Hot chefs, cool space: Portland restaurateurs raise bar for design

PORTLAND, Maine — The crispy chicken sandwich lands on the bar speared with a knife.

Like a sailor’s marlin spike, the gutsy gesture isn’t just about the feisty sandwich; it’s part of the restaurant’s identity. The shipshape space at the months-old restaurant Roustabout is nautical from stem to stern.

The maritime theme is woven into the design — a photo of a distressed ship in towering seas defines one wall, rope pendant lights hang from the ceiling and even the sign out front is crafted from a shipping container. Despite the long, thought out design elements, not everyone picks up on it.

That’s by design.

“If they completely figure you out, they’ll move on,” said co-owner and bartender Kit Paschal, who spent as much time thinking about Roustabout’s layout and interior as he did the menu. “You want them to come back for more razzle dazzle.”

In a booming dining city such as Portland, where new restaurants open monthly, restaurateurs need more than a hot chef to keep their rooms full. Intrigue created through lighting, tone, decor — all the elements of design create a subtle theater that seduces diners as they indulge and quaff.

“These days, if everyone is Instagramming their meals and the restaurant space, you know you’re doing something right,” Jim Brady, developer and co-owner of UNION at The Press Hotel, said.

The two go hand in glove at the sleek UNION restaurant on the ground floor of the former Gannett Building, where stories were filed under deadline pressure at the Portland Press Herald. Now, instead of barking editors and rewrite men, well-heeled guests waltz into the styled space, edge up to the marble chef’s bar, where Josh Berry crafts a custom tasting menu on the spot.

In his roomy open kitchen, loaded with fresh ingredients, Berry — rumored to be on the James Beard Award shortlist — knows eateries in this food-mad city must offer more than well-orchestrated tastes to stay relevant.

“You can’t fool this city. This city breeds culinarians. Diners are educated,” Berry said. Culinarians want ambiance with their pear risotto and truffle beef pot roast. At UNION, Angela Adams glasses, white subway tiles, multiwood counters and natural light streaming in by day, turning romantic at night, matches his menu’s big city thrust.

“If this restaurant looked different, the food would be different,” Berry said. “This is a place to see and be seen.”

At EVO Kitchen and Bar on Fore Street, the off-kilter geometric exterior excites your senses before you step inside. Built from the ground up and adjacent to the Hyatt Old Port, the crinkle wall reminiscent of pleats and fabric “allowed us to do things with the design that were expansive,” according to Timothy Hart of Portland’s Canal 5 Studio, the firm that designed EVO and the attached hotel.

Originally intended for retail, the soaring ceilings and jewel-like space was a design challenge. To make it work, the firm built a mezzanine, which frames the ceiling beneath the joint kitchen and bar.

“[Owner] Casey Prentice had a vision for a very urban, cosmopolitan space that fit the concept that he was looking to do,” Hart said.

A shared Pinterest board helped them swap ideas and stoke enthusiasm.

“We were grabbing images of restaurants all over the world to create a catalogue, an inspiration board pulled from all over,” Hart said. “The whole food prep is part of the space. Bartenders making drinks, the chef cooking, you have glass all around you. It’s a pretty cool space.”

Diners sitting below can get personal with chef Matt Ginn in this 50 seater. At night EVO glows, and the interior colors pop. The minimal modernist, unobtrusive furniture, an usual mix of industrial chic and modern sleek is the perfect setting for elevated Mediterranean small plates.

“Everything, right down to the look and feel of the cocktail napkins, should inform the architecture,” Hart said.

It isn’t just newcomers that are turning heads in Maine’s foodiest city. Last month Grace on Chestnut Street was named one of America’s 10 most beautiful restaurants by food site Tabelog.

Located in a gothic revival church in downtown Portland, Grace has inspired edible epiphanies since 2009.

The kitchen occupies the altar, former pews-turned-banquets and original stained glass windows imported from Italy give the glowing space an operatic scale.

“At the time we opened the Portland food scene wasn’t blowing up as it is now, but it was still competitive,” owner Anne Verrill, who turned an 1850s church into a theatrical restaurant with two bars and romantic nooks, said. “We provide something different right off the bat.”

To restaurateurs, design is irreplaceable.

“In this day and age of the Internet, everyone is Food Network-ed, everyone is Yelping every five seconds. You can’t just open a restaurant with plastic tables now,” Verrill said. “It used to be all about the food and service, but when they walk in it starts with what they see.”