Uncle Billy’s Bar-B-Que back in business in Portland’s Woodfords Corner

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PORTLAND — Woodfords Corner has a new uncle, and he’s bringing the barbecue.

“It is awesome,” employee – and diner – Denise Calkins said Thursday, May 31, about the new Uncle Billy’s Bar-B-Que at 539 Deering Ave. “I was here Tuesday with my family. I am still in kind of a meat coma.”

The return of Uncle Billy’s means the return of Jonathan St. Laurent, who last summer had hoped to make his restaurant comeback at 166 Cumberland Ave. in Bayside.

But that project has been delayed. So instead, he is in business in the former Abilene restaurant space, wedged into the triangle formed by Forest and Deering avenues and Revere Street.

A long time ago in a Knightville far, far away, St. Laurent brought Memphis-style barbecue to the Portland area, in the now-demolished Griffin Club building in South Portland.

The meats were smoked out back, then slow cooked. The walls were decorated with pictures patrons drew on paper napkins, and the atmosphere was pungent with sauce, smoke and local characters.

Calkins was the first waitress hired. She now teaches piano at Waynflete Academy and a summer camp. By the end of the month, she will be serving at Uncle Billy’s again, from the menu she wrote by hand.

She will rejoin the velvet Elvis on the wall, wearing a rabbit ears antenna in an attempt to channel his signal. She will be joined by a new statue of Sammy Davis Jr., holding a brandy snifter, and she will be serving lots of food.

“He is like a Jewish grandmother,” Calkins said about St. Laurent. “You come in and he just wants to feed you.”

The reason for St. Laurent’s change of venue is the Bayside restaurant building renovations have been more extensive and time consuming than expected.

“It turned out to be a way bigger project than we thought, and we want to do it right,” St. Laurent said. “It may be wishful thinking to say we will be open by July 4, but we will still open sometime this summer (on Cumberland Avenue).”

Once open there he plans some changes in Woodfords Corner.

“This will be a neighborhood watering place,” he said. “I’m really thinking of a wing-and-waffle shop.”

Though largely Memphis-inspired, St. Laurent said his barbecue draws from a lot of influences, including beans that are “a jazzed-up version of the baked beans my grandmother used to make.”

In its day, Uncle Billy’s in Knightville was on the main route in and out of Portland. It was named for “Uncle Billy” Hoadley, who lived above the Griffin Club and loved to come downstairs to insult the patrons.

“He’d go table to a table and insult everybody,” St. Laurent recalled last summer. “Nobody was offended because he didn’t exclude anybody. I named it Uncle Billy’s because everybody in Portland knew him.”

Eventually the newer Casco Bay Bridge bypassed Knightville. In April, the Griffin Club was torn down.

The neighborhood feel of Woodfords Corner is reminiscent of Knightville, Calkins said, and she is ready to hear St. Laurent tell his stories again.

“He tells a good one,” she said. “Just like Uncle Billy.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Jonathan St. Laurent brought barbecue to South Portland in 1989 at Uncle Billy’s. In May, he brought it to Woodfords Corner in Portland at 539 Deering Ave.

Denise Calkins, Jonathan St. Laurent and Sammy Davis Jr. are now greeting and feeding diners at Uncle Billy’s Bar-B-Que in Portland’s Woodford’s Corner neighborhood. The original restaurant opened in 1989 in South Portland, where Calkins was the first waitress hired by St. Laurent.

Uncle Billy’s and owner Jonathan St. Laurent are back in business, in the former Abilene restaurant at 539 Deering Ave. in Portland.The King lives on and the barbecue is ready as Uncle Billy’s has landed in Woodfords Corner in Portland.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.