A talk with John Reali
By Peter Smith
Village Cafe owner John Reali was born and raised on Newbury Street in Portland, and now lives in North Yarmouth. The Bollard spoke with him at his Newbury Street restaurant about the eatery’s pending sale to Boston-based developer GFI Residential, which plans to demolish The Village to make way for a condominium project called The Village at Ocean Gate.
The Bollard: There are a lot of historic photographs on the wall here. Can you give me a sense of the history of this place?
Reali: The Village Cafe was started in 1936 by my grandfather [Vincenzo], then my father [Amedeo] took over after he retired, and then I took over after he retired. It’s been in the Reali family for 70 years. There’s a lot of history here. It’s a tradition of many local families.
Can you tell me a little bit about the regulars?
I don’t want to give you names – just so many regulars. People have been coming here for years, since they were kids, and then they’ve grown up and their kids have come here. A lot of wedding rehearsal dinners. We’ve had a lot of gatherings when people pass away, because it’s their favorite restaurant. We’ve had many people get engaged here. Come graduation time, there’s a lot of kids in here for senior proms. It’s a tradition. If you live in Portland, you know the Village Cafe.
What’s the recipe for success?
Quality. Reasonable price. Consistency…. The Village Cafe is probably Portland’s best-known family restaurant. We have a huge menu that attracts many different people: senior citizens, businesspeople, children. We’ve got a menu that will satisfy anyone.
Is there a signature dish that defines this place?
My favorite is the veal parmesan. We have the best veal in town. We sell a lot of chicken parmesan, a lot of fried clams, and lasagna. We’re known for our Italian food.
It seems like a real neighborhood place. Why would you want to sell?
A lot has happened in the last 25, 30 years, with the economy, the competition. Years ago, we were the only show in town. Now, there’s so much competition. And there’s a lot of good restaurants.
Our restaurant is very large: it seats 550. The building needs a lot of repairs. It’s getting harder and harder to fill those 550 seats with the economy and the high cost of fuel. I had a choice to sink at least a half a million into the building, or sell the property and downsize to make the restaurant more profitable.
The days of the large restaurants — with over 500 seats — are gone by. The chains coming into town. They seat 150 or 180.
What’s the status of the deal to sell the property?
It’s under contract. They’ve given me a deposit and it’s just pending the city’s approval. It’s still up in the air. It’s pending planning board approval, city council approval, and then they have to pre-sell 50-to-60 units to get financing. Could happen, could not happen…. In fact, [the developers have had] a neighborhood meeting here. [Neighbors] meet the developers and agree with them or object or whatever. It’s a long process.
The developers propose to build four-to-five stories of condominiums, and a two-bedroom unit will sell for $300,000. How do you see that fitting in with your restaurant?
Well, I’m not sure if it’s going to happen or not. Being in this neighborhood for 70 years, I think it would be a natural for me to stay here. Everybody knows Newbury Street is where the Village Cafe is. When the tourists come, they’ve got to just stop a local and say, ‘Hey, where’s the Village?’ And they direct them.
Are the people who are going to buy these condos the type of people that would come to the Village Cafe?
I’m not sure that I’m qualified to answer that, but I’d say yes. The developers are trying to sell them at a reasonable price. Maybe it’s not reasonable to your eye. Most of the [condo] projects around town are selling [units] for three-quarters to a million and a half. These units, they’re trying to keep them in the low three’s. I think people that buy condominiums near the water, they can afford to eat out. I hope they can.
If the development goes through, what happens? Or, say the plan falls through – what happens to the Village Café?
That’s a good question. I’d definitely have to come up with a Plan B. I probably will downsize. I may build a smaller restaurant on the property and tear this one down. I could develop the property myself. If I don’t sell it, the Village is going to stay right here.
How do you view development on the East End as a whole?
I think it’s great for Portland. There’s a lot of projects. The ferry terminal [Ocean Gateway] is being built now. [Shipyard Brewing Company president Fred] Forsley’s got a project down on the water. I think it’s exciting for this end of town. I think it will bring some much-needed business to this end of town, instead of everything out at the mall.
You’ll still be serving veal parmesan?
Yes, definitely… I’m still open. I’m still in business. Nothing has changed. I’m still running it like I always have. I get calls daily, ‘What? You’re still open? We didn’t know you were still open….’ Every time the developers come in town or they have a meeting with the planning board and it makes the Press Herald, you know, people think, ‘Oh, the Village is closed.’
[Another developer is] building seven town houses up there [on Federal Street], and people riding down Washington Ave. see the project and they say, ‘That’s the Village.’ It’s not.
When you have 550 seats to fill, it’s tough… I think if we downsize to 150 or 180 seats, we’ll be busy again, like we used to be.