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In Memory of Sam's Harbor Lunch, A True Greasy Spoon

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Sam's Harbor Lunch. [Photos: John Ewing]

Once upon a time, before Portland turned into a hipster melting pot, before small plates reigned supreme, Sam's Harbor Lunch became a local legend on Commercial Street. Sam Minervino (disclosure: Sam is my father) opened the restaurant in 1981, moving across the street to a bigger space that previously housed Wasson's Diner a couple years later. But then a developer's plans and controversial city referendum forced the Harbor Lunch to abruptly shutter in 1988, cut down at the top of its game.

The closure triggered a slew of news coverage and public dismay. The New York Times, back when the Old Gray Lady existed only in the pulpy flesh, had this to say (The NYT later digitized its archives):

In just seven years, Sam's Harbor Lunch had become an institution in Portland, Me. With its worn linoleum floor, waterfront view and ever-brewing coffee pots, Sam's was a gathering place for workers of all kinds - lawyers, lobstermen and businessmen. It offered simple fare at reasonable prices. The NYT continues:

But Sam's closed recently, a victim of Portland's transformation from depressed fishing port to upscale business center and, paradoxically, of the effort to hold fast to some of Portland's past. The building that Sam's occupied is scheduled to be razed for construction of an office-retail complex.* But Sam Minervino, the 30-year-old owner and chief cook at Sam's, was barred by the city from relocating on the waterfront because of a referendum passed last May that required new development on the harbor to be marine-related. The office-retail facility could go ahead because it was approved before the referendum was passed.

In a Maine Times (the paper is long defunct) column from Jan. 3, 1986, Edgar Allan Beem visited early one morning and talked with Sam and his younger brother Robbie, who were both working in the kitchen at the larger Harbor Lunch:

"We're breakfast tycoons now," jokes Sam as he slaves over the griddle in his T-shirt. "Breakfast baboons," corrects brother Robbie.

Sam Minervino says he opens at 4 a.m. in order to serve fishermen and avoid having to serve the bottle club crowd.

"By 4 o'clock," says Sam, "they're all passed out somewhere."

The doors used to open at Sam's at 4 a.m., but the prep work began in the middle of the night. Potatoes had to be peeled and muffins baked. Sometimes a kindergarten-aged son of the owner could be found in there buttering both sides of Italian bread for the grilled toast.

Here's Beem's description of the place:
Sam's is a wonderfully colorless joint. As austere and drab as any cafe Edward Hopper ever painted, Sam's naturally attracts colorful characters and serves breakfast that stays with you. Two dollars will buy coffee, two eggs, a mess of home fries, and two thick slices of toasted Italian bread. The regulars tend to be fishermen and other denizens of the working waterfront, cabbies, trash collectors, truck drivers. Sooner or later, everyone winds up at Sam's. Sam's closing left a void in the waterfront, but it was filled a few years later by Becky's Diner, which has been going strong ever since. (Interestingly, the reason given by the city planning director to allow Becky's on the same waterfront that Sam's was booted from was because Becky's was going to offer "takeout meals in bulk" for fishermen, so the principal use was to serve fishermen, with the restaurant as an "accessory" use. Honest to God. Read it here.)

Sam could have moved to another Old Port location off the water, but told the NYT that "he never wanted to run a trendy eatery like those in the Old Port because he 'wouldn't know where to put the sprouts on the plate.'''

So he relocated inland to Morrill's Corner, keeping the name Sam's Harbor Lunch. It did pretty well and was open for a few years before being converted into a bar. It's been Samuel's Bar & Grill for the past 17. Sam has moved from the kitchen to behind the bar where he now slings draft beer and Fireball Whisky instead of eggs and home fries. He still doesn't know where the hell to put the sprouts.

*The office/retail complex was never built. The spot became and remains a parking lot. Rumor has it that the demolition work on the building that housed Sam's was done in record time because historic ship timbers were uncovered in the structure and had to be disposed of before any of the historical preservationists found out.

(A note on the photos: Some of these ran previously in the Maine Sunday Telegram. After Sam's closed, the paper gave Sam all the prints.)

· Northeast Journal: Hearty Diner Yields to Change [NYT]
· After Hours in Portland [Maine Times]
· All Coverage of Greasy Spoons Week 2013 [~EMAINE~]