Forty years ago, there were a handful of places in Bangor where you could get a drink and a bite, hear live music, and maybe meet a cute guy or a pretty girl. One of the most popular places to do that in the 1970s and ‘80s was Benjamin’s, a bar and restaurant on Franklin Street in downtown Bangor that hosted countless bands and potential romances over the years.
Years after the original Benjamin’s closed its doors, a Brewer couple is resurrecting the former downtown staple, with a plan to bring it back to its original roots: food, drinks and camaraderie.
“We’re a bar and a restaurant,” said Richard “Clarko” Clark, who this week will open the new Benjamin’s Pub with his wife and co-owner, Mandy. “We don’t want to be open ‘til last call. We’re not a nightclub. We just want you to have dinner, have a drink, watch the game, play some pool, listen to the jukebox. We want that ‘Cheers’ vibe.”
Gone are the dance floor, the DJ booth and the backyard patio, which were the main attractions at the many bars and clubs that took the place of the original Benjamin’s in the late 1990s and 2000s. A fully refurbished kitchen, new seating and a huge floor-to-ceiling video screen showing various sports games enhance the neighborhood pub feeling.
The new Benjamin’s has been in the works since December 2018. The Clarks have spent the past five months renovating the basement bar at 123 Franklin St., doing most of the renovation work themselves.
“I’ve worked in the restaurant industry for 30 years, and I’ve owned two restaurants. I always used to say, ‘Never again,’” Richard Clark said. “Then Mandy caught me looking at the listing for this place one night. And here we are.”
Original owner John Parcak bought 123 Franklin St. and opened the original Benjamin’s in 1973, and for 17 years offered dinner, drinks and dancing to Bangor in both the upstairs restaurant (now home to Asian Garden) and the downstairs lounge. The bar’s reputation in Maine became legendary, as a musical hotspot where people could see local bands and touring acts — so much so that in 1981 a double album recorded live at Benjamin’s was released, featuring four Maine bands.
Parcak sold the business in 1990, but it remained Benjamin’s for another 13 years, under several different owners. Between 2003 and 2014 there were a number of other bars and clubs in the space, including Karma, a gay bar that was open for about a year before another nightclub, Fuzion, opened in the same spot in 2006. Club Fahrenheit, another nightclub, followed in 2009, followed by another stint as Benjamin’s. Yolo, a chem-free club for teens, had an extremely short-lived run in 2011, and then it was back to Benjamin’s for six more months under another owner.
The last bar that was open in the space was the Phoenix Pub, which opened in 2012 and closed in early 2014. Parcak sold the building in 2015 to Elena Sykes, owner of DES Properties, and the bar space has been empty ever since.
The Clarks are determined not to make the same mistakes that other business owners have made in more recent years. Not only are they shifting away from the nightclub vibe, but they also want to make their restaurant a family-friendly place to eat, offering accessible, homemade comfort and pub-style food on the menu. The Clarks have 10 children between them, ranging in age from 7 to 24, and the oldest two will work at the pub with them.
“There’s craft beer and microbrews everywhere. There’s fancy food everywhere. You can get a domestic draft here. We want to keep it simple,” Richard Clark said.
The fact that there are two new major housing and commercial developments — including a number of new apartments — going into the buildings nearby at both 99 and 29 Franklin St. can’t hurt their fortunes.
“This corner of town is really picking back up again, with the new Tesoro owners and Asian Garden and the new apartments going in,” he said. “It’s a good time to be here.”
Benjamin’s Pub at 123 Franklin St. will be open initially from 5 to 11 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays.