PORTLAND, Maine — Head west off the Portland peninsula, and long before you arrive at Woodford’s Corner, diners at the soon-to-open Woodford Food and Beverage will see you coming.
Occupying a power position once home to Valle’s Steakhouse, the new restaurant by husband-and-wife team Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer will add zip to this awakening neighborhood with a major art supply shop, a bakery and family-run restaurants nearby.
“Six years ago we saw the space,” Shambaugh, a New Hampshire native by way of Brooklyn, New York, said. When the “for lease” sign went up at 660 Forest Ave. more than a year ago, he pounced.
“I had written the business owner a letter telling him if the space ever became vacant to call me,” he said.
It did, and he did.
The couple, who together have vast New York City restaurant experience — her: Cafe Luxembourg, The Odeon; him: Home Restaurant — walked in last February and fell in love with the pitched ceiling and “HoJo-esque” ambiance.
“The building sold me,” Preyer said.
Woodford Food and Beverage’s distinct, look-at-me profile stands out in this busy warren of streets.
The urban chalet anchoring a spoke intersection says “American roadside dining, and there is a need for it here,” Shambaugh said. “We are at the nexus of three or four neighborhoods.”
To pull it off, the Portland transplants lured Courtney Loreg, a Fore Street alum, to become their executive chef. She worked for top chef Sam Hayward in the early 2000s and met Preyer at the now-shuttered Bresca, where they both worked.
Loreg, who was cooking at a vineyard on the West Coast, was happy to return to the Port City. Woodford Food and Beverage’s off-the-tourist-map location was especially intriguing. Being far from the foodie’s Mecca is positive, not negative for this new team. Chef Loreg hopes to leverage their profile through neighborhood food for every man, woman and child.
“I wouldn’t have done this on Commercial Street,” said Loreg, because it’s “a restaurant on top of a restaurant on top of a restaurant there. They are going full steam ahead with tourism.”
When this 85-seat American brasserie opens in early January, “comfort food to fit the stark mid-century vibe” will be in session.
“We want this to be a go-to place. Like Caiola’s or the Blue Spoon,” said Preyer, of beloved joints in Portland’s West End and Munjoy Hill. “A place where you can come in and order a burger or come to celebrate. Daring, yet simple, for a reasonable value.”
Preyer, who works at the State Theatre, will make sure the soundtrack to your dining experience at Woodford Food and Beverage is in sync. Formerly a mortgage office, the 2,500-square-foot space now has booths and a center bar. The interior was gutted and harsh orange tiles replaced by cleaner, subtler updates. A few weeks before opening, they admit, “it’s been a bear of a project.” But the enthusiasm of passers-by has sustained them.
Amid custom seating by WoodLab and high retro ceilings, customers can enjoy “classic, straightforward” fare, said Loreg. “A melding of classic diner and bistro dishes.”
The menu begins with hors d’oeuvres such as broiled oysters, classic deviled eggs and stuffed clams. There are daily specials such as baked stuffed lobster or quahog chowder. Braised duck ravioli and a hanger steak with house sauce should appease all appetites.
“We want to serve people who live around here,” said Shambaugh. “We aspire to be a destination.”
A place “to come for the holidays or for a steak before the prom.”