PORTLAND, Maine — For decades, most people had no reason to go to Woodfords Corner unless they were passing through it to another part of Maine. And they had even less reason to stop. That junction, sitting on the outskirts of Portland, had only one major feature: a drab three-tiered mortgage company office — the kind of building that seemed to be trying awfully hard to pretend it hadn’t once been a Dairy Queen or A&W. It was surrounded, no less, by crumbling sidewalks, pawn shops, and a cyclone of trash.
And yet, when Fayth Preyer and Birch Shambaugh looked at that same building nine years ago, the married couple saw something else: a rare slice of midcentury modern, roadside diner-era history; and above all, a potential gathering point for the community.
“We fell silent looking at it,’’ says Preyer, who had just moved with Shambaugh to Portland from Brooklyn. “It was falling apart, but we could see through that, and we knew it had to be a restaurant. It had huge windows, frontage on three sides, and was at the center of all this activity.’’
Maybe it was because they’d both always worked in the food world (in New York, she’d been at spots like Cafe Luxembourg; him at Home Restaurant). Or because they were, as Shambaugh describes it, “in mental transition mode.’’ Having just bought a fixer-upper nearby, they were readying to start a family, and seeing the potential for change in everything. But instead of shaking off that first glance over the next few years, he says, they “started digging into a rabbit hole of research on the place’’ while working jobs and having their first child.
What they discovered: Nearly a century ago, Woodfords Corner had been a major hub of Portland — a thriving intersection of four neighborhoods (Back Cove, Oakdale, Deering Center, and Rosemont) — and its anchor was the building in question. Back then it had been the original Valle Steakhouse. Sitting across from a gleaming clocktower, it was the kind of place that area families used to ride a trolley to for lunch before doing errands in the abutting businesses.
The couple started thinking about how crowded downtown Portland’s Old Port was becoming, what with tourists swarming its 70-plus restaurants nightly, and the need for an alternative to that crunch. Shambaugh started writing letters to the building’s owner, letting him know again and again that the couple wanted to buy it, revive it as a restaurant, and try and get the neighborhood back on its feet.
“We’d just given birth to our second baby when we got the call,’’ says Shambaugh. The owner was finally ready to talk. “We had this colicky, ornery little guy in the background,’’ he says. “We thought, how could we ever manage to do this? But it took us only 10 minutes to remember that you don’t get very many opportunities in life to do what you really believe in.’’
Roughly a year later, they opened the doors of Woodford Food & Beverage. “Some people thought we were out of our tree,’’ says Shambaugh. “They said, ‘Why not open a place downtown like everyone else?’ And ‘Why in that building?’ That type of architecture can be polarizing for people.’’
Preyer and Shambaugh, though, had doubled down on that aesthetic, coaxing out as much of the space’s diner-like character as possible while mixing in modern, urbane flourishes. Instead of replacing the fir panels lining the three pointed ceilings, they restored them. When they ripped up the previous office’s rundown carpeting and found old terrazzo floors and trenches where Valle’s Steakhouse’s steam tables had once been, they polished it all up. Bubble light fixtures were brought in, as were huge slabs of zinc to do double duty as both lunch counter and a classic brasserie bar.
“The common denominator between American diners and French brasseries is that both are egalitarian, comfy spaces to be yourself in,’’ says Shambaugh. “To hang out in and eat what makes you happy.’’ In this case that meant the likes of feather-light cakes of local Jonah crabmeat, bound with artichoke, and jacked up with tangy celeriac slaw. A burger that deserves (and just about has) its own cult. Or big bowls of moules frites, the mussels straight from neighboring Bangs Island, cooked only in white wine, shallots, butter, and parsley.
“We’re not looking to shock people with something they’ve never seen before,’’ says executive chef Courtney Loreg, who came up in esteemed kitchens like Fore Street and Boston’s erstwhile Hamersley’s Bistro — kitchens prizing simplicity, where the art is in helping each ingredient shine. “We thought about the context of the space and building the same way we thought about the menu,’’ she explains. “As contemporary revivals of familiar things. The goal is to keep the character, while adding new things we love.’’
What all that attention to detail has spurred in Woodfords Corner since the restaurant’s opening two years ago has been remarkable. That an iconic eatery can fuel the vitality of a neighborhood is nothing new, but usually it’s a meandering and lengthy process. What’s happened here is more like a time lapse video.
“Having a spot this great for residents to spend time together changed everything,’’ says Andrew Zarro, who moved to the neighborhood three years ago from Boston. “It was a huge leap for Fayth and Birch, but what they did with that place was a tipping point.’’ In fact, seeing their success convinced Zarro to open Little Woodfords, the postage stamp-sized coffee shop, with his partner, T.J. Zarro. There, on the same block as the old clock tower, they dole out espressos and breakfast all day, and peddle one-of-a-kind local wares like hand-thrown ceramics.
A string of standalone, ground-level businesses has followed. Winter of 2017 saw an old tobacco shop replaced by Speedwell Projects, a nonprofit artist-run gallery with frequent exhibits. Two black box theaters have come along, adding to the regular performances put on by Portland Conservatory of Music, which operates out of Woodfords Congregational Church.
Last year Somali restaurant Mini Mogadishu joined fellow newcomers like Tipo — a neo-Italian spot from the team behind Old Port’s James Beard Award nominee, Central Provisions. “Our regulars there were getting frustrated because they couldn’t get in for dinner since it’s so busy,’’ says Paige Gould, Central Provisions’s co-owner and director of operations. “The changes In Woodfords Corner, with restaurants like Woodford F&B coming in, made it a great place to open a second restaurant a bit off the beaten path, where they can get a table and have parking.’’
Last winter The Proper Cup opened, adding another coffee-fueled hangout to the mix, across from the new Bow Street Beverage, a liquor store-cum-learning center with a certified sommelier on staff and a seemingly endless collection of Maine-made brews. In August, along came Rose Foods, a midcentury Jewish deli, where the smoked salmon gets cured with coriander, paprika, black pepper, and brown sugar. And of course, what would any up-and-coming enclave be without at least one spinning studio and juice bar? Newcomers Reve Cycling Studio and Juiced, respectively, fill those voids.
Meanwhile, last summer an ongoing $2.6 million reconstruction to the intersection got underway, improving traffic flow, adding public art, and making the area safer for pedestrians and cyclists. That’s attracted even more visitors from downtown via Back Cove’s running and biking path, which stretches north from Portland along a pristine, egret-dotted stretch of Casco Bay.
That old clock tower, by the way, is now in working order; last year a nonprofit community service group spent $60,000 to restore the 100-foot-tall landmark. “One night, it just lit up,’’ says Shambaugh. He recalls the celebratory scene of astonished diners supping in Woodford F&B’s forest green naugahyde booths, as they looked out to the whole neighborhood through the restaurant’s gargantuan windows. “I remember the look on one regular’s face saying, ‘I haven’t seen that clock working since I was a little kid,’ ’’ he says. “That didn’t just happen because of us,’’ he adds, “but we get to be a part of it.’’