Tucked into the Back Cove of Portland, Maine on Woodford’s Corner is a crown-shaped diner. A soft glow emanates from its picture windows. Inside, a young family snuggles into a corner booth, munching on burgers and fries. A grey-haired couple slices into their steaming plates of swordfish steak and baked stuffed lobster. A troupe of hip 20-somethings gathers at the bar as the mustachioed bartender prepares their hand-crafted cocktails. Vinyl records accompany the sound of the cocktail shaker and warm conversation.
Woodford Food & Beverage (or Woodford F&B) is at the nexus of Woodford Street, Deering, and Forest Avenue. It’s the focal point where the neighbors of Portland come together.
Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer came to the neighborhood in 2007 from Brooklyn to start their family. When they spotted the unusual building that housed a mortgage company at 660 Forest Avenue, they immediately thought “that should be a…”
The couple did some digging and discovered that 660 Forest Avenue was the site of the very first Valle Steakhouse, built in the early 1940s. In the post-prohibition era when the steakhouse was built, Woodford’s Corner was a vibrant and bustling neighborhood epicenter, and Valle’s was the place to go for family celebrations, graduation, prom.
Donald Valle would go on to open 12 more restaurants along the eastern seaboard. His menu featured surf and turf favorites like prime rib and lobster, and at one point, Valle’s sold more lobster per week than anyone else in the country.
A fire damaged the first Valle’s Steakhouse at this location in the 1950s, and the current building was erected shortly thereafter in the shape of a crown to match the Valle’s iconic logo. The building eventually became Valle’s Main headquarters until the turn of the 21st century when it was taken over by a mortgage company.
Flash forward to to 2007. Birch and Fayth, seeing the building’s potential, write regular letters to the owner for years until, in 2014, the mortgage company goes belly up. “I got a phone call almost two years ago now, out of the blue, and he said, ‘well, you are persistent. Are you still interested?’” With his 6-week-old son in one arm and his phone in the other hand, Birch looked at Fayth, and Fayth looked at Birch and they just knew they had to take the leap.
On a truly dismal February day, the couple entered the building for the first time. They sat on some folding chairs, surrounded by eerily empty offices, wires hanging like jungle vines, gnarly carpet and a busted fax machine and watched the bustling traffic through the giant picture windows.
“There was a cognitive dissonance between the flurry of activity out there at this notoriously crazy intersection and how deceivingly calm it was in here,” says Birch. “It really took nothing more than that for us to know we’d made the right decision.” The two pulled their friend and chef Courtney Loreg into the fray and began their transformation.
Their goal was to create a cross-section where American roadside dining meets traditional brasserie with a touch of old-school lunch counter– and that’s exactly what the place evokes, centered around the long wraparound counter that welcomes diners by day and transforms to a chic bar by night.
The space and all its angles presented some challenges for Birch and Fayth, but they decided to embrace the unique design quirks, starting with the ceilings lined with the original fir planks– the same color now as they were 50 years ago. “We loved them up a little bit and all of a sudden realized what a warm glow they provided,” says Birch.
Then, during the building’s demolition, they pulled up four inches of adhesive, flooring, and carpet to find the floor of their dreams in the terrazzo tiles that they lovingly restored. The ceiling and floor were the first pieces of the puzzle that helped inform many of the other design decisions that followed.
It’s clear upon visiting Woodford F&B that great thought went into every detail of reimagining this unique and welcoming place, and Birch confirms that assumption. “I can’t tell you how long we labored over what the finish of the tile was going to be,” he says, “but ultimately it was clear as a bell to us that it should be a matte finish on big, square tiles.” It took the team two months to arrive at that decision.
The zinc counter top reflects the glowing sconces behind the bar, another detail designed by Birch and inspired by the linestra light fixtures developed in the 1950s as lighting for movie stars’ makeup mirrors.
An old IBM clock above the counter takes you back to the last day of elementary school, when you watched the second hand with anticipation as it ticked its way around to summer. Birch bought several clocks before he found the perfect one.
The same thought and themes that went into the restaurant’s design also, unsurprisingly, went into creating the menu. Chef Courtney’s menu breathes new life into old comfort food favorites and regional dishes like deviled eggs and baked stuffed lobster, with a few odd balls in the mix to keep you on your toes. “The process of resuscitating some of these things and putting a little bit of our own spin on them reflects what we’re trying to accomplish in the physical space, says Birch. “We try to bring out the best in a dish that belongs in this environment.”
The result of all this thought and detail is an unpretentious neighborhood place with a very special energy. A place where you can have a burger and a beer at the bar after work and the same place where you go with your family and friends to celebrate with champagne and oysters.
Could this be a sign of a speeding up of change in this neighborhood? “Sure,” says Birch. “But what I see when I look around is vitality and life in a space that didn’t have it before.”
That rebirth and vitality is only possible because of the vision of Birch and Fayth. It all started that fortuitous day in 2007 when they spotted an old, stuffy mortgage building that most locals drove by each day without a passing thought.
“Sometimes there’s a kind of epiphanous, eureka moment, with old buildings in particular,” says Birch. “There’s a smidgen of foresight, but often it’s as much luck and timing. And if and when it comes to fruition, sometimes it can be truly magical.”
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