If all goes well, the developers of the Time & Temperature Building, T.T. Maine Ventures, will give the stately edifice new life in 2023 as a luxury hotel. One feature will be a yet to be named double-story bar and lounge intended to evoke a sense of 1920s glamour. Jacqueline McGee, principal/design director of Portland-based Ealain Studio, is conceiving the aesthetic with Jim Brady (owner of the Press Hotel), who is working on interiors.

The duo recently debuted the Canopy Hotel’s Salt Yard Café & Bar, which showcases an elegantly contemporary maritime-inspired aesthetic, and the “organic chic” rooftop lounge Luna. “We are really driven by location,” McGee explained of her design approach. “Canopy was more about the life of the waterfront. Time & Temperature is about the bank and the commerce of downtown.” The 1924 Beaux Arts building originally housed the Chapman National Bank.

The 1920s glam bar at the Time & Temperature will be the latest in a slew of restaurants and bar/lounges in the city that have been amping up their interior design game. The city’s image as a down-to-earth, no-fuss, mostly rustic farm-to-table culinary scene is changing. Some attribute it, at least in part, to the Restaurant City of the Year accolade Bon Appétit magazine bestowed in 2018.

“I remember being at an oyster place and seeing two different people with the magazine in their hands,” said restaurant designer Wendy Polstein of Quill Design. “They were asking us questions about restaurants based on what was in the article.”

The bar at Via Vecchia on Dana Street which has an Old World aesthetic. Photo courtesy of Artisan Agenda

But Polstein – a Yarmouth native who collaborated on the design of Joshua Miranda’s Old Port craft cocktail bar, Blyth & Burrows, as well as his more recently opened Italian restaurant Via Vecchia nearby – added that it’s been a slow, steady evolution. “Twenty years ago, people didn’t come to Portland specifically to dine out,” she said. “Now they’re making it more of a destination solely based on food and beer.”

A number of restaurateurs said that the city’s higher design awareness also arises from boutique hotels. Miranda credits his own elevated aesthetic to stints at The Royalton, designed by Philippe Starck, and The Mondrian, a Morgans Hotel Group property, both in New York. Brady, who opened Union in the Press Hotel here in 2015, remembered “getting pushback” for the sophisticated yet comfortable décor, as if it wasn’t somehow right for Portland.

“I don’t think everything has to be brick walls, wood ceilings and exposed structure,” Brady said. “If you look at what’s happening in Portland, there’s been a big change in travelers who come here from major metropolitan cities who are used to a higher quality design than we’re used to in Maine.”

“People travel for good design today,” echoed Tim Harrington, who owns several hospitality and restaurant businesses around the state, including, with partner Kevin Lord, Batson River Brewing & Distilling in West Bayside. “They want amazing food, but also ambiance and to be told a story.”

Indeed, to a person, restaurateurs agreed that the influx of people from New York, Boston and other major markets is turning up the heat on this trend, especially since the start of the pandemic.

Sur Lie got a renovation during the pandemic downtime. Photo by Dawson Renaud Film and Photo

“There are so many people rediscovering us after the pandemic or discovering us for the first time,” said Krista Cole, who recently renovated her Portland restaurant, Sur Lie. Closing four days a week during the pandemic gave her the time to carry out the upgrades she’d been contemplating for two years.

And Batson River, set to open on the eve of last year’s rendezvous with COVID-19, used the forced closing to rejigger the design into something more COVID-friendly.

“It was a really good fire drill for people figuring out how to do takeout, work on their websites and decide whether they wanted to have a restaurant,” said Krista Stokes, creative/artistic director for Harrington’s company.

The trend has parallels in other smaller cities, explained Angela Dewar, a designer at Bergmeyer, a Boston-based collaborative that is part of the Northeast chapter of the International Interior Design Association.

“In the hospitality and tourism industry, we are seeing a shift in travel to some of the smaller cities like Portland and Denver,” she said. “As the busyness of our lives continues to grow, many diners are looking for reprieve in their downtime, and these quieter destinations offer just that.”

“A few years prior to Portland making waves in the food scene,” she continued, “Austin, Texas, had a similar transformation. Now dubbed ‘Silicon Hills,’ Austin is home to many big-name startups and tech giants, which brought an influx of people to the city, all craving a seat at the table. Austin now has restaurants and hotels designed by some of the biggest names in the industry, with menus offering so much more than just Texas barbecue.”

The first floor and bar at Batson River Brewing & Distilling’s Portland location. Photo by Erin Little

National accolades like Bon Appétit’s help spur attention, of course. The prestigious New-York-based James Beard Foundation has awarded “Best Chef – Northeast” designations to Sam Hayward of Fore Street in 20o4, and to both Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley of Big Tree Hospitality (Eventide Oyster Co., The Honey Paw, Hugo’s) in 2017. But other factors, such as the establishment of Northeastern University’s Roux Institute – and the administrators, faculty, students and parents who will follow – are also economic engines.

Wex, now anchoring the northeastern end of the Old Port and housing offices of Roux, is also evolving that neighborhood, its ground floor occupied by another design-conscious new arrival: the appropriately named Helm, owned by Elizabeth Legere.

