STREET WISE

With two of Portland’s most successful restaurants in his portfolio,
veteran restaurateur Dana Street might well see his latest venture,
Scales, tip the balance even more assuredly in his favor.

 

words TOM MINERVINO  |  photography DOUGLAS MERRIAM

Dana Street has heard the narrative before. It’s one that’s appeared everywhere from national magazines to local blogs and it goes something like this: He is Portland’s seminal restaurateur, and Street and Co., his first restaurant, started Portland’s foodie craze, while his second, Fore Street, took it from trend to juggernaut.

According to Street, that’s not how it happened.

“It’s like talking about rock ’n’ roll. In the ’60s there was this running dispute: ‘Why does Elvis Presley get all this credit for starting rock ’n’ roll? He didn’t start it, Chuck Berry did.’ The fact is nobody started it. Everybody started it.”

It’s not just Street being humble, though for a guy who’s got two of Portland’s best restaurants and just opened Scales, an 8,000-square-foot behemoth in a brand new building on Maine Wharf, he’s quite so. It’s not him carefully choosing his words so as to not offend his many friends in the industry. He’s contemplative, and while Street and Co. as the genesis of the Portland restaurant boom works nicely for a story, it doesn’t adequately capture what has happened in the small city in the 27 years since Street served his first 11 customers on opening night at his little Mediterranean seafood restaurant on Wharf Street.

“Portland was already filling in when I got here,” Street says. “Jim Ledue had Alberta’s. Norine Kotts and Cheryl Lewis had Café Always. Steve Quattrucci had Back Bay Grill. Hugo’s was already open. And they were all doing a nice business. I came in at least a year after most of them. What’s happening in this town has been happening along a continuum. It’s not anybody in particular. One thing leads to another, and it becomes more attractive to somebody else.”

What Street and Co. did do, Street says, is make Fore Street possible, which in turn made Scales, a classic New England–style fish house, possible. How Street, now a youthful 68, ended up in Portland in the first place is a bit more complicated.

A native of Brookline, Massachusetts, Street graduated from UMass Amherst, where he had a lot of majors. He then worked on a trail ranch in Colorado, got into a Navy flight program, booked bands around Amherst and traveled and lived for years on and off in Europe, at one point cooking at a small Vietnamese restaurant in France. And that’s the abridged version.

“I came back to the States when I was 31 or 32 and took some courses in computer science and got a job at Merrill Lynch as a maintenance programmer,” Street recalls. “That evolved to working with options. I kicked around there for five or six years knowing I wanted to open my own business.”

He and a friend were considering opening an aerial sightseeing tour company, “a helicopter and fixed wing sort of thing in the islands like Papillon (the company that gives aerial tours of the Grand Canyon). He had flown for Papillon and I had a fixed wing,” Street recounts, and then grins. “But in the end we knew that was a business for children and we would not make money.”

Still, Street and Co. was a few years off. He considered opening a restaurant in Cape Cod before settling on Portland, a city where he’d seen some concerts and once had to spend the night after his car broke down.

“The one thing Dana doesn’t do is make a quick decision,” says Michael Burke, the general manager at Scales and a longtime friend of Street’s. “He pains himself with the options and thinks it all through.”

As Street explored Portland, he decided it was the right place, despite concerns about the lack of weekday and off- season diners. The Old Port of the late ’80s was a far different scene from what it is today, but the rustic brick space off the cobblestone street felt right, and his boyhood friend and partner Victor Leon had the money to finance it.

The concept developed out of restaurants he’d eaten at as a boy traveling in Italy with his parents. “They’d serve food in a frying pan and I thought that was the greatest thing in the world,” Street says. “They had the kitchen right out in the open. I loved that idea.” He stacked pasta on the walls where customers could see it. Those walking by saw a bustling kitchen through the windows and smelled garlic wafting through the air. Who wouldn’t be drawn in?

“Atmosphere is as important as food,” he says. “It’s about showing the food. The idea of watching people cook is like watching musicians play. It’s a craft in itself. It’s exciting to watch.”

Street served classic Mediterranean seafood dishes—clams in white sauce, sole française, whole roasted fish—that remain on the menu today. He even cooked in those early days. Street and Co. opened in summer 1989 and those original 11 opening night customers included Street’s contractor and landlord.

“It wasn’t the biggest fanfare. The day we opened, I think I did 500 push-ups. I’d go down and do them until I was tired because I was just so on edge. Was it nerve-wracking? Yes. But then 11 people came in and the food went out pretty well.”

While the restaurant might not have been slammed right from the get-go, it didn’t take long. The business grew even through the fall after the tourists left. Word of mouth and a good newspaper review led to it quickly becoming one of the most popular restaurants in town. The space expanded over the next several years and Street decided to hang up his apron—a choice made easy by his competent staff.

Abby Harmon, now the chef/owner at Caiola’s in Portland, rose through the kitchen ranks from line cook to eventually becoming the executive chef at Street and Co. “Over several years, she had developed from knowing nothing at Street and Co. to becoming one of the best cooks in this town,” Street says. Her West End neighborhood restaurant is one of Street’s favorite places to dine out these days.

