This is the last of five parts in our series on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Portland’s restaurants.

On a damp but unseasonably warm Friday night in February, Bernard Cabrera, Jennifer Wolcott and the couple’s wide-eyed 3½-month-old pandemic puppy, Coco, were arranged cozily around a fire pit in Oxbow’s beer garden on Washington Avenue, the heart of Portland’s normally flourishing food scene. The couple was sharing a burger, cornbread and collard greens, along with a couple of beers.

He works for a technology company. She writes, often about food. Food is, in no small measure, why they sold their big house in suburban Boston 2½ years ago and headed north, making a new home for themselves in Portland’s East End.

Pre-pandemic, they dined out several times a week, and it was “hard to miss a good dinner or a good lunch in Portland,” Cabrera said. “The food is always good.” They’ve tried to keep it up, supporting the city’s many restaurants through takeout and occasional outdoor meals. The food scene in Portland is, for their personal happiness, “huge, huge!” Wolcott said. And if the coronavirus were to cripple it?

“That would be catastrophic,” Cabrera said.

For more than a decade, Portland has enjoyed a national reputation as a food town, a place to go for its impressive restaurants, expansive craft beer scene and independent groceries trading in local food sourced from nearby farms and the adjacent sea. Looking for a cider house, an upscale knife store, a well-stocked cheese shop, an Eritrean restaurant or a hummusiya? Portland’s got those and much more. Its status as a bustling, walkable food town may be hardly a blip in the city’s almost 400-year-old history, but to many of its residents today, its intertwined food, drinks and restaurant scene is a source of pride, jobs, community, entertainment – even a reason they moved here.

So what has it meant for the city’s sense of identity that the coronavirus pandemic has tested its restaurants to the limit? It’s shut down a handful permanently (the highly regarded Drifters Wife, Lio, Piccolo and Vinland among them), closed the remainder periodically, reconfigured layouts, reshaped menus, converted dine-in to takeout, closed dining rooms and opened patios, transformed service, sharply contracted staffs, vaporized profits – in short, forced cooks, servers, hosts and restaurateurs to swiftly reinvent themselves, and then do it again – in a business that has never been, even right here on beautiful Casco Bay, plain sailing.

Though Portland’s restaurants have a loyal hometown following, they depend on the bounty of the summer tourism season to get them through the lean times of late fall to late spring. This year, many entered the winter already depleted, exhausted and reliant on government pandemic programs, and never benefited from the usual smaller boosts of Thanksgiving, Christmas parties, New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day. If their cupboards aren’t bare, exactly – we are talking about restaurants after all – for many, their coffers are. Which could hurt even more this spring, when they need cash in order to restock and hire for the busy summer season … assuming there is one.

Open-ended messages like this one, on the website of Back Bay Grill, abounded this past winter: “Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we are currently closed for winter break. Thank you for your understanding.”

The Hopeful sign, by artist Charlie Hewitt, sits atop Speedwell Projects in March 2020. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Back Bay Grill reopened in early April, though just for three days a week; happily, so have many other Portland restaurants, both long-established and newcomers. And even after a very bleak year, the number of new dining spots scheduled to open soon (Cheese Louise, specializing in upscale grilled cheese; Salt Yard, the restaurant at the new Canopy Portland Waterfront hotel; and Mitr, serving grilled and charbroiled Thai food, to name a few) is impressive.

That neon “Hopeful” sign atop Speedwell Projects gallery on Forest Avenue? Along with its restaurant neighbors – eclectic taco spot Bird & Co. and Colombian street food eatery Maiz – it could be illuminating the city’s food scene as it stands right now.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Setting aside fish chowder, fried clams and old-school Italian, Portland’s history as a dining and drinking draw is a relatively recent development.

When Scott DeSimon graduated from Greely High School in Cumberland in 1986, there was little to keep him in the area, food-wise, or to induce him to return after college. Eventually, he moved to Brooklyn, where he spent five years near the top of the masthead, as deputy food editor, at Bon Appetit magazine. Things began to change for Portland food in the ’90s, he recalls, crediting Sam Hayward of Fore Street and Dana Street of Street and Co. and Fore Street for sparking an eventual transformation.

Hayward himself recalls being introduced to Street in the late ’80s, shortly before Street and Co. opened. Mutual friends had arranged for the two to meet. “They brought him to me to talk him out of it,” Hayward said. (“Obviously, I’m grateful he went ahead and opened.”) Though Hayward can name with affection a number of Portland restaurants that predated Street and Co. – Alberta’s, Cafe Always, The Hollow Reed, Rafael’s – it seemed to him from his perch at 22 Lincoln in Brunswick that Portland restaurants had “no legs.”