“It felt like a good neighborhood to open a new restaurant,” Legere said. “We’re near the water, but off the commercial drag.” Helm, within sight of the Ocean Gateway marine terminal, is also poised to benefit from the thousands of passengers disembarking cruise ships whenever they’re allowed to return.

Inside Helm, a new oyster bar on the east end of Portland’s waterfront, near the Ocean Gateway terminal. Photo by Erin Little

Does this portend New York on Casco Bay? No one thinks so. “We recognized there was room for more and room for different,” said Legere, explaining that there were oyster places in the city, but few where you could also get a full meal.

Miranda, while acknowledging Via Vecchia’s Old World atmosphere of green velvet, golden brass touches and crystal chandeliers, says it’s basically an osteria “with approachable Italian food, more on the rustic side, nothing too precious.”

It’s unlikely there will ever be a shortage of fried clam eateries and burger joints, McGee believes. “If you’re going to be the No. 1 food city in America,” she said, “you have to do both.”


PORTLAND’S NEW DESIGN GUARD

Batson River Brewing & Distilling, 82 Hanover St., batsonriver.com, 207-800-4680. “Tim and I had this fantasy that it was Bruce Wayne’s abandoned mansion,” said Krista Stokes, creative/artistic director for Batson River Brewing & Distilling, of this space where the city used to hose down snowplows. The hunt club vibe – with fieldstone fireplace, built-in book-lined shelves, dog portraits and taxidermy – is an extension of the restaurant/distillery’s brand. Here, as in the original Kennebunkport operation, it’s about outdoor sportsmanship. “Kennebunkport is very Field & Stream,” Stokes said. “Here too, but it’s a bit more Town & Country. I might put on a blazer to come here.” As fully accessorized as a home, added Harrington, “It’s your favorite family room or game room where you can hang out all day.”

Helm, 60 Thames St., helmportland.com, 207-613-9918. “The design is what it is because this was a new contemporary space,” Helm owner Elizabeth Legere said. “It felt natural to keep it simple, with clean lines. We went conceptually more midcentury modern in terms of furnishings and terrazzo.” Polished poured-concrete floors, unadorned walnut millwork, ribbed glass and terrazzo counter and bar surfaces are all aligned with this look. To warm up what could have felt like a huge bare expanse of ceiling, architect Steve Hoffman stained poplar slats to mimic walnut. Almost undetectably, the building has a prow shape that informs the restaurant’s name. (The design was awarded a 2021 Maine American Institute of Architects Award for excellence for interior design.)

Luna, Canopy Waterfront Hotel, 285 Commercial St., lunarooftopbarmaine.com, 207-791-0011. “It’s all about the notion of being outside under the stars,” said Jacqueline McGee, principal/design director of Ealain Studio, who kept things dark and moody, like the night sky. Local artists and artisans played a big part in grounding the design with details, such as Kennebunkport-based Huston & Company’s massive pewter and wood high-top table across from the bar. Huge spans of glass emphasize the indoor-outdoor connection. There’s even a “kissing nook” with channel-upholstered velvet banquettes under a ceiling of fiberoptic lights that recreates a starry sky.

Salt Yard Café & Bar, Canopy Waterfront Hotel, 285 Commercial St., saltyardrestaurantandbar.com, 207-791-0013. “The materiality had to be honest to the site, which was the old E. Swasey & Co. pottery,” McGee explained. The firm made jugs and crocks that were used for ocean transport of food and spirits, and some of its antique ware adorns a sitting room near the lobby. The restaurant has chandeliers inspired by lobster pots and, in the adjacent lobby, pendants that evoke glass fishing floats. A wall installation by Karina Steele, of wood pieces dipped in indigo (which McGee says is native to Maine), echoes “the rolling waters of Casco Bay.” Portland artist Matt Chamberlain’s blue-tinged paintings behind the bar conjure the rhythms of a bustling port.

Sur Lie, 11 Free St., sur-lie.com, 207-956-7350. “As soon as he showed me pictures of what he’d come up with, I was in love with it,” Sur Lie owner Krista Cole said about Hugh McCormick, an artist and graphic designer friend who she asked to spearhead the redesign. McCormick, devised five abstract geometric murals that bring a remarkable dynamism to the walls. He also darkened the floors, and ordered over 100 plants, which he used to fill shelves suspended from the ceiling. “Greenery was a way of making it feel more fresh and alive,” he said. Portland mixed-media visual artist Carter Shappy created salon walls of black-and-white photography. “We wanted the space to live up to people’s expectations,” Cole said.

Via Vecchia, 10 Dana St., vvoldport.com, 207-407-7070. “I walked in the door, looked up at the ceiling and said, ‘We should paint it metallic gold,’” Wendy Polstein of Quill Design recalled. “It lights up the space and sparkles and shines down on whatever else we do.” Gold and brass are a recurring theme – on mirror frames, all the bar and bath taps, restored soda fountains, bar lights and flatware. So are crystal chandeliers salvaged from New York’s Waldorf Astoria and Portland’s long-gone Union Station. There are green velvet booths, emerald-green tiles, floors of black and white penny tile. It’s an amalgam of various places beloved by Miranda, including New York’s Balthazar brasserie, Roman coffee bars and a cocktail bar in Positano. “The goal here is escapism,” Miranda concluded.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


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