Woodford Food & Beverage: Resuscitating an Old Classic

Woodford Food & Beverage:
Resuscitating an Old Classic

By Chloe Martin

As they were rolling up their sleeves to start interior renovations of their future restaurant, Woodford Food & Beverage, Birch Shambaugh asked Fayth Preyer what she hoped to discover once they started peeling away decades of office use in the building at 660 Forest Avenue in Portland.  She let herself dream, “what if there were terrazzo floors?!”

Adaptive re-use is a strategy promoted by historic preservation advocates that encourages developers to turn historic buildings into the spaces contemporary communities need.  The Greater Portland region is full of good examples of this practice:  Thompson’s Point, The Maine State Armory in South Portland, MECA’s use of the former Porteus Department Store, and even Greater Portland Landmark’s own, Safford House, to name a few.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has written many articles about how restaurants in particular have embraced adaptive reuse (restaurants in fire houses, old schools, churches, filling stations, and historic post offices. However, Fayth and Birch had the opposite idea when the saw the mortgage offices at 660 Forest Ave. They wanted to return the quintessentially mid-century modern building back to its original use and open a new restaurant at the heart of Woodfords Corner.  Birch came home at the end of the long first day of renovations, covered in sweat, dirt, carpet lint and glue to tell Fayth the good news: the floors were there.

The remains of the steam trench.

After considerable work, those terrazzo floors are gleaming underfoot in the busy restaurant, open since early 2016.  The variations in the floor help tell the story of the unique space. Built in 1964 the building was intended to be Valle’s Sandwich Shop, a short-lived arm of Valle’s Steak House. Breaking up the white sparkle of the floor are the original trenches that carried water to the steam tables central to the first restaurant. Designed by Boston-based firm, William Nelson Jacobs Associate, the building reflects the rapid changes of the American dining landscape during the 1960’s. Attempting to keep up with the burgeoning fast food scene where the building matches the brand, the iconic 3 bays of Valle’s Sandwich Shop echoed the crown of the Valle Steak House logo.  Operating from 1933 to 2000, the very successful steak house chain had its beginnings in an earlier building on the same site and grew to 25 other locations along the East Coast. 

 Photo is property of Portland Public Library Special Collections & Archives.

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Donald Della Valle emigrated from Italy to Portland in 1912 and opened his first restaurant in the Woodfords corner area in 1933. Valle opened the first steak house located at 660 Forest Ave. shortly after World War II in a one story building photographed by the Portland Press Herald in March 1949 for its newsworthy use of a neon sign. In 1960 the steak house moved to Brighton Avenue where Kon Asian Bistro is currently located and echoes of the distinct Valle crown logo in the buildings architecture are still visible.  After the move, the Forest Ave. space briefly housed Gigano’s Italian Restaurant, before permission to demolish the building along with the adjacent movie theatre was granted in 1962.  By 1964 the current structure was built but it only operated as the sandwich shop for 2 years. The back half of the building was designed as retail space that was long occupied by a Benjamin Franklin’s store and now houses a tanning salon and laundromat.  When the family converted the restaurant into their corporate offices in 1966 they covered but did not remove many details of the 1964 restaurant.  Under the office carpeting the steam trenches likely became paths for electric wires and telephone lines.

While Fayth and Birch discarded some of the 1960’s details they discovered (a wall of orange tile and the original grease trap) they refurbished the building’s thin wooden plank ceiling.  Sandwiched between the original floor and ceiling, they have made the space their own.  “I don’t think it is exaggerated to say that the building is what started this whole thing,” Birch said.  Fayth added that “how we are able to execute the restaurant we always knew we would have developed as we became familiar with the space.”   For example, they always knew they would have fixed seating. The notion of the booth nods to both roadside diners and also intimate big city restaurants.  Local legend says that Valle’s Sandwich Shop had booths too, bright orange ones.

 Their menu reveals that they revive more than old buildings.  Their food embraces old regional dishes and brings in better ingredients, better techniques, and new twists. As Fayth says of their chef Courtney Loreg, “she resuscitates old classics.” Citing chicken liver mousse, baked-stuffed lobster, and Oysters Rockefeller as dishes that gained bad reputations Birch suggests something went wrong in kitchens over the years.  “Fundamentally, in their original conception, they are excellent dishes but most people have suffered through mediocre versions their whole lives.” Birch ate many bad Oysters Rockefeller before having “a good one that made sense; one that revealed itself as a refined thing.”   Mid-Century Modern architecture has shared a similar roller-coaster of popularity but when looked at with fresh eyes the original design concepts are good, make sense, are even refined. Much like many dishes on the Woodford F&B menu are being re-discovered, so are Greater Portland’s mid-century architectural gems designed and built when chicken liver mousse was in its cocktail party heyday. 

Fayth Preyer & Birch Shambaugh

The Valle family comes into the restaurant on occasion, glad to have life back in the building central to their family’s livelihood.  They share stories, menus and other Valle’s Steakhouse ephemera with the new restaurant owners now raising their family in the restaurant at 660 Forest Ave. People who have lived nearby for decades remember going to Valle’s for special occasions and are grateful to have that kind of place in their neighborhood again.  New community members are delighted to have a gathering place nearby whether they go to celebrate a birthday or have a snack on a Wednesday.  “One of the fun parts has been to dive in to the provenance of this building’s story” Birch explained, “there are parts of it that resonate with what we are doing, the concept of the era, American roadside dining, and being at the center of a community …to have all that in some way baked into the shell of this place is valuable.  It is remarkable to me how many people pick up on that and ask about the architecture.”  Next time you drop in don’t forget to check out the floors and the new newsworthy neon sign while waiting for your order of Oysters Rockafeller.