Try walking into a restaurant that is closed for business in the middle of the day — it’s eerie. Ghosts of the evening prior permeate the space and muffled laughter sends chills up your spine.
I met with Mike Fraser of the Roma Cafe at such a time of day to learn more about who he is and what motivates him. Though he was reticent to talk about himself, it didn’t take long for him to open up.
Like many successful business people, Fraser had a modest start. Mike’s parents were teachers. Of the people I've met whose parents were teachers, expectations are clear from a young age. Mike began his undergraduate studies as a Physics and Engineering double major, then changed his major to Wildlife Ecology. A lover of the outdoors and all things Maine, he thought he had identified his calling. Mike pursued a graduate degree and got halfway through his thesis, but then life happened.
He began questioning where he would be at 40 and naturally, what kind of money he’d need to earn to live the life he wanted to live. So he abandoned work in nature for the hospitality industry. He started out busing in Bar Harbor and then learned how to serve and tend bar. Mike loved the frenetic atmosphere of restaurants, greeting guests and providing a superior dining experience.
His first position in Portland was at Cinque Terre on Wharf Street. There, he met Guy Streitburger, the current General Manager of The Roma Cafe, and Jason Loring, another Portland restaurateur. The three have remained close friends. Mike served and bartended at Fore Street for nine years. Four or five years into his Fore Street tenure, Mike decided it might soon be time to open his own place. His first foray into ownership was Bramhall, a successful bar and lounge on Congress Street. When Mike and Jason first looked at the Roma, they were considering the space for a private club. They spoke to the Quimbys who owned the space; at that time, they envisioned it for some other use. In the meantime, Mike helped finance the Rhum Tiki Bar and Big J’s Fried Chicken at Thompson’s Point — ventures which proved to be immensely popular.
By the time the Roma property was available for lease, Mike had abandoned the private club concept — a sign of maturity — and decided to do something more ambitious. Mike and his partners, Anders Tallberg and Guy Streitburger, thought it would be cool to bring the Roma back, not realizing the responsibility that came with reopening the iconic space.
The Roma Cafe was one of the most beloved restaurants in Portland for many years. It was a romantic southern Italian restaurant where Mainers celebrated significant occasions. The previous owners only closed their doors because they had had enough of the restaurant business, but it remained popular until the day it closed. The Roma has tremendous brand equity and although it is often better to change the name of a space when a new owner takes it over, keeping the name of the restaurant has proven to be a wise decision. Mike had visited Carbone, an Italian Restaurant on Thompson Street in New York City, and wanted to replicate the quality of food and dining experience. Mike, Chef Anders, and Guy worked closely together to create the concept of the new Roma Cafe.
The Roma is a beautiful space, inside a Francis Fassett-designed mansion built in 1887. Mike tells me that diners have been very appreciative of the revival of such a beloved restaurant. Having eaten at the restaurant many times (and although he is somewhat biased), he gives Chef Anders’s southern Italian a big thumbs up. Personally, I am grateful to have the cuisine I grew up eating just a few doors down from my home in the West End.
When I asked Mike how it feels to have accomplished such a lofty goal, he replied: “It feels great! I’m really proud of what the Roma has turned into. It's exactly as we had hoped it would be.”
Mike Fraser is no slouch. He a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker and Portland should be keeping one eye open for future entrepreneurial projects. For example, look out for Hunker Down at Sugarloaf opening November 20 — a Mike Fraser and Jason Loring partnership.
The Roma Cafe | 767 Congress St., Portland | Sun-Thurs 5-9:30 pm; Fri-Sat 5-10 pm | http://romaportland.com⁄
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