“Portland didn’t really impress me as a restaurant town,” he says today. “There had been a number of restaurants with innovative elements starting back in the ’70s, but my impression was good restaurants didn’t last very long in Portland, at least restaurants that had culinary ambitions. They might make it for four or five years, get summer visitors, or a lot of attention, then suddenly fail.”

Sam Hayward, then chef at Fore Street, in a photo from 1998, two years after he launched the restaurant. Doug Jones/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

A few years later, though he appreciated the city’s vibrant arts scene, he was still hesitant about its dining potential. When Fore Street opened in 1996, “We were quite cautious with the food. We had a pretty small menu.” Customer demand (and the eagerness of the cooks) soon drove its expansion, a small sign that culinary change was afoot.

About the same time, Jill Duson moved to Portland from Hallowell for a job with the gas company. Duson, who would eventually serve for 19 years as a city councilor, regretted that the move meant losing a beloved restaurant hangout. “I can remember thinking as I moved away, ‘What would I find that was as good as Slates?'”

“There wasn’t a lot of variety,” she added. “It was nothing like today’s food. (Portland) was a city, but it wasn’t a foodie town.”

But the underpinnings of Portland’s thriving restaurant and food scene were being built. Artists, attracted by cheap rents, were remaking the city’s gritty waterfront. New recruits to Portland law firms and large companies like Idexx and Unum were fueling demand for more and better places to dine. Nationally, America’s food scene had also heated up, and ambitious young cooks had begun to leave established restaurant cities, like New York and San Francisco, for more livable cities with affordable rents, both for themselves and for the restaurants they dreamed of opening. Many of Portland’s best-known chefs and restaurateurs today previously spent time at marquee restaurants in marquee cities, including, to give a very partial list, Ilma Lopez and Damian Sansonetti of Chaval (and the late Piccolo), who worked for Daniel Boulud in New York City; Rob Evans of Duckfat (and formerly Hugo’s), who worked at The French Laundry in Yountville, California; and Chad Conley of Rose Food and Ramona’s, a native Portlander who returned to Maine after working at Jean-Georges in New York City. 

Count Michelle and Steve Corry, who opened Five Fifty-Five on Congress Street in 2003, among that group. (After a good long run, they had announced they were going to close the restaurant just before the pandemic shutdown. They still operate Petite Jacqueline.) The young couple came to Maine from California, where they’d worked at heavy hitters, Domaine Chandon (him) and The French Laundry (her). They moved east to be nearer to family, and picked Portland to start their own place in large part because “we could buy the building,” Michelle Corry said. “This was something we could afford.” For more than a year, they lived in the kitchen-less apartment above their new restaurant.

Owners of Five Fifty-Five, Michelle Corry and chef Steve Corry at their Congress Street restaurant in 2003. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“We were a little nervous because it wasn’t a great scene,” she added. “We took a big chance on Congress Street because Congress Street at that time was extremely sketchy. There was the Oakleaf hotel, which I think rented by the hour. Our sous chef our first year was mugged right on Congress. There was no Nosh, no Empire, no Taco Escobarr. It was a chance, but it was cheap.”

Like Hayward, the Corrys dialed down their opening menu, concerned that Portlanders’ palates would lack the sophistication of Napa Valley diners. But the city surprised them. Gradually, more interesting, chef-driven restaurants began to open around them. Their own customers, too, quickly proved willing – eager – to eat foie gras, frogs’ legs, escargot, unusual cheeses, “stuff we never thought we’d be able to do,” Corry said. “And people wanted more.”

Over at Back Bay Grill on Portland Street, a young Larry Matthews Jr. was watching the city’s food scene change, too, a stroke of personal good fortune. Then in his early 20s, Matthews, a native Mainer, had had big plans to leave the state and “bump up my resume.” Then he met a girl (now his wife of 23 years, Kristin Matthews). “I didn’t want to bounce around. We said, ‘Let’s make Portland work.’ It wasn’t ideal because it wasn’t the restaurant scene I wanted, but let’s just make it work.”

In 2003, the Back Bay Grill kitchen whips up (or maybe whisks up) a variety of culinary delights. That’s Larry Matthews in the center; one year before this photo was taken, he bought the restaurant. Doug Jones/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

So he found himself a job as a weekend line cook at Back Bay Grill (less than a decade later, he’d buy the place), and then watched, pleased, as he got what he’d wished for. “I’d had the thought it would be really great if we could develop a community of great restaurants and then I’d be right where I wanted to be all along without my ever leaving home,” Matthews said. He starts to list restaurants that contributed to Portland’s early culinary blossoming (and, Matthews being Matthews, apologized for any he may have forgotten), ending his summary with Rob Evans taking over Hugo’s (in 2000), Fore Street “exploding in popularity” and the Corrys opening the doors to Five Fifty-Five. “All of the sudden there was just a stable of great restaurants,” Matthews said. “All of the sudden, we were starting to put some significant pins in the map.”

