Dogfish Bar & Grille in Portland closing

The Dogfish Bar & Grille, a popular restaurant and music venue on Free Street, is closing indefinitely beginning Friday.

The restaurant’s management announced the closing on its Facebook page last week, citing “roadblocks” in its way. The venue is located just off Congress Square, which has been the site of construction road closures since spring as part of a project to redesign the square and the adjacent park. The posting on Facebook did not say when or where the business might reopen, only that it will be “closing until further notice.”

Michele Arcand, sister-in-law of the owner, recites her poem to music by Geoff Zimmerman, left, during the last open mic night at Dogfish Cafe in Portland. It is just shy of 16 years since the open mic night started at the Portland restaurant. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

“This was not an easy decision and there have been ‘Roadblocks’ in our way, but there is always hope that we will reopen again and if we do, we will welcome everyone. Arms wide open. Ready to serve the wonderful people of Portland, our family, always and forever,” the post read.

Dogfish, which has been in business since 2003, held its “finale” open mic night Wednesday, featuring Griffin Sherry, lead singer of the recently disbanded Ghost of Paul Revere. Sherry got his start at a Dogfish open mic night more than a decade ago. Dogfish also will host a trivia night Thursday and a closing night event on Friday featuring music by Travis James Humphrey.

Dogfish, a cozy bar and restaurant lined with brick walls, was packed Wednesday night for its final open mic sendoff. The bar is within a stone’s throw of the Portland Museum of Art and the intersection of High and Congress Street at Congress Square. The entrance to Free Street in front of the museum was closed to traffic Wednesday night while construction crews finished a multimillion-dollar makeover of Congress Square.

Dogfish’s owner, Ted Arcand, was tending bar while saying farewell to his loyal customers, who lined up for drinks and food. Arcand paused from his bartending duties to answer a few questions.

“I’m not sure. Nothing in life is permanent,” Arcand said when asked if Dogfish was closing for good.

THE TIME WAS RIGHT

Arcand explained that a combination of factors including the COVID-19 pandemic impact on business and staffing shortages led him to his decision.

He denied that the city’s reconstruction of Congress Square was the sole reason for his decision to close, but said it was a factor.

Ted Arcand, owner of the Dogfish Cafe works the bar on the last open mike night. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

“It didn’t help,” he said.

“It just felt that it was the right time,” Arcand said of the closure before heading back to the bar to wait on thirsty customers.

The first open mic at Dogfish was organized by Arcand’s sister-in-law, Michele Arcand, nearly 16 years ago. The open mic anniversary would have been Oct. 12, 2022. Since it started, the open mic forum has attracted patrons and musicians from around the world, while also serving as a community gathering place for local musicians, she said.

“I wanted to make sure that everyone who came here felt welcomed,” she explained while musicians signed up for one of the 21 performing slots available Wednesday night.

One of those musicians, Geoff Zimmerman, was the first performer Wednesday night.

“I’ve been playing here since 2008,” Zimmerman said before he took the stage. Zimmerman, who started playing with a band named Grant Street Orchestra, described Dogfish as a great place to meet other musical collaborators, including Sherry of the Ghost of Paul Revenue band.

“It’s a sad night not knowing where the torch will be passed,” Zimmerman said.

Gary Rand, another musician who signed up to play at open mic, said he planned to play some of his original songs on guitar.

Rand, who recently moved to Portland from Boston, said he had heard about open mic night and came because he was intrigued. He was disappointed to learn that it would be the last one, possibly forever.

Moments before Zimmerman performed, Michele Arcand stood on stage and thanked the crowd for supporting the bar and open mic session.

“Thank you for helping us build the most beautiful, magical community and friendships. I only provided the space, but it was you who made all the magic happen,” she said.

MUSICIAN’S BEMOAN LOSS

Musicians who have played the intimate space over the years talked earlier in the day Wednesday about how much they’ll miss it and how important it has been to their development.

