Welcome to Still Standing, where Eater looks at those bars and restaurants that have quietly stood the test of time over the years, despite the city's changing restaurant scene. From dive bars to neighborhood joints to under-the-radar haunts, these places rely on word of mouth and loyal regulars rather than splash and publicity to keep on going. Have a suggestion for a future place to feature? Tell the tipline.
Originally from Huntington Beach, CA, Sarah Martin came east in 1988, where she tended bar at two of the most venerable spots in Boston: The Middle East and Ole Scollay Square's Red Hat. It was there that she met a Portlander, Tim McNamara, who convinced her to move north in 1999. She settled in behind the bar at Brian Boru and freely admits that she'd probably still be there, happily, if not for The Bar of Chocolate.
Somewhere along the way, Martin developed a flair for chocolates; she'd bring them to work to hand out to her favorite guests. Sam Beringer was one of those guests. A longtime bartender at Brian Boru's sister bar, Una, Beringer encouraged Martin to enter her desserts in the Chocolate Lover's Fling, an annual competition and fundraiser. If she could win there, he argued, they could leverage that momentum to open a dessert and cocktail lounge.
Martin did win. The two began looking for a space. But in a scenario familiar to many restaurateurs, as the process dragged on, Beringer lost interest and Martin was on her own.
And then she stumbled upon a situation. Or an opportunity. In truffle terms, it may have been a opportunity enrobed in a situation.
Where Street and Co. now stands was a place called The Cafe on Wharf Street. The cafe did white tablecloth fine dining. Looking to expand, owners Scott and Janet Barry moved their operation across the Wharf Street cobbles. On the upstairs floor, they built The Wine Bar, while downstairs they continued their fine dining operation. For a time, all was well, but the wine bar proved to be more popular than the cafe and ultimately the couple closed the downstairs dining room.
This is what Martin stumbled upon. It had tables and chairs. It had a kitchen. It was almost like a gift. In 2005, she struck an agreement to run her (and Beringer's) concept in the vacant dining room, and the Bar of Chocolate opened its doors.
That first year? "Man, was it hard! Fun but hard," she said. "Tim was in China coaching the women's hockey team and I was here by myself. Sometimes I'd sleep in the dining room on one of the banquettes. There was just so much to do: Baking, ordering, bartending, cleaning. It never ends." She laughed. "I'm glad I didn't have a dog back then."
Slowly, surely, organically, The Bar of Chocolate built a steady and loyal clientele. Though Martin's bar opened at the same time that social media was becoming a force, and though she feels that Facebook, Yelp, Twitter, and the like are important tools and resources, she credits most of her success and longevity to word of mouth.
"We've always had the restaurant industry people on Wharf St—from Street and Co., Vignola Cinque Terre, etc. But I'm seeing more restaurant employees from other parts of the city stop in. We love the industry people: They're us!"
And that all translates into referrals. In a city that is increasingly becoming a destination for Foodies on Safari—a drink and a snack here, a drink and a snack there, a snack and maybe one more drink somewhere else—recommendations by restaurant employees are the coin of the realm. Think of everyone in an apron as a freelance concierge, and you'll get the picture.
Last year, when its lease ran out, The Wine Bar closed after a 27-year run. Since the two businesses were connected, it was also decision time for Martin.
"Sometimes I miss the freedom of working for other people," she said. "I'm the baker. I can't just drop everything and take a week off." But rather than fold, she tried to double-down and take over the upstairs. The landlord, however, didn't want a restaurant as a tenant, so The Bar of Chocolate had to close while new licensing and leases were drawn up.
Three days before she shut down her establishment for a seven week hiatus, the Press Herald published a stellar review of the chocolate bar.
"Man, that really sucked!" Sarah complained of the timing, laughing and shaking her head. For months, rumors of her business's demise swirled around the Old Port, echoes of which are occasionally heard still today.
And yet, she's having her best year to date.
"We're closer to our mission statement now than when we opened," she stated emphatically, and when asked if she's got any new changes or plans heading into her 10th year, she smiled and shrugged.
"I'm getting a convection oven."
38 Wharf Street, Portland, 207-773-6667, Facebook. Open Sunday - Thursday 4 p.m. - 12 a.m., Friday - Saturday 4 p.m. - 1 a.m.