PORTLAND, Maine — Before it became a world-class foodie destination and engine of the city’s economic fortunes, Portland’s restaurant scene looked like a lot of fun.
That’s how old-school Portlander Abraham Schechter remembers it. The city library’s archivist, Schechter recently assembled a trove of historic menus and scenes from 1980s Portland restaurants for public viewing in the library’s digital collection.
Containing menus from 67 restaurants, bars and cafes, the new archive traces Portland’s nationally recognized food scene to its gritty, artsy origins.
Schechter found the menus years ago buried in a forgotten box in a storage room. It took the pandemic, which shuttered the library to the public, to give him the time to digitize the collection.
“I have always wanted to do what I just finished,” Schechter said of the project.
Many of the menus are handwritten or custom-printed by local artists and designers, allowing for flourishes of personality, family histories and goofy humor, like the chefs are talking with friends. “Sip into something more comfortable” was how J’s Oyster Bar introduced diners to wine and spirits. The menu for the Seamen’s Club, in the building now occupied by Bull Feeney’s, told diners of its history as a real-life gathering spot for out-of-port sailors in the 1940s. “OUR POTATO IS ‘REAL’” boasted the Longfellow Cafe in magic marker.
“A lot of them are giving you some history right in the menu,” Schechter said. “The menus from the Holiday Inn are a trip, they’re made to look like the Tudor era of England. Boone’s has a satirical menu, you could order roasted seagull. It’s to get people laughing.”
A notably funny one is Carbur’s. The Old Port eatery was famous for the Down East Feast, a quintuple-decker sandwich that, when delivered, prompted the waitstaff to interrupt all dining room conversation and blare the sandwich’s name in unison while marching it to the customer’s table. Its 27-page 1982 menu offers dozens of sandwiches, each with a bizarrely witty description, like The Maine Maul (“‘Exchange’ it for something better,” a play on the Old Port’s most popular street), Dracula’s Last Words (“Hey buddy, can you steak me?”) and Fetishini Alfredo (“One of our Italian cooks who never reads recipes because he has a pornographic memory”).
A group of student workers the library employed in the 1980s collected the menus. Schechter matched them with historical photos he found years ago in a basement from the old Gannett building, formerly home to the Portland Press Herald and now the Press Hotel.
Schechter knows Portland as well as anyone. The 56-year-old archivist came to the city in 1981 to attend the Portland School of Art (now the Maine College of Art), and helped run a professional photographic finishing shop on York Street.
“It’s really good that a townie has rescued all this film,” he said. “I can recognize street corners without researching them and I nail it every time.”
Look hard enough, and the menus contain the seeds of today’s food scene.
Bonnie Blythe runs the popular social media group The Portland Encyclopedia of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. She worked at several restaurants in the archive after moving to Portland for art school in 1980. She met her husband and several lifelong friends in the scene before attending graduate school for sociology.
In her day, Blythe explains, people came to Portland “because rents were cheap, restaurant and good work opportunities were easy to find, tourists had yet to overrun the Old Port, and the place was pretty blissful.”
For her, the menus serve as a sort of collective diary of her and others’ early years in the city.
“I don’t see it as nostalgia,” Blythe said. “I see it as honoring and retaining our shared experiences, both happy and sad.”
Blythe traces the superlative food scene of today to style choices made at several of those eighties ventures — in particular, the establishments of the late restaurateur Jim Ledue, who ran The Good Egg Cafe, Alberta’s, Bella Bella and Bella Cucina.
Ledue was charismatic and well connected.
Mary Paine, Ledue’s younger sister, worked several jobs at her brother’s restaurants back then, while she was in her 20s. To her memory, Ledue was one of several restaurateurs who helped elevate the city’s fine dining aesthetics. In some cases, it was just a matter of catching up to the rest of the country.
“When I was growing up, you couldn’t get a good bottle of wine,” said Paine, who later co-owned the Portland restaurant the Pepperclub, which closed in 2014. “Wine suppliers wouldn’t even come into the state because they thought we were so unsophisticated.”
All that changed in the ‘80s. As she recalls, the playful, creative sensibility held by Ledue and others at the restaurant led them to make as much as possible from scratch, using real and locally sourced products. He bought real maple syrup from an orchard in Swanville and was the first on the scene to use Kate’s Homemade Butter, which had just started production from a garage in Old Orchard Beach. They bought ingredients in bulk from the locally sourced Good Day Market in the West End.
Later, Ledue started Alberta’s, the popular eclectic restaurant that attracted interest in the New York Times. It was a turning point. Along with Alberta’s, Hu Shang, the Vineyard and other restaurants, it became clear Portlanders were simply ready for higher quality and locally sourced ingredients, Paine said.
“Scratch cooking was just kind of taking hold,” Paine said. “It was more about making stuff instead of buying it because it was just better.”
Joe Ricchio, a Maine food critic who hosts the Food Coma podcast, remembers Ledue’s 1990s restaurant Bella Bella as a bridge to contemporary dining.
“Bella Bella was the first place I ever went to where they didn’t bring American-way Italian bread to the table,” Ricchio recalls. “They brought a rustic loaf with olive oil instead of butter packets. That was the first time I ever encountered that.”
The menu archive awakened fond memories for Ricchio, 42, of growing up in Portland. His parents’ first date was at The Bag, a sandwich joint on Free and Oak streets with a nice Bloody Mary brunch. Hu Shang on Brown Street was “what most Portlanders would agree is the best Chinese food we’ve ever had here,” he says, and he recalls eating many memorable meals — amid wafting cigarette smoke — at the Village Cafe as a kid.
For Ricchio, a guy with an extensive resume in the food industry, the menu archive is a throwback to when Portland restaurants didn’t ”try too hard” or care so much about courting favorable press from national publications.
“I think most of the places on this [archive] represent the polar opposite of what Portland is now,” he said. “And it’s funny because everyone can’t shut up about how much they miss them.”
While Schechter never worked at those restaurants, the young art student was close to the action in the 1980s, living in the West End near Alberta’s and the Good Day Market.
For him, the menu project is a bittersweet one. The archivist in him is proud to offer the public a connection to the past, but as a citizen, they conjure a sense of community that’s gone missing. He laments that the city has become “hopelessly gentrified,” a condition that’s “too late” to fix.
“It’s a very mournful thing,” Schechter said. “How do you un-gentrify a city? I don’t think it can be done.”