Success begat success. As Portland’s restaurants began to get national attention – a James Beard award here, a Food & Wine best new chef nod there – young cooks wanted to come here to work under Portland’s own growing roster of name chefs. Talent trickled, then flooded in, Hayward recalled, allowing the city’s restaurants to snap up cooks who’d spent time at starred, storied places like California’s Chez Panisse and Zuni Café. In turn, many enterprising employees went on to open places of their own. Passing through the kitchen over the years at Back Bay Grill alone were, among others, Erik Desjarlais (who went on to open Bandol, Ladle, Evangeline), Harding Smith (who later opened the “Rooms” restaurants) and Jason Williams (The Well at Jordan Farm). Now that others were opening restaurants and succeeding, young cooks could imagine Portland as a place they could succeed, too.

It wasn’t just the restaurant scene that was flourishing, as Hayward takes pains to point out. Maine’s back-to-the-land movement – the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association turns 50 this year – was nurturing a brigade of young, imaginative farmers, who inch by inch and Hakurei turnip by heirloom carrot, began to provide the “backbone of what made Maine food so incredibly special,” Hayward said, “foragers and farmers and fishers, providing local food to restaurants. That might be the glue of the whole food and restaurant community in Maine.”

CRITICAL MASS

Just what constitutes a 21st-century food town? Chefs, food writers, food tour operators, academics, local politicians, and city tourism and arts outreach organizations weighed in. In sum, sheer numbers of restaurants; variety of places – including cuisines, styles and price points; great raw ingredients; plenty of jobs; supportive city government; an engaged local population that talks food, blogs food, tweets food, is willing to drive for food and, of course, eats and drinks adventurously; voracious, checklist-carrying, food-selfie broadcasting tourists; a national reputation; and a close-knit community of chefs. Meld enough of these together, and bingo.

Glenn Shelton of Maine Foodie Tours leads a group down Commercial Street during a recent tour in Portland.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“You need some of that groundswell, a critical mass of food businesses doing interesting things at the same time, with the idea that the rising tide carries all boats,” said Jessica Battilana, a cookbook author and food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who moved to Falmouth with her family last June.

On all counts, and more, Portland qualifies.

“The subtext” of the city’s amazing culinary variety, said DeSimon, the former Bon Appetit editor, “is it’s more of a welcoming place, not an insular place. Once you start having really good versions of other food informed by local ingredients, that puts Portland in a whole other category.”

In ordinary times, the industry not only provides jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, but it feeds – and not just literally – the city’s creative scene, according to Dinah Minot, executive director of Creative Portland, attracting young artists to town “not just because of the variety of food but because there is work available,” she said. “The day job. The bread and butter money.” The city’s food scene also provides work to artists in the form of branding, interior and graphic design, “and all of that is very much part of that creative life,” she said. Local artists here design beer and wine labels for local beverages, and dishware and menus for local restaurants.

The frequent culinary collaborations are evidence that the city’s food artisans are as creative as its visual artists, the number of times a pizza maker, a brewer and a baker have – no, not walked into a bar – rather worked together on, say, a pop-up or a new beer (often to benefit a good cause). This past pandemic year, that aspect has caught the eye of Sarah Hach, owner, with her husband, of Maine Food for Thought Tours. “Our restaurants are facing their greatest challenge,” she said, “yet they are the ones making food to feed healthcare workers and food-insecure Mainers. The restaurant sector is really taking the lead in this. Maybe I am thinking of Mr. Rogers: ‘Look for the helpers.'”

The city’s food and drink scene has, no surprise, become a selling point, for real estate agents working with out-of-staters, recruiters seeking to attract job candidates, and tourism officials competing to bring visitors, and their dollars, here.

The food scene “is definitely one of the key drivers for Portland,” said Lynn Tillotson, chief executive officer of Visit Portland, something she traces to 2009, the year Bon Appetit declared the city America’s “foodiest small town.” (The same magazine later named it the 2018 Restaurant City of the Year.) “It really kicked off a lot of our marketing about being a foodie destination,” she said. “It’s who we are. Outside of Maine, people view Portland as a very authentic place. Our working waterfront is unique and authentic, and tying that in, farm-to-table, fish-to-fork, really is a huge element of marketing Portland.”

