Pepperclub closing: A piece of Portland dining history heads for Kennebunk
PORTLAND — After a quarter-century of serving meals to friends on Middle Street, Mary Ledue Paine has reached a bittersweet conclusion.
"It sounds really sad, but it feels like Portland does not need the Pepperclub anymore," Paine said last week.
By early fall, the restaurant will be about 20 miles south, in a new location at 102 York St. (U.S. Route 1) in Kennebunk.
With a lease through the end of September at 78 Middle St., Paine and Melissa Sawyer, an"unofficial co-owner," could stay in Portland through the summer.
But the Kennebunk property, once Torches Grill House, offers ample space, off-street parking, room for a garden and composting – and a lease cost about half what Paine now pays.
So the move could come as soon as June, she said.
"It is going to be a more sustainable restaurant,” Paine said.
Paine said her Middle Street lease is already too expensive, and her discussions with Kennebunk officials as she lines up permits have shown the town will welcome the restaurant.
The Pepperclub was opened in 1989 by Eddie Fitzpatrick and Jap Halder. Halder also owned an upscale French restaurant called The Vineyard on the other side of Franklin Arterial, near the Portland Police Department.
"There was a demand for a middle-of-the-road, basically American-style restaurant," Fitzpatrick said. "When we opened, we were on the fringe of the Old Port, the outside limits.”
Middle Street was not well travelled, Paine and Fitzgerald recalled; anyone walking by outside drew immediate attention indoors.
At the same time, breakfast at the original Good Egg Cafe on Congress Street, west of Longfellow Square, was in high demand. It was a family owned restaurant where Paine waited tables and met her husband, Thomas Paine.
He also worked for Halder at The Vineyard, and the connection led to Mary Paine getting a job at the Pepperclub when it opened.
“We were hip, we were kind of funky, and we filled a niche,” she recalled.
The Pepperclub served mostly vegetarian fare, but did include beef, poultry and seafood dishes. While the sight of Fitzpatrick cutting chicken drove at least one staffer to flee the kitchen, he recalled, he and Paine said having some meat on the menu helped the restaurant survive when other vegetarian restaurants closed.
Paine said it can take three to five years for a restaurant owner to feel secure in business, and the Pepperclub endured several economic downturns by staying true to what customers wanted.
"We weathered some of the worst times of the city because we weren't pricey and people would still come to us," Paine said.
Halder retired about 15 years ago and Paine took over as a partner with Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick retired in early 2013, making way for Sawyer.
Throughout the years, the restaurant made new friends through accommodations on its menu. Fitzpatrick dislikes the word "foodie," he said, but he and Paine were pleased to offer gluten-free meals and to cater to customers with food allergies – to the extent they would specially boil rice for a customer who came in once or twice a year.
“We've never had anybody come who couldn't get exactly what they wanted,” Fitzpatrick said.
The Good Egg Cafe burned down in April 1992, an unsolved arson Paine still has difficulty discussing. But brunch benefits organized by Paine's daughter and friends to help victims of the tsunami that struck Thailand and Indonesia in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led Paine to believe The Good Egg could hatch again at the Pepperclub.
Fitzpatrick agreed, and Paine's family blessed the idea as well, so breakfast was served again about 15 years after the Good Egg closed.
With the Hampton Inn one block away, new housing sprouting on Munjoy Hill and plans to redevelop India Street under study, the neighborhood is changing – and getting more expensive.
"It is heartbreaking. I talk about my customers and it is very emotional to me. I am letting go of the space, but not letting go of my customers,” Paine said.
Until last week, she said, she was not certain how Fitzpatrick felt about the move.
But she needn't have been concerned.
"I think Kennebunk sounds really exciting, it sounds like when we first opened," Fitzpatrick said. "It is a real opportunity in a place that is looking for a place like the Pepperclub.”