When happy hour rolls around you probably don’t head to your local church. But in Portland, Maine, that is exactly where you’ll find some of the best cocktails in town. The only service you’ll find in this church, however, is table service. The Chestnut Street United Methodist Church, which was abandoned in 2006, is now one of Portland’s premier restaurants. After two years of meticulous restoration, this pre-civil war church was reborn as Grace restaurant in 2009.
The Chestnut Street church dates back to 1856 and is an important example of the Gothic Revival style of architecture, earning it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, it is one of just a few remaining examples of this style in Portland due to a large fire in 1866 that destroyed so many buildings of the era. After the church was abandoned in 2006, it caught the eyes of restaurateurs Peter and Anne Verrill, who had recently achieved success with their Foreside Tavern in nearby Falmouth, Maine. They decided to purchase the old church in 2007 and began a two year restoration project during which they learned firsthand the challenges of historic preservation.
Since the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, no work could be done without official approval. This often meant months of delays before a seemingly simple task could be executed. According to Anne, “It took us three months to get the right color of mortar.” The historic preservation guidelines required that the building appear as if no actual work had been done to repair the mortar, which meant that the Verrills had to come up with ten different color samples before they were given the go-ahead. Two million dollars and two years later, they were finally ready to open one of Portland’s most divine restaurants.
If you’ve been to church before, then the environment will be familiar. Massive stained glass windows and the vaulted ceiling give the place a peaceful and spiritual quality; but the centerpiece of Grace is the twenty-two foot diameter circular bar on the first floor. Designed by Tivi Design, the bar is made up of six concrete sections – each weighing about 500 lbs. – that were built in Colorado and then shipped out to Maine. From your seat at this heavy-duty bar, you can order cocktails with names like “dust to dust,” “holier than thou,” and “redemption.”
Throughout the rest of the 175-seat restaurant, one will discover many small touches that address the building’s heritage. All of the napkin rings were made out of parts from the original organ, while the knives recall the shape of the church’s tall and narrow lancet windows. Details such as these are all part of the Verrill’s intention to create a dining experience that is permeated by grace on every level. It was the word “grace,” and its many possible interpretations, that inspired the restaurant, which according to Anne, “is everything from beauty down to the actual saying of grace at the table.