Portland’s restaurant scene loses a winner

p and r two

Garrett Fitzgerald in the Portland & Rochester

Bayside is not Yeast Bayside or Munjoy Hill. It’s a still-sketchy, block-by-block patchwork in progress. But for one year, the low-slung Portland & Rochester Public House was the hip hideaway that could —  a destination for off-duty waiters and barkeeps, and assorted creatives who wanted a place to hang.

As an on and off regular, I wondered, as anyone who repaired to this den of modernity on the downslope of Preble Street probably has too, why it went belly up unceremoniously last month? It had a great bartender (Chris Gatchell now at Hugo’s and Inn by the Sea) a Gen-X playlist (Beck and Grunge in heavy rotation) and the best smoky tomato bisque in the 207.

After all, favorite spots are not just businesses, an address on a matchbook, they are second homes. Familiar zones where we can put down our damn cellphones (unless we are IGing a new craft cocktail like the lime and coconut) and get real. The P & R was such a refuge.

Like most makers who strike out for the big city, Garrett FitzGerald and partner Tegan Curry had a dream. The year was 2013 and these Bar Harborites wanted to give Portland something it lacked, an affordable restaurant with a lively bar scene well off the beaten Commercial Street corridor. And for one brilliant year, from July to July, the quirky FitzGerald, who exudes personal warmth and has a knack for ambiance, did just that. But like many endeavors that ramp up quickly, the team, who also own the Bar Harbor Lobster Pound, couldn’t keep two businesses, located hours apart, afloat. We caught up with FitzGerald during the busy tourist season to find out if Portland eats its young.

What happened? “We came to a weird fork in the road in the spring. As some are aware, I own the Bar Harbor Lobster Pound; it’s a little roadside shanty up the coast. Last year, opening the P&R put a lot of strain on the pound and I wasn’t able to be there to run the show. When it was coming time to get back into it this year, Tegan and I realized that there were only a few options. One of us needed to be at each restaurant for them to operate properly. We had just finished a year and a half of back-breaking work to build and develop our dream restaurant, but suddenly realized that without being able to follow our plan, it wasn’t worth it. When decision time came, we opted for the proven winner and figured that someone with a similar vision for a restaurant and the neighborhood, would be able to continue building what we had started.”

Do you think your location was too edgy. A hinderance to business? “We have a lot of faith in what is happening in Bayside. It’s a real community that is growing exponentially at this point. As far as edgy, I remember reading a rather shitty TripAdvisor review — something to the effect of [how could we possibly enjoy a meal with the constant flashing of blue police lights?] I’m guessing they weren’t from Portland. Every neighborhood has some element of that. I can only imagine what’s been seen through the windows of Back Bay Grill, David’s or any Old Port joint. Bayside has a little edge, but the industrial grittiness of the area also makes it a bit more affordable for business and even living. We envisioned the area in a few years, and we liked what we saw.”

I am still in mourning. You seemed to be doing well. “The place was doing OK. I think we found our niche eventually and were trying to grow. We wanted pub fare that exceeded expectations while remaining accessible to all. We wanted a vibrant bar scene and to attract the service industry with late night offerings. I think we were on the right track and I think the growing neighborhood (Bayside Bowl, Arcadia, Slab) will allow the next tenants to achieve success as well.”

Is the Portland dining scene as cutthroat as it seems? “I think the nature of the business creates competition, but I would dare say that it does not stretch to individuals. I have never seen such a supportive restaurant community. And that might not be giving enough credit to the whole industry. Whether it’s beer, wine, spirits, entertainment or food, the Portland community is genuinely interested in each others’ work and wants to be a part of their growth. It never seems like salesmanship when dealing with the vast majority of people in the industry; it is a genuine appreciation and willingness to share creativity.”

With new spots opening what seems like weekly, is there too much competition here? “If anything, a lack of competition could account for some of the slower times. The growth of this side of the hill will be good for everyone. We were a destination spot rather than a place one would happen into while enjoying a day downtown. As for the rest of Portland, I thought the amount of competition would have burst the bubble five years ago. I think a strong community, interested in the success of its locals is what we can attribute the industry’s never-ending growth to.”

I know the space is on the market? Any serious tenants? “There are a few parties looking into the space with some really good ideas for their future. I’m excited to see the direction that they take the place.”

Lessons learned? “True love conquers all. No endeavor is greater than love and family.”

Kathleen Pierce

About Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.