Graeme Miller
Owner Graeme Miller behind the counter at BenReuben’s Knishery at 145 Ocean St. in South Portland, says there's a synergy between food establishments on the street. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Much has been said and written in the last few years about Portland’s food, coffee, and craft beer scene. Visitors come from near and far to explore the city’s restaurants and breweries, and to enjoy what residents by now may take for granted.

Inner Washington Avenue, for example, a once-ignored length of street, is home to bustling restaurants, bars, breweries, and other stops on any foodie’s itinerary.

Knightsville-Mill Creek map
The portion of Ocean Street in South Portland that extends from Market Street north to Thomas Knight Park has more than a dozen restaurants and cafes, starting with Cafe Louis and ending with Foulmouthed Brewing. The surrounding Mill Creek neighborhood has another half dozen dining establishments. (Google map)

But now there’s competition.

Just across the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland, a small, growing, and impressive collection of dining and beverage destinations threatens to rival Portland’s busy Munjoy Hill scene.

Is Ocean Street the next Washington Avenue?

‘I couldn’t help but jump into it’

Graeme Miller, who with his wife Caitlin opened BenReuben’s Knishery about four months ago, said Ocean Street is becoming an iconic “Main Street.”

“There is a great, cheery, interactive community that has a lot of support for new businesses,” Miller said last week.

Miller’s business at 145 Ocean St. focuses on knishes, putting his spin on traditional Jewish-style hand pies and serving them along with other Jewish-style sides and even weekly takeout dinners of brisket and roast chicken. BenReuben’s had a strong summer, and Miller credited the growing street and enthusiastic South Portland community.

He said two factors led him to Ocean Street.

The first was the building. Miller said he looked at different properties, but when he saw this particular spot, he knew he’d found the right location, with big windows and a great open space.

But the other thing was what he called an “old Main Street feel” on Ocean Street.

“A lot of people crave that stuff,” Miller said. “I crave it. I couldn’t help but jump into it.”

As with virtually every restaurant, the coronavirus pandemic presented challenges. But Miller said he was able to build his business with the pandemic in mind.

“It was kind of meant to service individuals while in the world we live in,” he said, adding other places along Ocean Street have similar approaches. “It can be a short, sweet, and familiar interaction with people you know.”

BenReuben’s doesn’t have indoor dining. But Miller said its takeout-only service fits in on Ocean Street, where customers can stop into the Legion Square Market for steaks and then swing by BenReuben’s for sides.

“Main Street becomes that one-stop-shop,” he said.

“I’m rather excited to see the future and settle in,” Miller added. “There’s a camaraderie between all the business owners here. To watch that over the years and see that grow is exciting.”

Jula and Craig Dilger
Julia and Craig Dilger, owners of Foulmouthed Brewing at 15 Ocean St. in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

‘Success begets success’

At the northern end of the Knightville neighborhood near Thomas Knight Park, Foulmouthed Brewing opened in a repurposed auto garage at 15 Ocean St. just over five years ago. The brewpub owned by Craig and Julia Dilger has an eclectic pub-style menu, and of course, a rotating roster of beers brewed on-site.

“We chose this area because we knew, from personal experience, that all our friends and people we knew that were of the age to want to go to breweries were moving out of Portland, and South Portland was becoming a cool place to live,” Julia Dilger said. “We knew that young families in this area wanted a place to come with their kids and not have to go over the bridge.”

Craig Dilger added that, after looking at several spots, including in Portland, they agreed on Ocean Street.

“It just really kind of felt exactly right,” he said. “We saw the momentum that was already going on with places like Cia Café and Verbena that had already been established.”

Dilger said he and his wife structured their business in a way that he thinks has helped them during the pandemic.

“We have a restaurant and a brewpub, and we produce and distribute beer,” he said. “So we’re a little insulated from the effects of the pandemic on the restaurant side.”

The Dilgers said working with the city was a relatively easy process in terms of licensing, inspections, and other necessary steps towards opening a business. The only issue they did run into was related to the pandemic, for extending their patio seating season further into the fall, although they received that license last week.

“We lost seats indoors to create socially distanced spacing,” Julia said. “A lot of people are still cautious about eating out.”

Overall, the Dilgers are positive about what the future holds for Ocean Street.

“We’re excited to see all these great businesses open up and, we hope, to be successful,” Julia said. “It really makes it a desirable neighborhood.”

Craig Dilger said the neighborhood businesses support each other.

“I’m about to put in an order at BenReuben’s Kinishery for my own lunch,” he said. “We’ve had great food from Judy Gibson. We haven’t been into SoPo Seafood but we’ve ordered from there, (and) their quality is great. There’s a lot to be excited about. The success of one neighbor begets the success of another neighbor.”

South Portland Economic Development Director William Mann.

‘Variety attracts more people’

William Mann, the city’s economic development director, said Ocean Street has had a frantic last 18 months. And even though that coincided with the pandemic, he said the city developed a program to encourage more residents to keep supporting their favorite restaurants with takeout and delivery.

“Folks have taken entrepreneurial opportunities to locate there,” he said.

Mann noted that Taco Trio, which opened 10 years ago at 119 Ocean St., is taking over the former Big Babe’s Tavern building at 60 Ocean St. He said new ventures like SoPo Seafood, BenReuben’s, and Café Louis are examples of how Ocean Street has developed.

“We’re pleased with the additional choice that’s available to residents and visitors to the community,” he said.

