375 Fore St., Portland
Bull Feeney’s can boggle the mind. Part Irish pub, part family-style restaurant, part raucous Old Port rock club, the Fore Street establishment is laid out like a Clue board: the dining room, the library, the ballroom, the lounge, the kitchen… You half expect to see Col. Mustard and Miss Scarlet having a drink at the end of the bar – planning their next murder.
I’d hate to be on acid in this place.
Upon entering Bull Feeney’s on a recent evening, my companions and I checked in at the hostess station, a party of four, and settled around a small table in the pub area for the 40-minute wait. The place was full of people we’d never seen before (though granted, we tend to hang out uptown).
The downstairs pub is worthy of Disney World, its atmosphere a post-modern mix of authenticity and artifice. Owner Doug Fuss has filled the first floor with all sorts of old Irish stuff – drawers and shelves and signs and such – meant to recreate the scene in a “grocer-shop-style Irish bar,” as he told us in an interview last summer. There’s enough premium booze behind this bar to sink a navy – “Maine’s most extensive selection of single malt scotch, Irish & bourbon whisk(e)y,” the menu boasts.
We ordered Guinness to heighten the Irish pub sensation, and chatted while listening to what I later found out was Fuss’ iPod on random. (Bob Mould’s “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton” sounds remarkably Irish in this context. Maybe I should have taken a tab.)
Our dinner table was upstairs, in another, smaller barroom. The waiter arrived, smiling and sweating profusely. “Where are you folks from?” he asked.
This stumped us. “Um, up the street?” someone ventured.
Then it began to dawn on us – the place was full of tourists. No wonder we’d never seen these people before. (Better cancel that acid after all – talk about a bad trip…)
The waiter, of course, was also a local. He was visibly relieved to hear we’re from here – one less spiel to recite – and provided friendly, excellent service. The entire staff displayed the kind of crisp professionalism one associates with well-run franchise family restaurants, but they didn’t seem overly fake or flakey. Bull Feeney’s isn’t a franchise – at least, not yet.
Overall, the food was OK. “Maine’s Best Fish & Chips” ($10.95) were not, mostly because the Cisco-grade cole slaw seeped into the soggy pub fries beneath the fillets. The pasta alfredo with chicken ($14.95) was satisfying, but my companion who ordered it left wishing there’d been enough for the next day’s lunch.
Our photographer liked his 20-buck steak, but thought it looked lonely on the plate. My lamburger (about $8) also seemed lonesome, and the side order of colcannon (mashed potatoes and cabbage cooked in bacon and onion butter) was lukewarm and less tasty than its description had me hoping it would be.
Toward the end of our meal, the bar area quite suddenly filled with a rowdy group of college-age, slightly-more-than-half-drunk dudes. Their boisterous camaraderie was jarring, and when one guy dropped and broke a glass, I thought they might even get kicked out. But they didn’t, at least as long as we were there, though we left shortly thereafter. It was around 8:30 p.m.
Returning another night, I realized this transition from restaurant to rock club is usual at Bull Feeney’s about this time. They have bands in a room adjoining the bar upstairs four nights a week, and mellower acoustic and blues players downstairs on Friday and Saturday nights. The upstairs gigs on weekends mostly rotate between veteran R&B band Red Light Revue, rockabilly stalwarts King Memphis, and the hardest-working bluegrass band in town, Jerks of Grass.
On Thursdays, the hardest-working classic rock band in Portland, One Two Many, takes the stage. As Bollard music reviewer Galen Richmond notes in a recent piece, this band has been known to knock out marathons of AOR rock from a playlist longer than ‘BLM’s.
Like Galen, I was impressed by the band’s adept handling of all these tunes and the passion and intensity frontman Jay Basiner brings to this overplayed material. (Basiner also performs regularly as J. Biddy in the downstairs pub.)
I was also blown away by the volume, all the more so because Fuss has become the face of “responsible” Old Port bar ownership of late. He chairs the Nightlife Oversight Committee of Portland’s Downtown District, and served on the Mayor’s Old Port Nightlife Task Force, the one proposing to make bars and restaurants in other parts of town help pay for extra cops to police the Old Port bar scene.
So here’s a guy working to keep the peace down there, and his bar is literally rockin’ the cobblestones loose. I mean, standing outside while One Two Many ripped through “Black Magic Woman,” I had a flashback – this one possibly acid-related – to the outdoor Santana show I saw in upstate New York 10 years ago. It was just as loud. Passersby stopped in their tracks and peered up to see if Carlos himself was in town. A couple guys wandering the street stopped to ask me excitedly, “Where’s that music coming from?,” and promptly followed it upstairs.
Don’t get me wrong, I love loud music, and Fuss does run a responsible establishment. For example, if he booked a super-heavy local band like Conifer or Ocean in that room, the Old Port would crumble and fall into the bay, so he hasn’t. But if, say, The Icehouse cranked its jukebox half as high and opened a window, city officials would close the place by court order within the hour, and not just because the juke is packed with contemporary country.
Like I said, it can boggle the mind.
— Chris Busby
Bull Feeney’s is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.