in the mills is still present in Biddeford, those  ancestors who came from Ireland, Italy, Greece, Canada, Armenia and beyond.

“They brought with them their cultural foods, and, even though a lot of that culture has been lost, the food still exists in many households, as does the taste,” said Casavant. ” We have also seen a huge influx of new residents in the past few years, and they, too, bring with them certain experiences and tastes. We now have an amazing assortment of restaurants and many options.”

Whether the WonderBar or Jonesy’s Main Street Cafe will re-open under new ownership or become new dining ventures is unknown at present. With Biddeford becoming known as a mecca for foodies, Casavant said there’s room for all tastes — those well-loved familiar ones that have been around for a time, along with new flavors.

“I believe that the Biddeford and Saco population would support an even greater assortment of dining options,” said Casavant.

Christy Palmer, a server there for 15 years, said she loved the WonderBar.

“I’ll miss it,” she said.

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