As the central hub for tourists and locals alike, the Old Port seems like the perfect spot for a restaurant. But sometimes being in the center of the madness can detract from the experience, not only for diners, but also for the owners.
"People thought we were crazy," says Bob Butler, co-owner and front-of-the-house manager at Rachels L'Osteria. But moving out of the Old Port and into their current space at 496 Woodford Street was more of a dream come true for the couple. "This is what we've always thought of as our restaurant," says Laura Butler. "It's more personal for us and for our customers."
Moving from a high-traffic space at 98 Exchange Street in 2003, which was then called Rachel's Wood Grill, to a quieter, neighborhood location brought more than just a change of scenery. The smaller, more intimate setting, with 20 seats in the main dining room and 12 in the bar area, let Bob take over the front-of-the-house responsibilities. At their Old Port location, Bob and Laura had both worked in the kitchen, with wait staff managing out front. While Bob jokes that Laura "kicked him out of the kitchen" (and she doesn't exactly disagree), the move has allowed him to take on a new role as the sole server and manager. The couple still collaborates regarding the menu, but Bob has put much of his energy into building a reputable wine list with more than 200 labels available. "It sounds crazy, but I can often remember what somebody had to drink two months ago. People like that," he says.
RACHELS L'OSTERIA |496 Woodford St, Portland | Wed-Sat 5 pm-close | MC/Visa/AmEx | rachelslosteria.com | 207.774.1192
The face of their clientele has also changed, says Laura. They have built a strong following in the area and see many of the same faces on a weekly basis. "Being in a neighborhood allows us to have a more personal touch with our regulars," she says. However, the initial transition out of the Old Port was challenging because many people thought they had closed, she says. They kept the same phone number and contact information, which helped spread the word of their new location. As a result, many of their former customers in the Old Port followed them to their Woodford Street location.
And while the wood-fired grill is no more, Laura says the menu remains similar, with a strong-Italian influence. The couple looks to incorporate local ingredients in their menu and change items regularly, although Laura says it's challenging because people come in time and time again saying they were looking forward to something they had just taken off the menu. One of the most popular items, the bruschetta, for example, rotates regularly. One recent day it was Tuscan ham with melted provolone cheese, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers with a touch of sweet pepper jelly. A generous serving of arugula topped the dish, which was all served on top of a thick slice of grilled, house-made Tuscan bread.
The couple garners inspiration for their menu from regular trips to Italy. "We've spent a lot of time traveling in Italy and embracing European-style fare, with fresh ingredients and they're very hands on," she says. They always return to Maine with plenty of new ideas, for both food and wine, to incorporate into their menu.
And as Rachels L'Osteria continues to prosper off the peninsula, the couple looks back on their days in the Old Port fondly, but not wistfully. "It's amazing how our new location has really morphed into itself and become an extension of us," says Laura. "This is exactly what I was thinking."
Leischen Stelter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.