Diners at Duckfat in March. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The owners of Duckfat, whose Belgian frites and paninis drew some of the first lines of food-loving tourists to Portland, are retiring and have sold the Middle Street restaurant and its sister operation on Washington Avenue to Texas-based investors.

The restaurants will be managed by the current staff, which doesn’t plan to make many changes.

Chef Rob Evans in his kitchen at Hugo’s in 2009 with his Best Chef:Northeast award from the James Beard Foundation. Press Herald photograph by John Patriquin

Rob Evans and Nancy Pugh opened Duckfat in 2005, a year after Evans was named one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs for his work at Hugo’s. The couple had bought that restaurant in 2000 and started to make their indelible mark on the Portland food scene by quickly turning it into one of the country’s most acclaimed showcases of avant-garde fine dining. In 2009, Evans won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast.

They sold Hugo’s in 2012 to employees who went on to open tourist hot spots Eventide and The Honey Paw, and earned a James Beard Award of their own.

“Rob and Nancy are the forerunners of making Portland’s dining scene what it is today, ” said Andrew Taylor, one of those employees. “Along with Dana Street and Sam Hayward (of Fore Street), they gave this town a legitimacy that wasn’t there before and attracted young cooks and diners for them to feed. I wouldn’t have moved to Portland without Hugo’s.”

The couple’s former employees at Hugo’s, which has since closed, also include the founders of popular restaurants East Ender and Rose Foods, as well as Ian Driscoll of Bar Futo, who was named a James Beard Award semifinalist this year.


“We have other former cooks who’ve made it out in the U.K. and Australia, too,” Evans said. “Me and Nancy don’t have kids, so it’s really nice to see our legacy lives on through some of our staff.”

Evans, 60, said he and Pugh, 57, had been planning a sale and retirement for years and moved last fall from Middle Street to western Maine. “This is actually something we were working toward before the pandemic, and then that happened, and after, we got back to it,” he said.

“At the end of (the pandemic period), most of our staff was still with us,” he continued. “So there was definitely a bonding and strengthening of the team through that. I think that’s one of the things we’re most proud of, the culture and team we created at Duckfat, and the pandemic really drove it home.”

New Duckfat owner David Shryock said he and his son, Ben, bought the restaurants at the end of April as an investment and will not be involved in operations.

“I am the lucky guy who got to purchase that marvelous restaurant that Rob Evans and Nancy Pugh built over two decades,” Shryock said. “Nancy and Rob have built a great team that (General Manager Trevor Lilly) now has.”

“We’ve been working hard over the past couple of years to build up the management team and slowly take over more and more of the management responsibilities from Rob and Nancy, and we are really just excited to continue their vision and grow where Duckfat is going,” said Lilly, a 16-year staffer who also will serve as chief executive officer for the venues.


Duckfats’s cauliflower panini with charred cauliflower, sunchoke puree and pickled mustard greens accompanied by Belgian frites with sauces. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Lilly said no major changes are planned for the strategy or staffing of the restaurants. “Our staff has incredible longevity for the restaurant industry, and I think that’s a testament to the culture we have and the importance we place on taking care of our staff,” he said. “We want to stay relevant as restaurants and continue to focus on the quality of our service and food.”

Still, Lilly said the Frites Shack is now open daily for the first time since its launch in 2016 and that they plan to slowly expand its menu, “tying the two locations more closely as far as what we’re offering.” And while the original Duckfat will remain on its current trajectory, Lilly said, specials may change there more often, and different sandwiches and more small plates will likely join the menu.

Evans called the new owners “great people.”

“We really connected with who they are as people, and that was important for us as well,” Evans said. “I think it’s in good hands.”

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