Mann said while it’s unfortunate to see restaurant businesses close – such as the Mr. Bagel in the Mill Creek Shopping Center – open spaces create new opportunities. At the Q Street Diner, for example, he said the longtime owners are planning to retire but want to hand the popular restaurant off to the next generation of restaurateurs.

“The addition of new venues is a very positive outcome and, in some cases – almost all – it has also been the result of other longtime institutions having decided it was time to end their chapter of operations,” Mann said. “Some of that was absolutely exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s a double-edged sword but we’re gratified and pleased that other folks decided to jump in. We think that type of diversity in food establishments attracts more people to our traditional downtown and offers a greater variety. The greater variety generally attracts more people.”

Mann also praised restaurants for being creative and changing hours of operation and focusing primarily on takeout to get through the pandemic. He said the level of camaraderie on Ocean Street helps create a customer base that keeps coming back to explore new businesses.

“All the businesses in that downtown have all played very nicely with one another and supported one another. It’s a really positive and gratifying thing to see,” Mann said. “I think the more variety you have, it begets more vitality and activity because of the diversity of offerings. 

Verbena at 103 Ocean St. in South Portland is right next door to the Legion Square Market. (Courtesy Verbena)

‘It’s nothing but good’

Melissa Coriaty, owner of Verbena at 103 Ocean St., has seen it all.

Her breakfast/lunch/catering business has been in Knightville since 2009. That was before the city overhauled the neighborhood infrastructure and real estate was less expensive. Ocean Street was a quiet location, with potential.

“When I first got down here, there wasn’t much of anything,” she said.

More than a decade later, Coriaty has seen Ocean Street become an eclectic mix of restaurants and cafes that includes more recent arrivals like Solo Cucina Market, and long-established places like The Snow Squall and Bridgeway Restaurant & Bar.

“We’re really excited,” she said. “It’s really bringing more people here. Down here you have plenty of parking, (and) there’s an extremely supportive community.”

Coriaty said Verbena’s success is in part related to being a member of the community. She has had regular customers who went on to get married, and longtime customers who now bring in their children. She has catered weddings and baby showers.

“We’re working with more of a local customer base,” Coriaty said. “We do have people who are tourists come in, but for the most part, we see people from the area. Not that it hasn’t been hard. But one thing through it all, I’ve seen people who have been coming in here since we opened.” 

SoPo Seafood
Lucas Myers, left, Matt Brown, and Joshua Edgcombe, co-founders of SoPo Seafood, at the company’s new retail store and raw bar at 171 Ocean St., South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

‘The community support … is overwhelming’

SoPo Seafood, opened recently at 171 Ocean St. (the former Uncle Andy’s) by Matt Brown, Lucas Myers, and Joshua Edgcombe, is a seafood market, raw bar, and wholesaler that, throughout the pandemic, has also operated a delivery service – from Biddeford.

Edgcombe said they always intended the business to be in South Portland, but the pandemic put those plans on hold – until they heard about the Uncle Andy’s location being available.

“We thought what an amazing opportunity to be right in the middle of a fantastic community that’s already been showing us support,” Edgcombe said. “It was amazing timing for us, and we went for it.”

Even before opening to the public, Edgcombe said they have enjoyed huge community support. The city honored them with its “Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Award” in February, which Edgcombe called an example of its commitment to economic development.

The business investment is “obviously a risk,” he said. “But the community support we have is overwhelming. It’s amazing. It’s the reason why we opened the shop. I think people are now more than ever particularly interested in locally produced foods and supporting small-scale operations.”

Taco Trio kitchen
Activity in the kitchen at Taco Trio in South Portland. The restaurant at 119 Ocean St., on Legion Square, will soon move two blocks north to 60 Ocean St., the former Big Babe’s Tavern building. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

‘We love that little corner’

Taco Trio has been a destination for taco and burrito enthusiasts since it was opened in 2011 on Legion Square, at the intersection of Ocean Street, Cottage Road, and E Street, by the husband-and-wife team of Manuel Pena and Karen Rasmussen.

Rasmussen said they were warned to stay away from “Deadsville,” but “I just always liked the neighborhood.”

And from the minute they began working on the building, she said neighborhood residents started coming by to share their anticipation.

“We totally lowballed how many people might go there,” she said. “As soon as we started working on the place, people started putting notes up on our door saying they were so excited.”

Rasmussen, who has her own career at Maine Medical Center, said the restaurant is her husband’s dream come true. Pena is originally from Mexico, and he had a food cart business in North Carolina before moving to Maine. The desire to eventually open a brick-and-mortar location led to Knightville.

“It was far more successful than we thought,” Rasmussen said. “We thought we’d have three employees, maybe three. But that became 20.”

They opened a Portland location on Forest Avenue in the Riverton neighborhood but had to close both restaurants after Pena was diagnosed with cancer. Only the Ocean Street business was reopened when Pena was well enough to return to work – until he decided he wanted to open another restaurant.

“So we finally are,” in Saco, Rasmussen said. They are also transitioning the Knightville eatery to the corner of Ocean and C streets. 

“We did not want to leave the neighborhood,” she said. “We had plans in the works for three years to expand the building we’re in. We went round and round with the city, and that’s no fault of theirs. We just never could come up with a plan until COVID hit.”

The pandemic made the notion of expanding the existing location impossible. That, coupled with the challenges of needing to renovate the old building, made them come around to the idea of relocating – but only up the street.

“We love that corner,” Rasmussen said about Legion Square. “We’re not giving that place up for now. It will be the production kitchen (for both restaurants). Then, I don’t know. But we love that little corner.”