Ciao Bella Bella
As if this year hasn’t been crappy enough, I received an e-mail from my old pal Jonny (“Uncle Billy’s”) St. Laurent at the end of October:
In the unlikely event you’ve not heard yet, I’ll be the harbinger of the sad news that our great friend and chef, poet, pugilist,
and feeder of the poor, among other accomplishments in his short 57 year stint on the planet — that’s right, none other than Jimmy Ledue — has passed Over and I hope to a better place.
My first response was: Enough already. It’s not that Jimmy Ledue, a Portland restaurateur, and I were that close. In fact, I hadn’t seen him in years. But we had traveled a Portland trajectory together, dating back to the 1980s, when this was a cowboy town — unprettified, unsanitized, still a little dangerous — and he was a bright star on the dining scene.
(Of course, I do have my quintessential Jimmy story, just as all who knew him do. Mine involved a midnight joyride in a Christine-esque car, so many broken laws I can’t count, a stop by the Cape police and a smooth-talking Jimmy wrangling his way out of not only jail but even a warning.)
This was all before Portland was “discovered” in the national media as a foodie Mecca. According to these reports, prior to the arrival of this current wave of celebrity chefs, we Portlanders just sat around in the dirt and chewed on sticks. (Which is, of course, ridiculous. Everyone knows bark doesn’t pair well with Allen’s Coffee Brandy.)
That is not to say dining in Portland didn’t have its dark days. As a child in the 1960s, eating out for me meant going with my Gorham grandparents to either Vallee’s Steak House or the Village Café for meat or fried clams, respectively. In the ’70s, it signaled my dad had a business meeting, and since both my brothers were in college by the time I was 11, it was just as easy to drag me along to such places as (get this) pre-boat DiMillo’s, Boone’s, or John Martin’s Art Gallery. I loved waiting for my dad in the dimly lit lounges of these restaurants with my mom, swaddled in the Naugahyde of a low, swivel seat. Didn’t I feel the star power when a giant, straight-up Manhattan appeared on a tray as soon as he arrived? And wasn’t it glamorous being ushered to the hostess stand by our cocktail waitress with a “Let me get you a table in the dining room, Mr. Peavey,” as my father slipped her a bill. Yet, anything about the food beyond the whisky-soaked Maraschino cherries and bar nibbles is lost to me.
As I neared and entered college, however, I paid a bit more attention to what was on my plate. Sure, there were still Dad’s business dinners at the Merry Manor, where polyester-clad waiters dispensed enormous, steaming popovers, tableside. But I was forging out, too. During my brief stint as a vegetarian in high school, a trip to the very groovy Hollow Reed in the Old Port was a must. And who can forget the first time you saw the wait staff at Carber’s march around and make a hubbub when someone ordered a “Down! East! Feast!” sandwich? Important culinary milestones, all.
My move to Portland in 1979 coincided with the opening of the Great Lost Bear (nee Grizzly Bear), my home base for the next 30 years. This was the Era of Melted Cheese, with places like Horsefeathers and the Bag vying for my piddling poet’s dollars. Not that much of my pin and gin money was going toward food; I was more interested in the louche life and how glamorous I felt propped upon a barstool, with so many bartenders in town knowing my name. Still, one had to eat, and the ‘80s ushered in what I feel was the start of Portland’s food scene. And Jimmy Ledue was at the fore.
It all began (with his sister) at the Good Egg Café and continued with a restaurant on Pleasant Street called Alberta’s, which possessed that rare combination of being the kind of place you could take your mother to lunch, meet someone for business, go for drinks and appetizers with a friend and/or have a romantic meal, from first date to break-up dinner – sometimes all in the same day.
Jimmy Ledue also — for my money — introduced the idea of the chef/owner as a presence to Portland, except that it was more like having your big brother own a restaurant than a media star. You expected to see him when you dined, and it was always a letdown if he wasn’t in the house. But if he was, it was not uncommon for him to drag you by the wrist into his kitchen to see what was bubbling on the stove. There was always something up his sleeve.
More restaurants followed — Alberta’s II, Bella Bella, the Zephyr Grill, Bella Cucina — each with its signature Ledue twist. And wherever he went, his devoted Portland fan base tagged along. Because we knew we had something special in Jimmy Ledue.
And we didn’t need no big-city tenderfoots to tell us so.
Elizabeth Peavey knows how many restaurants she omitted. Please don’t feel the need to share them with her.