Tar Beach is held outside the home of Elizabeth McGrady and her husband, Jim Ohannes, in Portland’s West End last month. On Wednesday nights between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the couple bring together community members for a potluck-style dinner. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

After they emerge from the long winter, as days get longer and evenings get warmer, some people in Portland’s West End know just where to go on Wednesday night.

They head to Tar Beach, a longtime midweek gathering in the driveway outside the home of Jim Ohannes and Elizabeth McGrady.

Ohannes and McGrady have been hosting friends and neighbors for dinner each Wednesday from Memorial Day to Labor Day for around a decade. Welcoming anyone and everyone they meet in their community to join them, the couple prepare a simple meal each week to share with their guests. 

“We are eating anyway, so we just thought we might as well invite everyone over.” McGrady said.

In anticipation of dinner guests, Ohannes and McGrady often grill meat or fish and assemble an accompanying salad. They don’t expect guests to provide a dish to share, but additions are welcomed. Often, someone shows up with a dip or something sweet to share with the group. 

“There is not a price for admission. I just tell everyone, ‘Bring yourself first of all!’” McGrady said. 


She says she got the inspiration from a friend who many years ago began hosting a casual cocktail hour out of her garage in Cape Elizabeth. She would bring out a six-pack of beer and a bag of chips to her open garage to share with whoever happened by.

McGrady loved the idea of creating a space for neighbors to socialize and get to know one another without the pressure of planning or committing in advance to an event.

Before they retired, McGrady used to own a small business called Angel Files that assisted people with their end-of-life planning and Ohannes worked for Texas Instruments.

They live in a former convent they have converted into their home. Its backyard is basically a parking area that easily fits 10 automobiles. Hardly in need of all those parking spots, McGrady and Ohannes have given over half of the cement to dining.

Using fencing and plants to split the lot in two, they’ve transformed the side closest to their house with twinkling lights, umbrellas, tables and an array of mismatched chairs – an inviting space to spend time with friends, old and new. 

Tar Beach is what people used to call the roofs of Philadelphia, Ohannes said. He spent many similar nights hanging out with friends on those roofs when he was in college. In a city where a lot of people didn’t have access to grassy yards or nearby parks, the roofs of apartment buildings and houses became urban oases, where people could gather to bask in the sun or enjoy summer nights above the noise of the streets.


This Tar Beach is in a far different setting, but it still serves a purpose, he said.

“Maine will never be known for its warmth. Unlike southern hospitality, all we have is northern coldness,” McGrady said both of the weather and of how some people characterize the typical temperament. “Everyone here has back porches or yards. There is a culture of privateness. … I wanted to bring more of a front-porch community to the neighborhood.” 

Elizabeth McGrady and her husband Jim Ohannes host Tar Beach every Wednesday night to bring together community members for dinner at their Portland home. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Ohannes and McGrady invite anyone and everyone they know from their neighborhood, as well as old friends in the area and acquaintances from other parts of their lives. Among the usual crowd are McGrady’s childhood friend from her hometown of Warren, Kym Gilhooly, a writer who recently moved to Portland, and a next-door neighbor whose first night at Tar Beach was on the Wednesday in June 2016 when he moved in.

“I moved in next door a few months before my wife Beth, and while I was going into the house, Liz called over from her house where she was setting up,” said neighbor Jarrod Tembreull, a physician at LincolnHealth. “She invited me to dinner and I didn’t have anything else to do, so I came over. It was amazing to have somewhere to go when I first got here and to meet so many of my neighbors who are now big parts of my life. I would’ve never met most of them and probably wouldn’t feel nearly as close to my community without Tar Beach.” 

The pandemic didn’t stop Tar Beach. In a way, the gathering was made for such a time. It was already outdoors, the safest place to socialize. Tables and chairs were spread farther apart. And one Wednesday night regular, Stephanie Fanburg, a rheumatologist at Maine Medical Center who lives a block away, made cloth masks for all the guests.

“This was the only place I actually saw anyone outside of my house,” Fanburg said. “Tar Beach was a saving grace.”


Elizabeth McGrady enjoys the company of neighbors as she hosts Tar Beach at her home in Portland on June 15. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Flexibility comes easily to Ohannes and McGrady, who are used to adjusting to weather. They are dedicated to holding Tar Beach rain or shine. When it rains, they simply bring dinner indoors. 

Usually, about 15 to 20 people show up to Tar Beach each week. Sometimes it’s as few as five. Numbers don’t really matter to its hosts, they say. Tar Beach is about creating a place for a community to come together – even if it’s just a community of the two of them

As people trickle in, they are met with familiar greetings or welcoming surprise. Tar Beach regulars settle next to one another, recapping the week since they last gathered around the same tables. Newcomers and those who visit less frequently are quickly enveloped into the conversation, finding their place within the crowd as McGrady shakes cocktails and insists everyone try the cranberry sauce Fanburg brought to share. As the sun sets, voices fill the warm air, mixing with smoke from the grill.

“It can be hard to have a regular social life, especially here where the culture is not one of going out and socializing like in someplace like New York,” McGrady said. “But if you can plan something that works for you, even if it’s once a month or once a week, and if you can have one other person with you – at least I’ve got Jim here – and you know that you will have dinner there for whoever shows up, that is perfect. When you have a party, you don’t spend one second thinking about the people that didn’t come, going down that rabbit hole: Why didn’t they come? What were they doing? Do they like me anymore? You put all your energy into whoever showed up. And that’s all that matters.” 

So does keeping it going, Ohannes said. Tar Beach has become a neighborhood fixture. 

“We paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” Ohannes said, referencing Joni Mitchell. “But this parking lot has been a really special place. I hope we continue to host Tar Beach forever.” 

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