Fore Street came next. The brick industrial building, then on the periphery of the Old Port action, “was an eminently perfect building” for the wood-fired concept Street wanted to launch, again with Leon. He and his builder, Mike Monaghan, put the restaurant together without an architectural plan.

“It was like sculpting,” he says. “And with craftsmen like Pat and Gil Plourde, we built a lot of the things one might ordinarily buy. We built cabinets, we built tables, we built a concrete bar, which I think was the first one in Portland. We built the booths. Nothing came in ready-made.” The build out cost was roughly quadruple the $100,000 sum it took to launch Street and Co.

Street hired Chef Sam Hayward, who was working at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, on the recommendation of a wine rep. Together, they captured lightning in a bottle and kept it there. “From the start, I don’t think we had a day where we weren’t in the black,” Street says. “We didn’t need any more people coming in. It was pretty amazing.”

The idea of unfussy fine dining—“We weren’t putting little carrot rabbit ears on everything or building these architectural plates, we were just doing straight-ahead cooking, done well,” Street explains—resonated with diners.

With the open, bustling kitchen, local produce on display and smell of a wood fire, it was an experience. Fore Street first made Gourmet magazine’s list of top 50 restaurants in the United States in 2001. It later catapulted Hayward (now a partner at Fore Street and Scales) to a James Beard award, and the restaurant remains a regular nominee in the foundation’s best restaurant category and one of the most sought-after reservations in town.

Did Street have the Midas touch? Not quite. American Pie, a New York–style pizzeria in a large building on Forest Avenue off the Portland peninsula, lasted only a couple years in the early 2000s before it was sold. “In the end, it didn’t make any money,” Street says. “Everyone says, ‘You know, a huge amount of cars go by there every day.’ Yeah, but they never stop. They’re trying to get off that horrible road.”

It’s possible to see how Street’s dry sense of humor could be misinterpreted, which is about the only logical explanation for what happened when Anthony Bourdain sat down
with Street for a meal at Street and Co. while filming his Travel Channel show “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” in 2010.

In the segment, Street makes a joke to a longtime waitress that Bourdain interprets as him being rude to her. In Bourdain’s voice-over, he calls the restaurant “dull” and says he can “tell it must be difficult to work in this place.” Street, who consciously keeps a low profile and avoids the limelight (good luck trying to find a photo of him on Google), didn’t want to do the show in the first place, but his crew loved Bourdain and convinced him.

“I’d never seen his shows,” Street recounts. “My impression was that he did crazy things. Anyway, I did it and nothing was happening. We were talking and he was a little hungover, but he was perfectly nice. When I finally saw it, I couldn’t believe it. I thought for some reason that this was going to ruin the business. Then it occurred to me after that he really didn’t say anything bad about the business. He just said he wouldn’t want to work for me. I didn’t get it. I felt very angry.”

Scales’ General Manager Michael Burke.

Burke, who worked for years in the wine business before Street convinced him to come on board to manage Scales in August, provides a counter to Bourdain. He first met Street more than 20 years ago while working his first wine job at Nappi Distributors. Since then, they’ve gone to numerous rock concerts together. “I had never met an owner so hands-on and passionate about every little aspect of his restaurants. He was so approachable and down to earth. He takes time to listen to everyone in his realm, whether it’s a salesperson, a dishwasher, and it’s not in a disingenuous way. He gives thought to his answers.”

Street approaches his restaurants in the same open and well-thought ways. Scales had been knocking around Street’s head for more than 15 years. Other potential locations fell through over the years. Then in 2004, he opened Scales at the Portland Public Market as an “experimental station” for a grander fish house concept down the road. The owners of the struggling public market invited Street to fill the spot vacated by a previous fish market. They even paid for the construction. Like the market, however, it just didn’t work.

“People really liked it, but it was not making money,” Street says. “We were a fish market and a lunch place, but nobody would come to that market at night. We even lost money without having a note to pay off.” Within a couple years, both Scales and the market shuttered.

The Scales chef team, from the left: Pastry Chef Travis Olson, Sous Chef Anthony Pastor and Executive Chef Mike Smith.

The current iteration of Scales brings Street’s vision to life, a showcase for his attention to detail. From the tables made out of pitted steel salvaged from ships at Bath Iron Works to the custom lampshades meant to invoke the sand and sea to the giant lobster tanks and steaming pots in diners’ plain view, every element has a purpose.

Executive Chef Mike Smith, who previously worked at Portland’s Duckfat and Hugo’s and Toro in Boston, felt it the first time he walked in. “The space was a huge selling point for me. I could see myself cooking and having fun,” he says. “Every single space in the whole restaurant has been crafted by someone.”

There’s the 2,600-square-foot kitchen that would impress any chef. All the equipment is top-of-the-line, including three walk-in coolers (meat, seafood, produce/dairy) and the technologically advanced hood system, which is the first of its kind in Maine. Still, the menu embraces classic New England techniques—steaming, frying and braising—that Street says are “very rudimentary,” but done at a high level.

Keeping true to the concept has been the key to prolonged success at Street and Co. and Fore Street, and Street says he hopes the same will hold true for Scales.

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