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Networking - Harding Lee Smith

Chef/Owner Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, Grill Room, Front Room, Corner Room in Portland, Maine

By James Wright
June 01, 2014

Go ahead, try and find another restaurant scene as eclectic yet accessible as what you’ll find in Portland, Maine. Then remember that this quaint seaside city — the home of SeaFood Business — boasts only about 66,000 residents within its borders (203,000 in the urban area). Of the 250 or so restaurants in the city proper, nobody owns and operates more than Harding Lee Smith, whose “Room” realm is winning over locals and travelers alike. 

Smith, 44, has a simple philosophy regarding opening new restaurants, and that’s to fill a hole. The understated favorite Front Room was the first traditional restaurant to open in the Munjoy Hill residential neighborhood in 2005. Grill Room (2008) is hands-down the best steakhouse in a town bereft of them, while Corner Room (2009) is the only Italian restaurant in the touristy Old Port. But his shiny new pearl, Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room right on the city’s waterfront, is something Portland truly needed: A top quality, on-the-water, seafood-centric restaurant that appeals to those in high heels (Seafood Newburg, served in a toasted popover, goes for $31) and flip-flops (a half-pint of whole-belly fried clams is $15). The original Boone’s, established in the 1920s, fell into disrepair after decades of neglect, but Smith and his team have injected life into the space with tasteful décor and tasty fish dishes. 

This place is a drastic change from the original Boone’s.  

[The building] was in really bad shape. We replaced all the floorboards, all the joists; all new plumbing, all new electric. The old sign is the only thing remaining. And this post [points to a sturdy wooden support]! What we try to do, over the course of time, is fix blighted buildings. We want to enhance neighborhoods. We want to make empty spaces into something. Same thing here, it’s a piece of history that we could bring back and pay homage to in my hometown. 

What’s been the reaction from the old guard?  

Some people think it’s a great change. I think people who ate here in the ‘50s and ‘60s might be wondering why the prices are different, but the cost of fish is exponentially higher. I don’t consider us necessarily high end. I think we’re casual fine dining. A fish shack without the paper plates. We try to do some classic food, update it a little bit, serve it really carefully, cook it really simply. Our kitchen and raw bar upstairs specialize in more eclectic stuff; things like foie gras, but paired with lobster, and pork belly paired with some sort of seafood. [We’re] trying to bring it into the 21st century and meet Portland’s palate. 

Your first year has been a huge success. 

If I had to do it over again, I’d open in the winter, not the middle of summer. It was so busy. We intended to open in May, then it was June, which isn’t full summer yet. First day, Aug. 9, we served 175 people, the second day 850. And we didn’t do under 700 until the middle of October, any day of the week. It was absolutely unbelievably busy. This place is an animal; it’s huge. 

How do you feel about the word “empire”?  

Ha ha. I don’t feel like we have an empire. A lot of people would say I do. I haven’t really given it a whole lot of thought. I have a hard time believing I’m 44, and that I have four restaurants, more than anyone else in town. I think of them all individually, like they’re my children, in a sense. I guess it is an empire; it’s always been a goal of mine to have a small restaurant company. My goal is to open a couple more, maybe in the suburbs. If it was an empire, I’d be really rich! I’m flattered by the thought. I guess it’s an empire, I’m OK with it. I just talked myself into it.

 

February 2014 - SeaFood Business     

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