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Updated: January 23, 2023

Stirring the pot: Portland sees a wave of new restaurants and expansions

Photo / Tim Greenway Chef Colin Wyatt in the kitchen of Twelve restaurant in Portland

Twelve is a lucky number for Portland chef Colin Wyatt — it’s the name of the restaurant he helped open and runs on Portland’s East End, and the number of dishes on the seasonal prix-fixe menu (not counting the sweet potato milk bread with brown butter).

The eatery opened last summer in what had been Building 12 of the old Portland Co. rolling-stock manufacturer. As part of the Portland Foreside redevelopment, led by Casey Prentice, the 150-year-old brick structure was taken down, moved and reassembled to house a restaurant.

“To me the story of the building was truly incredible,” says Wyatt, who returned to Maine to open Twelve after working in some of New York City’s most esteemed kitchens including three Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park. At Twelve, he’s crafted a menu he describes as modern New England using local ingredients “in fun and exciting ways.”

Glad to be back in Portland, Wyatt says, “The quality of the chefs and the restaurants and the level of food that people are doing here is amazing.”

Portland’s culinary transition

Four and half years after Portland was named Bon Appetit magazine’s “2018 Restaurant City of the Year,” some of the businesses highlighted in that article have since shut down — including Drifters Wife in 2020, Little Giant in 2021, Back Bay Grill in 2022.

But the carnage was limited.

Today, as survivors seek to put pandemic setbacks behind them while grappling with industry-wide staffing and supply-chain shortages, Portland’s culinary cachet is on the rebound. Driving that momentum is a host of new investments in the 68,000-population southern coastal city that’s home to more than 500 licensed eating and drinking establishments.

“At the beginning of COVID I just pictured mass carnage,” says Lynn Tillotson, president and CEO of Visit Portland.“I thought, this is going to devastate our community, and what drives tourism to Portland is definitely the restaurant scene.” Instead, “I feel like they never really lost their footing.”

HospitalityMaine CEO Matt Lewis is equally bullish, describing Portland as a healthy market where restaurants are always coming and going: “It’s possible we may see a few more go out of business,” he says, “but you will quickly see new developments as well.”

Leeward’s ‘rollercoaster’

Leeward, an upscale Italian restaurant on Free Street, had a rough start. Opening day was March 12, 2020, a day after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the very day that Maine announced its first positive case.

The restaurant was open only four days before shutting down for months. It later eased back into business with pre-ordered dinner kits once a week before transitioning to take-out and then opening a patio that summer with limited indoor seating.

“It’s definitely been a rollercoaster,” recalls Leeward’s chef-owner Jake Stevens. “It’s been a challenge, but it feels really good now.” The pasta-focused dishes are anything but ordinary, from espresso pappardelle with red wine-braised oxtail, pearl onions and rosemary to baked semolina gnocchi with cured pork belly, tomato, chile flakes and pecorino cheese. Stevens says he adds two new menu items every week, though there’s less variety in winter. A self-described Italophile, Stevens says, “It’s comfort food to the max and always made me happy.”

The restaurant, which has no plans to bring back outdoor dining, seats about 60 and was nominated for a James Beard Award last year. Along with Twelve, Leeward made the New York Times’ list of America’s 50 best restaurants, published in September.

Stevens financed the venture mainly from bank loans, supplemented by personal savings and small loans from family members, and employs around 26 people he pays competitively using a profit-sharing model for untipped, back-of-house employees. The company also offers a health care plan for all employees working more than 25 hours a week and an employer-matched 401K for everyone on its payroll.

“You’re seeing a lot more of that industry-wide, which is helping to erase the stigma the restaurant industry has for being a haven for nomadic types who don’t like to wake up early,” Stevens says. His advice to today’s aspiring restaurateurs: “It’s important to be well-capitalized, and to always build in more of a contingency than you think you’re going to need, especially for any new construction and fit-out.”

Photo / Tim Greenway
Jake Stevens, at Leeward, his upscale Italian eatery that made a New York Times list of the country’s best new restaurants published in September.

From EVO to Twelve

Speaking of capital contingencies, the Prentice Hospitality Group shifted gears during the pandemic at EVO Kitchen + Bar with takeout and outdoor dining chalets that proved to be a hit. The group also launched a food truck based at the Fore Points Marina selling food and drink and branded as the EVO X marina bar that brought in a little over $1.3 million in gross revenue between July and October 2020, according to Prentice.

“The marina bar quite literally saved the company and the whole development project,” he says.

Besides EVO and Twelve, Prentice Hospitality Group owns the Chebeague Island Inn, which Prentice bought in 2009 at age 21 while tending bar there with no prior hotel experience. The previous owner, who had leased the property to someone to operate from 2007 to 2009, opted not to renew the lease after 2009, and was prepared for the business to be shuttered in 2010 if it wasn’t sold, according to Prentice.

“At the stroke of a pen,” he recalls, “I owned the Chebeague Island Inn.”

Fast forward to today, and the Middlebury College political science grad is leading the $750 million Portland Foreside development on a property he says is as big as the entire Old Port.

While the original idea was to move EVO to the waterfront brick building that now houses Twelve, that plan changed after Prentice connected with Wyatt via EVO’s chef, Matt Ginn. He decided instead to extend EVO’s lease at 443 Fore St. and keep Ginn in place there and deploy Wyatt to Twelve. Prentice paid $5 million to buy Building 12 and another $5 million on the fit-out for a restaurant.

