Matt Haskell is very aware of the attention that’s been focused on his efforts to open a restaurant in downtown Bangor’s West Market Square. After all, he’s occupying one of the most visible spaces in the city’s center: 16 Broad St., the former home of the Whig & Courier Pub, which has been empty since 2010 when the landmark pub closed for good after 26 years.
So when Blaze, the eatery and bar that Haskell has been readying since June 2012, opens this week, it’ll have been a long time coming for a lot of reasons.
“I grew up in Bangor,” said Haskell, 34. “I remember what it was like here in downtown when I was in high school. It’s come a long way. … It was important that someone came into this space that could live up to the big expectations for it, so I really hope that we can fulfill them. I think we have. I think Bangor is going to be impressed.”
In order to live up to those expectations, however, Haskell and his architect, Robert Ervin of Bangor-based Ervin Architecture, had to renovate the entire 133-year-old building. That turned out to be much more work than either anticipated — everything from the bathrooms to the kitchen to the basements to the wiring had to be ripped out and replaced.
“It was a massive undertaking. It was just huge. It’s an old building and it was in really rough shape,” said Haskell. “We could have cut corners. We could have half-assed it. But we had to do it right, and if that meant taking our time, then so be it.”
But their hard work has paid off and the Blaze team has created one of the prettiest restaurants in eastern Maine. The walls in the main bar area are lined with warm, blond wood, sourced from Maine Heritage Timber, which specializes in reclaimed wood lifted from the bottom of the Penobscot River. The seating arrangements have been completely redesigned, nearly doubling the space that was available at the Whig. The bar itself is also made of reclaimed wood and is contrasted by a wall fixture made by Ervin, featuring a hand-cut wooden floral pattern set against a glowing red background.
Haskell, a 1996 graduate of Bangor High School, is known for several other restaurants and bars, including the Bear Brew in Orono, which he owned between 2002 and 2010; Finback Alehouse in Bar Harbor, a pub open since 2010; and the other Blaze, which opened in 2012 in Bar Harbor.
The Blaze concept focuses on three things: locally sourced ingredients, craft beer and wine, and the hulking, roaring, wood-fired brick oven, designed by Washington mason Pat Manley, who has designed brick ovens for the likes of Fore Street in Portland and Cafe Miranda in Rockland.
“The brick oven is the heart of the restaurant,” said Haskell. “The biggest emphasis for us is using the freshest ingredients we possibly can. And also, being sensitive to any dietary restrictions, whether it’s gluten-free, vegan or dairy-free.”
In that oven and in the renovated kitchen, chefs Josh Heikkinen, an Old Town native formerly of Fathom in Bar Harbor, and Duncan Gunn, an Orono native who previously ran the kitchen at Blaze in Bar Harbor, will cook up dishes such as grilled Maine lobster, duck fat fries, pulled pork tacos, salads and crispy gourmet pizza. All of the seafood will be Maine-sourced, and Blaze will be the first restaurant in Bangor to offer a year-round raw bar. It will also be the first restaurant in Bangor to butcher meat on site.
Haskell has installed a draft system with 51 lines in total, which will serve up an array of beer from Maine breweries, national craft breweries and imports. And, much to the delight of those bemoaning the lack of brunch options in Greater Bangor, Blaze will serve made-to-order brunch and brunch cocktails on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Though work on the building is still not 100 percent complete — the seating in the upstairs area will be finished in the spring, and the patio seating on West Market Square will not open until warmer weather — it’s finally time to start the fire at Blaze, after months and months of work.
“I’m just thrilled to be in my hometown, and to be a part of the amazing energy that’s been focused in downtown over the past few years,” said Haskell. “I’m very proud of all the work that all the different businesses and people have done here to get it to where it is now, and I can’t wait to add our business to the community.”
Blaze will be open for dinner only on Wednesday, Jan. 15; open for lunch (starting at 11 a.m.) and dinner (starting at 4 p.m.) Jan. 16; and will have a grand opening celebration Friday, Jan. 17, with lunch and dinner service and a late-night menu. Brunch will be served from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Regular hours will be 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m. to midnight Thursdays and Fridays, 9:30 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays, and 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
For more information, find Blaze on Facebook.