A local restaurant owner has plans for a new operation at the site of the former Old Port Tavern, a Portland staple for over 50 years that closed last spring.
Wills Dowd, the owner of the Woodfords Corner restaurant Bird & Co., hopes to have the “totally new concept” in the Old Port space open by April 2024.
Dowd, 34, who grew up in the Rosemont neighborhood, said he’s just a few weeks away from finalizing the name and concept after taking over the lease at 11 Moulton Street, but is “99 percent” decided on what the new restaurant will have to offer.
It won’t be another Bird & Co, nor another rendition of the Old Port Tavern, a restaurant and bar with a steady schedule of dance and entertainment. Wills plans a complete overhaul of the interior, including a new bar and kitchen, as well as a separate function room for wedding events and catering services.
The revered Old Port Tavern, perched near the tourist draws of Exchange, Wharf and Commercial Streets, opened in 1973 by Richard Herrera and business partner Charlie McGee. The duo operated it for five decades and closed at the end of 2022. When the chance opened up for Dowd to take over, it was an easy decision.
“Being born and raised in Portland, I know how iconic the Old Port Tavern space is. When it came [up] for lease, I knew I wanted it,” he said.
The bar and restaurant business is a legacy that runs in the family — dating back to his father, Billy Dowd, who had been running some Old Port bars since the late ‘70s, like Popeye’s Ice House, the York Street bar which notoriously featured a plane sticking out of the roof — as well as Bottoms Up, the bar on Forest Avenue that preceded the Great Lost Bear.
“He’s been a mentor of mine. I knew from day one,” Dowd said. “I never had a plan other than owning restaurants and bars.”
Dowd said his father was there at the Old Port Tavern on opening night back in 1972 — and he can remember getting prime rib dinners there with his dad when he was 10 years old.
“That was the Old Port back in the day,” Dowd said. “If people said they were going to the Old Port, they were going to the Old Port Tavern. It lasted the test of time — after 50 years, they have nothing left to prove.”
For Bird & Co., Dowd’s California-inspired taco spot at 534 Deering Avenue, it’s been a “wild summer,” despite so much rain. The restaurant’s catering arm has been “crushing it” with 60 weddings this summer (starting in late May) through November.
Bird & Co. also has two food trucks in operation, and has recently popped up in a commissary kitchen space in South Portland. Dowd said he’s been looking in neighboring towns for any potential landing spots for a second Bird & Co too.
It has long been Wills Dowd’s hope to open a restaurant off the peninsula, right where he grew up. Years ago, Bird & Co. became that reality. Now for the next step.