“Matt and Colin are both superheroes in their own respects,” Prentice says. “Matt’s superpower is that he can make you a decadent five course wine-paired menu using two matchsticks and a pot in the middle of the woods. Colin’s superpower is he is very talented at reviewing floor plans and more of the cerebral element that goes into an operation. He really was instrumental in redoing the design” of Building 12 to create Twelve.

The Prentice Hospitality Group also owns a catering business called 58 Culinary and the Chebeague Island Inn. Twelve generated buzz long before it opened, making Vogue magazine’s list of America’s most anticipated restaurant openings a year ago and Esquire’s tally of America’s best new restaurants published in November.

Like Stevens at Leeward, Prentice says he pays competitive wages and benefits, as well as equity stakes to key staff members, noting: “Our philosophy has always been that sure we’re cooking and serving food, but it’s a profession, and if you treat your team like professionals, they’ll act like professionals.”

Plans for Twelve include turning the outdoor patio into a three-season option by installing a clear plastic roof over the existing steel structure. Not ruling out another restaurant if the right opportunity presents itself, Prentice says: “We’re looking both in Portland and outside of Portland.”

Photo / Tim Greenway
Casey Prentice is a Portland-based developer of the $750 million Portland Foreside project on the city’s East End. He’s sitting inside Twelve, located in a historic building he paid $5 million to purchase and another $5 million to convert into a restaurant.

Mr. Tuna and the new Bar Futo

Elsewhere in the Old Port, Jordan Rubin and Marisa Lewiecki are expanding their footprint via various business ventures.

They started small in 2017, with a Mr. Tuna sushi food cart — the first on the East Coast, according to the couple. They later added three food trucks, one based in Brunswick, one on Portland’s Eastern Promenade and one devoted to catering. They also landed a spot for Mr. Tuna inside Portland’s Public Market House that opened in 2018 and was expanded twice.

In December, the couple opened Bar Futo, a restaurant and cocktail bar featuring Japanese-inspired charcoal cookery, at 425 Fore St., in a leased space formerly occupied by Five Guys. “Futo” is Japanese for “large” or “grand” — and a fitting description of the couple’s largest business venture so far.  Skewered dishes range from grilled cabbage with miso glaze and shiitake mushrooms to a beef dish called the “Big Mac” served with special sauce, “shrettuce” and sesame.

The cocktail menu includes three Highballs on draft, using a machine designed to produce the perfect calibration of carbonated bubbles.

“It’s great because there are three different taps, so you can get just the bubbles out, too,” Lewiecki says. “We do a lot of mocktails.”

While she oversees the running of the restaurants, Rubin is in charge of the kitchen.

“I love the passion that Japanese culture has for their food and their dedication to the craft,” he says. “I also love the simplicity of it, and the attention to detail.”

This summer, Mr. Tuna will move from the Public Market House to a home of its own in the Old Port at 83 Middle St.

Rubin and Lewiecki also co-own Crispy Gai, a restaurant at 90 Exchange St., with Cyle Reynolds, who is also the chef, and co-owner Sasha Brouillard.

“Eventually, we want to do something more,” Rubin says. “Everything we’ve done has been pretty strategic and really kind of like baby steps. We started really small and slowly expanded one thing at a time.”

His advice to the next generation of restaurateurs: “Don’t be scared. You have to get outside of your comfort level, and you have to take calculated chances.” He also recommends not taking on too much, “try to start small and grow the business.”

Lewiecki says that applies to financing as well, like when they started out with the food cart. “We didn’t take any loans, and it was a good way to start,” she says. “That ties into not taking on too much at once.”

While Rubin would like to see more culinary diversity in Portland, he’s optimistic that will eventually happen and optimistic about the sector as a whole.

“I think the sky is the limit here. We’re just scratching the surface,” he says. “There’s a lot of big things still happening in this town.”

Photo / Jim Neuger
Marisa Lewiecki and Jordan Rubin at Bar Futo, their Japanese-inspired restaurant and cocktail bar at 425 Fore St. They also own Mr. Tuna and are co-owners of Crispy Gai.

Dining doorbusters

Keith Luke, an Augusta resident and that city’s economic development director, can attest to that, as a frequent restaurant diner with his longtime girlfriend, Barbara Furey of Falmouth. Along with Luke’s son they were Bar Futo’s doorbusters on a recent Saturday at 5 p.m., queuing with more than a dozen others also without reservations for that evening.

“Barbara and I eat out virtually every meal, and Jordan and Marisa are certainly restaurateurs of the moment,” Luke says. “It is really remarkable how we have a whole cast of characters managing multiple restaurants.” That evening’s bill for the trio came to $180, plus a $40 tip.

As fast as new restaurants are opening in Portland, they don’t appear to be detracting from mainstays like DiMillo’s on the Water, a floating restaurant that laid anchor in 1982.

“Whenever I have company come to town, I always go to DiMillo’s,” says HospitalityMaine’s Lewis, who lives in Saco. “It’s just a fun place to take people.”

Meanwhile at Twelve, Executive Chef Wyatt is featuring Maine scallops and lots of winter vegetables on the current menu. This season’s dishes include a sunchoke hash appetizer with trout roe and lardo, and a warm buttered lobster touted by Esquire magazine in its September write-up for “turning the volume of the old Maine banger up to twelve.” When parental duties don’t intervene, Wyatt says he likes eating out with his wife on his days off to check out other restaurants. They’re certainly spoiled for choice.

Photo / Tim Greenway
Colin Wyatt, executive chef at Twelve on Portland’s East End, leads a staff of 25 at the 85-seat restaurant.

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