PORTLAND — Jon St. Laurent has not been far from a kitchen for 40 years, and no matter what he serves up, barbecue is his legacy.
“If Jon St. Laurent opened a restaurant and it wasn’t grilled or smoked,” he said Aug. 23, “they’d demand it was.”
Now, after several years away from the smoke and sauce, St. Laurent is ready to meet the demand again. Uncle Billy’s BBQ is coming back to 166 Cumberland Ave., in the former Bayside Variety.
The City Council approved his licenses on Aug. 21, but St. Laurent’s business commitments and the permitting process mean Uncle Billy’s will not open until at least Christmas, and more likely, in early 2018.
“Realistically, things take time. If you don’t do it right the first time, you don’t get that window to shut down and do it right,” St. Laurent said.
Almost 30 years ago, the original Uncle Billy’s opened on Ocean Street in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood, next to the former Griffin Club.
“When I started doing barbecue, nobody was doing it and they didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “They thought you were putting some hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill.”
Portland and South Portland were still connected by the Million-Dollar Bridge. The smoker St. Laurent built and named “Oprah” sat in the backyard. It worked much better once it was modified not to spew creosote on nearby buildings and vehicles.
Inside, diners enjoyed a “funky” atmosphere, including walls lined with pictures drawn on paper napkins. “Uncle Billy” Hoadley lived above the Griffin Club and visited the restaurant bearing his name.
“He’d go table to a table and insult everybody,” St. Laurent recalled. “Nobody was offended because he didn’t exclude anybody. I named it Uncle Billy’s because everybody in Portland knew him.”
What St. Laurent introduced was barbecue, mostly Memphis-style because it is where he learned about slow cooking smoked meats and poultry. Also on the menu was barbecued spaghetti. There were cheap beers, a jukebox that took quarters, and a building in an increasing state of disrepair.
“It looked like a barbecue (place), ramshackle, falling down. The funkier it was the more they liked it,” St. Laurent said. “There were two-by-fours holding the roof up. They would sink in the asphalt on hot days.”
Uncle Billy’s closed in 1996, while St. Laurent was waiting for the new Casco Bay Bridge. It routed traffic away from Ocean Street, but he still believed the neighborhood would become a destination.
The ensuing years brought at least five different ventures, three of them in Portland. Even when he wasn’t an owner, St. Laurent barely escaped the kitchen as he catered, taught and consulted at restaurants.
A recent gig had him cooking for an exclusive summer camp in Denmark, where dietary demands were high.
“If you made mac and cheese, you had to make it five ways. That’s not easy with 250 people,” he said.
He credits his family for the impetus to return to Portland.
“One of my kids put up a Facebook page to see if there was any goodwill left. It was overwhelming,” St. Laurent said.
The restaurants have always been “mom-and-pop” affairs, he said, and his wife Schylla St. Laurent will manage Uncle Billy’s when it reopens. He expects his sons in the industry to make occasional appearances, too.
Uncle Billy’s returns to a burgeoning food platescape with barbecue firmly entrenched in the city and South Portland. This time, he will serve more of a Texas style, headlined by beef brisket.
“I have also become fascinated with pork belly,” St. Laurent said. “I’m going to put pork belly on everything, baby.”
He has also taken pleasure in the local growth of restaurants and breweries.
“I am just amazed at the proliferation of all these things. Everything has taken off,” he said. “Everything is just so cool, but you can’t have it all. We are going to have craft beers and crap beers. (And) we are going to have the jukebox you can put quarters in.”
Jon St. Laurent in front of what will be the new home of Uncle Billy’s BBQ at 166 Cumberland Ave. in Portland.
Jon St. Laurent of the once-and-future Uncle Billy’s BBQ: “We are going to have craft beers and crap beers. We are going to have the jukebox you can put quarters in.”