Sherry started doing open mics there around 2008 while on breaks from college. A couple of years later he was invited to do a monthly gig at Dogfish. He soon invited friends and fellow musicians Max Davis and Sean McCarthy to play with him and the three eventually became the Ghost of Paul Revere.

“For me as a songwriter, it was one of the first communities of people writing songs that I met, a place where I could talk shop, have a beer and debut new songs,” Sherry said. “It’s just such an interesting and cool community of musicians that gathers there. I can’t speak highly enough about what a good open mic, like the one at Dogfish, can do for a musician.”

Guitarist Jason Spooner said Dogfish’s closing leaves a void in the Portland music scene because it’s not always easy for young musicians to find the kind of open mic session Dogfish ran, with a welcoming crowd and a close-knit group of musicians and staff. Although he didn’t play the Dogfish open mic sessions, he said he loved going to them, because they drew both great local musicians and interesting acts from all over the country.

Billy Ruby, left, Portland and Chase Malloy, Brunswick, stopped for a beer at the Dogfish Cafe in Portland, not knowing the place is closing on Friday. In the distance, you can see the construction at High St. and Free St. which makes access more difficult. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

“It’s a really special place. I don’t think there’s a similar-sized room doing that kind of an open mic,” Spooner said.

Humphrey, a guitarist based in Hallowell, has been doing a weekly gig at Dogfish for 16 years. He said Wednesday the venue’s “vibe is just happy and relaxed and it’s a very comfortable gig for a musician.” Humphrey plays at venues across Maine but often tells people if they want to be able to listen closely to him play, they should come hear him at Dogfish. It’s small enough and quiet enough for a musician with just an acoustic guitar to be clearly heard, he said.

Humphrey said what he will miss most about Dogfish are the friends he’s made there among staff and regulars. He said he’s both looking forward to performing on closing night and dreading it.

“Ted (Arcand) is such a super solid dude and he consistently hired great people. It was really fun working with them,” Humphrey said.

Dogfish Company was incorporated in 1995, first running a beverage catering business, and in 1999, opening Dogfish Market in Portland’s West End, according to the company website. In 2003 the company opened Dogfish Cafe on the corner of Congress and St. John street. In 2006 Arcand acquired the building at 128 Free St. and opened Dogfish Bar & Grille. The Spirits Catering business, run from the same address as Dogfish Bar & Grille, will continue to operate, according to the Dogfish Company Facebook page.

CONSTRUCTION DISRUPTION

Dogfish Bar & Grille is located in a block of Free Street that has seen pedestrian and vehicular traffic disrupted since the spring because of a $7.2 million makeover of Congress Square, including the roadways and the nearby Congress Square Park. Work began in April and is expected to take about two years. The plan calls for wider sidewalks, clearer crosswalks, new art in Congress Square Park and an improved plaza in front of the Portland Museum of Art across the street.

The first phase of the project called for Free Street to be closed until about mid-June, but obstacles such as discovering a previously unknown ledge under the site have delayed the work, frustrating nearby business owners. Construction company officials have estimated that the work affecting access to Free Street will be completed in November.

Jessica Grondin, the city’s spokesperson, in an email Wednesday said she was not aware that the owners of Dogfish reached out to the city for assistance.

“We worked diligently to address unexpected construction issues and get the contractor back on site,” Grondin said. “Since then, the contractor has been on site and is estimating early November for completion of phase one, which includes the Free Street section.”

Congress Square will be paved during the first week of October, weather permitting, Grondin said.

“At the beginning of the project we enhanced signage alerting the public that Free Street businesses are open and altered the direction of one of the side streets so visitors could more easily access Free Street and the businesses,” Grondin said. She said Portland Downtown is also running a promotion encouraging the public to frequent Free Street businesses.

In August, Dogfish bartender Kiersten Andrews told the Press Herald that she’s seen her paycheck cut by two-thirds because of the decline in business from the street being closed. Signs reading “local traffic only” deter most motorists from driving down the street, she said, and the fencing and construction disorder scares off foot traffic.


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