Jill Duson picks up takeout from Mami in early April. During the pandemic, she’s ordered takeout from different local restaurants once or twice a week. “I’m just a restaurant lover,” she says. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Or, as Duson, an enthusiastic hometown booster of all things food and an avid restaurant-goer herself, put it, the city’s “connection with the waterfront! Made-in-Maine stuff like seafood and blueberries, stuff that grows around here! Farmers markets – oh my goodness! Golly! It’s just … what a town!”

CRYSTAL BALL

At different points over the course of the last year, trade groups and industry insiders predicted that as many as a whopping 85 percent of America’s restaurants would be forced to close permanently because of the pandemic. It’s great news that the experts got that wrong. Given Portland’s long history, maybe the odds were always in the city’s favor.

“In the 400 years since European settlement, Portland has survived the repeated ravages of war, invasion, pestilence, conflagration, and economic depression and recession,” begins “Growing Portland,” a 2017 report about the city’s future.

Compared to many larger cities, lower restaurant rents are also on Portland’s side. Lower labor costs than those faced by many big-city restaurants are an open question, as the $18 per hour hazard pay voters approved in November, which some restaurant owners say they can’t afford, is being fought in court. Some other factors likewise remain in unknowable flux: the individual amounts of the latest federal aid program (Restaurant Revitalization Fund Grants, which accept applications starting Monday), how soon Mainers will return to restaurants – the dining rooms, not just the patios – and how quickly the tourists will come back, too.

On that last, Tillotson of Visit Portland is confident. Post-pandemic, her industry is predicting what it has termed “‘revenge tourism.’ People want to get out! They are tired of being in their homes,” she said. “Basically, as soon people feel safe to travel and they can travel, they will for sure.” As the pandemic recedes, if a flight to Europe still induces the jitters among American travelers, a drive to coastal Maine will let them test the waters by degrees.

Also going for Portland, several said: The scrappy, hardy, resilient nature of restaurant people in general – used to dealing with walk-in coolers that quit on a busy Saturday evening or fish orders that never show up – the scrappy, hardy, resilient nature of Mainers in particular, and the impressive imagination, adaptivity and resourcefulness that Portland’s chefs and restaurateurs have shown in the past year. “Mainers in general are pretty crafty about staying in business and staying alive,” chef Larry Matthews observed, noting that the city’s restaurant scene came roaring back from downturns after 9/11 and during 2008.

During a Maine Foodie Tour in Portland in mid-April, cook Rory Clarkson of Andy’s Old Port Pub serves a plate with a warm lobster roll in butter with chips – made with Maine potatoes – and slaw. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Richard Barringer, a Muskie School of Public Service emeritus professor who co-wrote “Growing Portland,” also is upbeat. He considers Portland’s food sector a key part of the city’s diversification, which itself is key to Portland’s success. “The foodie sector is so established now, it will come back,” he said. “The form it will come back (in) is not quite clear yet. The reputation is still there and so long as the reputation is still there, there will be demand, and there will be creative people who respond to that demand. I have great hopes that it will rebound.”

About that question of form, many diners and restaurant insiders already are guessing: Winter outdoor dining may become a thing. Elegant takeout, cocktails-to-go and reservations may be here to stay (one can hope). Lavish restaurant dining could go the way of the passenger pigeon as post-pandemic customers reject formality and fuss and crave burgers and bistro food; or the reverse – maybe after a year in sweatpants, they’ll be looking for a little elegance.

But let’s give Duson the last word. She was feeling unwell during an interview last January, waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test (it was positive; Duson, and her son, came down with the coronavirus. She reports she was “exhausted” for six weeks, but both have recovered), but that didn’t dampen her exuberance about the city’s food sector. If Portland’s restaurants fail in large numbers to make it to the other side of the pandemic, “We’d definitely lose part of our vibe, be diminished,” she said.

“But I think, I hope, I am optimistic that we will take a few punches, and we will still have some closures, but we will bounce back because we have developed such a feel for good food. And I think many Portlanders like myself really love the food here and that love leads us to support these places, even on a budget. The restaurants are such a part of the community. It’s been a tough time, but I think we will survive. It’s part of who we are.

“Call me crazy,” she said with a big laugh. “Or call me hungry.”

Read Part 1: Threatened by coronavirus, Portland’s restaurants turn the tables

Read Part 2: On Middle Street, a culinary hub embodies an industry under siege

Read Part 3: Restaurant closures ripple through local economy

Read Part 4: Restaurants struggled with hiring. COVID made it worse.

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