The View From Away
Ogling the grey dawn of another New Year, my wife Fayth and I were in a contemplative way, taking broad stock after more than a decade living in New York City. The previous year had delivered the usual quotidian highs and lows, but one thing kicked us squarely in the teeth. For more than 40 of the previous year’s precious 52 weekends, we’d fought tooth and nail to escape the city’s confines for a change of scenery. Lurking headache notwithstanding, we considered that perhaps, just maybe, we were due for a more profound change.
A simple notion triggered a cacophony of change. Almost before we knew it we found ourselves hunting for an apartment in Portland, Maine. Quality of life and proximity to natural splendor were undeniable, and this little city fights well above its weight class in food and culture.
Within months we’d effectively punctured our equilibrium, turning life as we knew it on its head. We packed up all of our stuff and, one fine day, found ourselves staring at the West End neighborhood through the windows of new digs. Fresh transplants, we were simultaneously away (yet again) and from away. For Fayth and I, being from away has always been a reflexive strength. No matter where we’ve lived, we’ve always been from somewhere else. Along the way, we shed pejorative associations in favor of a broader definition. For us, “away” connotes travel, change, an accumulation of experience. It’s my opinion that we are all, in one way or another, from away. And likely the better for it.
Within six months we’d bought a house. Not long after, we welcomed our first child. A local who delighted in needling us for being from away dubbed her our ‘anchor baby.’ The day after we closed on our home in the Oakdale neighborhood, we unexpectedly stumbled on a gem of a building perched in the center of Woodfords Corner. It oozed mid-century charm, all angles and glass with a peaked roof-line that shouted roadside dining. Fayth and I had spent much of our working life helping other people run their restaurants and, as industry folks often will do, we turned to one another and exclaimed “that should be a restaurant!”
Again, a simple thought, but this time change didn’t come quite as quickly. Years went by as we did progressively more due diligence and became evermore ensconced in our neighborhood. What started off as a stray notion became a full-fledged idea; there could, nay should, be a restaurant at Woodfords Corner. Our research revealed that it had been purpose-built to be just that, the first of the New England Valle’s Steakhouses, and one which had played an important role in the community.
Over the next years, I wrote several letters to the owner of the building but received no response. Our second child was born in early December of 2014. Six weeks later, my cellphone rang. Squawking colicky, baby in one arm, I answered. The voice on the other end said “Well, you sure are persistent. Are you still interested in the building at 660 Forest?” It was a hell of a question out of the blue yonder. With a three-year-old, an infant, and a host of other work and life complexities to consider, it took us 10 minutes to decide that there was only one answer.
While there are endless types of great restaurants in the world, a great neighborhood joint is the only one we’ve ever wanted to create. For us such a place is fundamentally convivial and welcoming , a place of sound value and limited pretense, where you never leave feeling as if you suffered at the expense of someone else’s art or dogma. This is what we hoped to make.
Finally, after the better part of a decade, we opened Woodford Food & Beverage on January 20, 2016. It’s been one hell of a ride since, and we’re enormously grateful and proud to be knocking on our second anniversary.
Fundamentally, serving people food and drink is intensely personal, and a great neighborhood joint the most deeply personal of all; a stand-in for the hearth and hospitality of home. It is at once a long-term, committed relationship and the ability to be many different things: a place for comfortable family meals, special occasions, and a haven for a solo drink or bite. If you’re lucky, it becomes a destination itself, a window for strangers to experience the nuances, character and flavors that make a place like Portland so special.
Fayth and I are keenly aware that we are part of the significant change afoot in Woodfords Corner. Each month brings news of a new business coming out to Forest Avenue, a new evolution or enhancement to our environs. Traffic is a mess due to the construction. The neighborhood is rapidly shifting and the familiar pains of gentrification are palpable. For every new business that is coming in, there is likely one that is moving out or has gone belly up.
However, I’m a glass half-full guy. Due in no small part to the efforts of the Friends of Woodfords Corner, there is a renewed sense of place and community as we all work to better our surroundings. There’s a tangible feeling of momentum around here and we’re proud to count ourselves part of the plot.
It’s a deeply humbling thing to get to do work you love in the immediate community that you live in. As our guests welcome us into their lives, we’re also welcoming them into ours and our version of hospitality. Our children go to school together, and we work each day to be good neighbors and a positive force in our community. And we work daily to earn our place next to the businesses that have been holding it down out here for years. For us, it is impossible not to hear the echoes of the past, a time when this building was just one part of a Woodfords Corner that was a vibrant neighborhood epicenter filled with vitality. You can almost feel the pendulum swinging back in that direction for these neighborhoods. From away, but there’s no place I’d rather call home.
Birch Shambaugh is co-owner with his wife, Fayth, of Woodford Food & Beverage Restaurant in Portland, and a recovering Brooklynite and tech entrepreneur.