Arlin Smith. [Photo: Ted Axelrod]
Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Just over a year ago, Eventide Oyster Co. opened its doors. The crowds poured in and haven't let up since. The bright, casual raw bar from co-owners Arlin Smith, Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor occupies the former home of Rabelais Books and shares a kitchen with Hugo's, which the trio purchased a few months before opening Eventide and just reopened after an extensive remodel. Last week, on a cool, cloudy and drizzly Tuesday around 2 p.m., Smith (the GM of both restaurant's; Wiley and Taylor are chefs) sat down with Eater Maine at Hugo's before dinner service to talk about the first 12 months at Eventide, which was packed with a line stretching out the door despite the time of day and less-than-ideal weather.
How did the idea for Eventide first come about?
When we were thinking about purchasing Hugo's from Rob (Evans) and Nancy (Pugh), we didn't want to just purchase Hugo's. There was the draw to continue it on, but there wasn't enough draw for us to create a partnership and make it worth our while. We wanted to do more and the space next door became available. We knew that this was a solid investment. Rabelais was a staple of the city. When they told us they weren't going to renew their lease is when we knew that we should really push to go in there. We had this idea of marrying the kitchens. As far as the concept itself, the three of us all have dreams of what our ultimate restaurant would be, but individually, as a restaurateur, I don't think it's the smartest thing to just do what you want. We do a lot of things well, so we decided to look at what Portland wants. It didn't have an oyster bar. We loved the idea of getting an incredible amount of local oysters that weren't available anywhere in that quantity, and doing a Hugo's-style casual fare — a New England-style sushi bar. Once we started throwing those ideas around, it was a no-brainer for us. We had this really cool, fun, relaxed space, and it went gangbusters.
Were you prepared for how successful it was right off the bat?
We knew it was going to be successful, but we had no idea to what degree. It's Tuesday over there right now and it's busier than our busiest Saturday. It's been a lot of fun because of all the people. We didn't solicit it except for putting a really cool spot together and trying to keep it staffed and have enough product. It's a constant struggle. That's what led to the renovation of Hugo's. It wasn't just about giving us a new space at Hugo's, it was about giving us more space for Eventide in the back.
Has the menu changed much over the course of the year?
The menu changes daily, as far as the specials go. That's our outlet. Weekly, you see some different things in and out. But for the most part, our staples stay. Our lobster roll, our oyster bun, our chicken bun, fried fish, the salads, the chowder and stew -- those things stay. Everything else, like the side dishes, float around a little bit.
What's been the most popular menu item?
The oyster bun, by far, outside of the oysters themselves. I think we're up to 8,000 to 10,000 oysters a week now.
What's been the biggest surprise over the course of the year?
The ability for Eventide to consistently serve more people in one day without having more servers and staff, and doing it efficiently. That's the surprise for me, because it's really amazing to see people waiting an hour and a half, just standing there, drinking, waiting for stools — they're not even the most comfortable stools — but they keep coming. It's a testament to our product.
The atmosphere is bright and lends itself very well to the warmer weather. Were there any challenges in the winter?
That's actually probably the bigger surprise. This winter we stayed busy. It was a long winter. People were getting their fix of a fun atmosphere. We still crushed it during the winter. We did great numbers. For a seasonal town, we really did well. It's awesome to be in there in the summer, but in the winter it's warm and inviting. There's a glow at night. People can watch the snow fall through the big windows.
How was the Hugo's remodel influenced by your experiences at Eventide in terms of design?
We keep calling it the fire and ice, the light and the dark. You have this bright, casual space next door and we wanted to do the complete opposite here. The biggest similarity is the bar. If you actually look from outside the front window, this bar comes around and if it were to continue through the wall, it actually wraps around the other side in Eventide. It's like this giant bar encompassing our kitchen, with everything else around it. We wanted this place to play off the opposites of Eventide. That also inspired us in exposing the brick. When we exposed the brick over there, we loved it. We also exposed the ceiling over there and that was an inspiration (to do the same at Hugo's). We worked with our brand designers and ourselves, wanting to have a restaurant with a time and place. One that felt like it has been here a while and is going to be here for a while. It's a 25-year-old restaurant. It's been fun.
What do you guys have in store for the next year?
We're going to focus on Hugo's and Eventide together. Launching Hugo's into the next generation, that's our goal right now. We always have thoughts of doing more things outside of these two spaces, but it's definitely not at the top of the list right now. This venture has been incredible, an incredible build-out. The feedback already in the two days we've had the doors open has been incredible. We want to make sure that this is efficient and going to work properly before we venture off to do anything else.
According to your profile on the Eventide website, you enjoy wings from time to time.
I do. I'm originally from Buffalo. When I first moved here, I found a place that I love dearly: The Great Lost Bear, with their Belgian beer selection and incredible wings. I've been known to crush some wings there. The whole website thing was a joke. When we were building it, we needed place holders, so Andrew, Mike and I all wrote them for each other as a joke to our brand designers. Then they launched the website with them as a joke to us. Once it went out, everyone was commenting on them and everyone was laughing, and we thought, "You know what, that's perfect for Eventide." We didn't want it to be a serious bio. My favorite is Andrew's: the Rosie O'Donnell stunt double. On the Hugo's website, we have a more serious bio.
· All Coverage of Eventide Oyster Co. [~EMAINE~]
· All Coverage of Hugo's [~EMAINE~]
· Eventide Oyster Co. [Official Site]
· Hugo's [Official Site]