What am I doing writing on food in a blog about heritage? What could be more central to heritage than the foodways of a people, region, or country? So much of our material culture, our music, and our transportation pertains to how we harvest, prepare, and consume that culinary life force. So with that, I can't resist commenting on a fine dining experience I enjoyed at Grace Restaurant, a splendid example of how a historic building can achieve, well, divine new uses.
The days are behind us when historic structures can be demolished in the name of urban renewal the way Union Station was in 1961. That demolition acted like a pebble in the pond whose ripple created the historic preservation movement in Portland. Thank heaven that this early Gothic Revival style church on Chestnut Street, dated to circa 1856, met with a different end. Owners Anne and Peter Verrill completed the renovation this summer and opened what a Press Herald article called "a new house of worship for foodies."
Grace Restaurant enjoys an architecture that elicits awe when you step through their door, like no other that I have seen. The vaulted ceilings still point heavenward and suggest the sacred. The stained glass windows still paint an otherworldly light in the room. But the only high priests here are the chefs who command the former altar space and the second floor bartender who bustles beneath a towering work of stained glass artistry.
Sitting with my dinner party up in the lofty reaches of the second floor balcony, I ordered a melt-in-your-mouth hanger steak draped with mustard-beer sauce and served with fried green beans that seemed to redefine the vegetable. The service was friendly and knowledgeable about the historic building; when questioned about its history, our waiter called attention to the lovely buttresses whose apparent wood grain is really a hand-painted texture that was popular in the 1800s.
The next time I visit Grace, and there will be a next time, I'll head for the bar menu where I can act like a five-star foodie on a cultural historian's budget.