RESERVING A TABLE, SENATOR? Millionaires have plenty of restaurants to choose from.
Despite some notable successes described here last week, 2010 was a sobering year for the restaurant business. 2011 could be worse. You know you are in for an unpredictable year when even Paul Krugman seems to be wavering in his prognostications. Our immediate future, both nationwide and here in Maine, hangs on the question of what sort of Republicans we just put in charge of the economy: a new breed of responsible (and cold-hearted) austerity Republicans, or the old-fashioned irresponsible debt-spending, deficit-ballooning Republicans. If you are thinking of opening a restaurant, pray for the latter.
Either way, the last year suggests some survival strategies that might be useful to those who venture into the Portland restaurant fray. The best way to succeed, of course, is to be successful already. This is the strategy that seems to be working for several of last year's most notable openings: Havana South, Boda, Pai Men Miyaki, and Sonny's, all second ventures from established Maine restaurateurs. The trend should continue this year. El Rayo, for example, will pursue this strategy in two directions. They are acquiring the building right next door to open a sister-cantina for drinks and apps. Rayo's owners are also planning to open a West End neighborhood bistro called River View. The menu will be overseen by Cheryl Lewis and Noreen Kotts, who have a long and successful history in the Portland food scene. Meanwhile Michelle and Steve Corry, who run Five-Fifty Five to great acclaim, will open a second restaurant on Longfellow Square, in the former Evangeline space.
Another plan is to take advantage of government stimulus spending while it lasts. Hot Suppa! recently got a Community Development Grant to develop a dinner service that should find its feet in 2011. The menu looks Southern-inflected, leaning toward Cajun, which takes the welcome trend begun last year by Po' Boys, and extends it to casual fine-dining. It will be great to have a place to get a good shrimp and grits in this town. Other restaurants should pursue this strategy. There are a lot of unemployed college grads around who would probably write a grant application right at your bar for a free drink or two.
If you can't get government stimulus, bring your own. Portland Food Map has started to post the license applications of forthcoming restaurants, and the questions about financing are informative. One recent application mentioned "trust fund from my dad." That is the smart way to go. But it would also be great to see more of the farmy-crunchy-collective strength in numbers stuff like they are doing at Local Sprouts.
Another new trend is the quiet opening. Recent weeks saw two Old Port restaurants, District and 15 Exchange, slip into business without building fancy Web sites or frothy social-media buzz. Perhaps they are focused on good food, and hope to succeed by word of mouth? It's a refreshing idea. At 15 Exchange, where Walter's used to be, you will see a mostly Italian menu. District seems to offer a mix of New England and northern-European cuisine (think clams and schnitzel). The East-Ender, soon to open next to Duckfat on Middle Street, also promises hearty New England cuisine.