[Note: Cake has since closed.]
50 Wharf St., Portland
Welcome to the first, and hopefully last, installment of… Bud Pounder: Bar Detective. In this episode, Bud investigates Cake, rumored to be a skanky nightclub masquerading as a swanky restaurant on Wharf Street. Bud’s been hired by The Bollard to get the skinny. This is his report…
It was a Thursday night in downtown Portland, mid-February, so cold even the wharf rats were dialing Joe for oil. I was holed up in a gin palace uptown, throwing back shots of Evan Williams backed with PBR, a steal at four clams and a blessing for a bar-polisher on a gumshoe’s wages.
Flipping through the free weekly rub-and-tug rag, I spotted an ad for Cake – an unwelcome reminder I had a job to do and was unprepared for the assignment. See, the client publication hadn’t been easy on the owner of this joint, a small-time player nicknamed Digger who’s thick with Baldacci. Seems Digger mixed it up with the fuzz last summer outside one of the Old Port bars he owns. Got tapped and sent to the county hotel for the night, and this client decides to run his drunken mug on Page One – about a half dozen times.
You don’t have to be Philip Marlowe to know the editor of this blab sheet’s got me on the payroll – no other fish wrapper in town’ll pick up my bar tabs for these gigs – so I figured I’d need to case the place incognito. That meant a shave, a wig chop, and the style of threads you see at Joseph’s, not Joe’s Smoke Shop. I didn’t have the ducats to get all duked out, or even time for a decent razor-scrape.
Then in walked my cover: two Portland City Councilors. With these baby-kissers in tow, I stood a fair chance of gettin’ into Cake and back out again on the same dogs I walked in on.
Last December, Digger fed the Council a line about Cake being “upscale,” a high-class joint serving champagne and truffles. They ate it up like he was passin’ out free samples at Whole Foods. Wasn’t 10 years ago this same character owned an after-hours club on Forest Avenue. The heat busted in, found a hundred teenyboppers and enough hard candy to keep David Crosby straight for six months.
Since then, Digger’s owned the corner of Fore, Union and Wharf streets, his own Meathead District down by the waterfront. Good place to get a late-night knuckle sandwich or catch the clap from some floozie with a tramp stamp. He told the politicos Cake would be a hangout for the martini-and-chocolate-mousse crowd. Said there’d be “jazz” – slang for “live Muzak” these days – and “acoustic acts,” like Cake’s a coffeehouse scene for squares over 40 who drink decaf.
But there it was in black-and-white along the bottom of the ad: “Ladies’ Night,” “Live Funk,” “Sexy 70’s Saturday Disco Explosion!” If that’s the entertainment at a two-fork restaurant, I’m Mike Chitwood.
Thursday was “Live Funk” night, and four cats called Chronic Funk were cookin’ in a corner of what the ad calls “Cake’s Entertainment Mansion.” The horn man was blowin’ up a storm and the cat on the skins was no slouch, though the vibe sounded more Phil Collins than Bootsy at times.
The “mansion” is dim and cavernous, with high ceilings, a long bar, and enough dance floor space to make you look foolish. If “classy” means you fork over a fin for a 12-ounce bottle of Geary’s Pale, then this mansion fits the definition. Then again, there’s the $3 PBR pounders, a brew as classy as Jackass Number Two, and the draft beer selection typical of Digger’s dorm-room approach to barkeeping – Bud Light, Coors Light, Bass, and five empty taps.
Several small, white-clothed tables set empty in a cluster at one end of the mansion – it was well after the dinner hour of decent people, and my cheap client wouldn’t spring for a full-course feed. Behind a wall I found a narrow dining room and a small wooden bar, empty save for a knight in tarnished armor whom I suspect hides a surveillance camera in his helmet. There were wooden chairs along the bar with tall, rough-hewn planks for backing. I sat in one for five seconds. It was as comfortable as a concrete slab.
There were maybe a dozen customers hanging around that night, but nobody’d confuse this scene with the Cumberland Club. The ad promises “ultra VIP treatment,” but the bartender had all the charm of a vending machine, and the other staff kept shooting us suspicious glares, like we were the ones who put a divot in the red-felt pool table, making it near impossible to get a tight rack.
When I cased Cake around suppertime Saturday, there was a table of maybe six biddies in the dining room. Otherwise, the joint was dead – solid proof Digger isrunning a high-class chow house, at least from 5 to 9.
Near midnight, I snuck back to dig the “Disco Explosion!” The blast must’ve vaporized most of the crowd, leaving one horny couple and, later, a small gaggle of office dames shakin’ their moneymakers beneath the disco ball.
With the booty-music pumping and the disco lights on, Cake could be Liquid Blue II, a slightly cleaner cousin of Digger’s Fore Street dance hall. Both clubs have the same metal-plated pissers, too. The men’s head is covered floor-to-ceiling in the same slip-proof textured steel covering the hole outside the porn shop on Congress Street, where the gimp lives.
So, boss, that’s the dope on Cake. And speakin’ of cake, how ’bout forkin’ over the dough for this gig? I got a date with Evan Williams uptown.
— Chris Busby
Cake is open Wed.-Sun. from 5 p.m.-1 a.m. A “grand opening” celebration takes place Sat., March 3, beginning with an invite-only private party from 7 p.m.-10 p.m., followed by a public performance by the Jim Ciampi Band at 10 p.m.