(Changes name of chef, paragraph 18)
By Ros Krasny
PORTLAND, Maine Feb 28 - A passerby
seeing the imposing church building with its massive, red doors
bearing the word "Grace" and a mysterious triangular logo could
be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon some kind of
In a way that's true, for Grace - the restaurant, housed in
a former United Methodist church in downtown Portland, Maine -
is now a temple of high-end dining. The two-year-old venture is,
visually at least, the crown jewel of the vibrant dining scene
in Maine's largest city.
Stepping into Grace, patrons are met by soaring ceilings, 27
original stained-glass windows, and painstakingly restored
woodwork inside a landmark building.
The brick-and-brownstone church was last used for services
in 2006, but abandoned to pigeons and vagrants because of a
waning congregation and the high cost of upkeep for the 1856
Gothic Revival structure.
Entrepreneur Anne Verrill and her then husband Peter bought
the property in 2007 for $675,000, saving the church from likely
demolition, and set about a top-to-toe, $2 million renovation.
It was a giant step beyond the Verrills' first venture, a
cozy tavern in nearby Falmouth, where diners can kick back and
watch a hockey game along with their microbrews and burgers.
And long before the first entree could be served,
painstaking repairs needed to be done. Funding was scarce and
banks skeptical - especially as the U.S. economy slid into
recession just weeks after the purchase was made.
"I approached 10 banks and was turned down 10 times until a
local bank (Norway Savings Bank of Norway, Maine) and two very
kind and forward thinking loan officers saw something in the
proposal," said Verrill, a transplanted New Yorker.
Because the building is on the National Register of Historic
Places, each step needed to have an official stamp of approval,
a process that was not budget-friendly.
Over 60 mortar samples were produced, for example, for the
front of the building.
"It took us three months to get the right color of mortar,"
But the building has always been lucky, she added. Nestled
up against Portland's current City Hall, it has survived two
"Great Portland Fires," in 1866 and 1873.
Tax credits designed to make the preservation of antique
buildings feasible covered some of the costs. Verrill made a
"hands and knees kind of plea" to an investor willing to buy
some of the credits.
Two years in, 175-seat Grace has a hip but comfortable vibe;
the towering space is inspiring, but not intimidating. It draws
a diverse crowd of special-occasion couples, families, business
associates, tourists and drinking buddies.
The circular ground-floor bar is one of Grace's distinctive
features. Designed and built at Tivi Design in Colorado, it was
made from six concrete sections, each weighing about 500 pounds
(227.3 kg), and assembled onsite after being trucked
Overhead, a three-sided balcony wrapping around the nave
holds more tables and a cozy lounge area.
Every element of the design shows a keen eye for detail.
Napkin rings are made from spare parts harvested from the
original pipe organ. The dramatic architectural feature over the
bar echoes two trefoil stained glass windows. Even the knives
mimic tall, spear-shaped windows.
Chef Peter Sueltenfuss presides over the large open kitchen
located in the church's former altar. There, he produces an
eclectic blend of modern American cooking that leans heavily on
Maine seafood and locally-raised produce.
A rotating "Maine farm feature" emphasizes meat from area
farms. Simeon has an "everything but the squeak" philosophy that
can carry pork products from a charcuterie plate appetizer
through to "pretzels and beer," a dessert where salty-sweet
bacon ice cream makes a surprise appearance.
Grace doesn't overdo a church kitsch theme, but its
signature cocktails include the "dust to dust," the "holier than
thou" and the "redemption."
Verrill said that many former ministers and life-long
parishioners have visited Grace.
"They've been thrilled," she said, lauding "this building,
and the loyalty and love people have for it. In the end, this is
why I love Maine."
(Reporting By Ros Krasny; editing by Patricia Reaney)