Tests of time

Don't let old standbys drop off the radar
By LEISCHEN STELTER  |  December 9, 2009

SPICING UP THE MENU Bibo’s Thai Grilled Shrimp and Scallops.

It feels like every week I read about a new restaurant opening in Portland. There was Grace, the new space for Binga's Wingas, and Shima. There's more on the way, including the much-anticipated launch of Figa and even the tried-and-true making big moves with Katahdin relocating to Forest Avenue. But while reports of new spots popping up left and right must be a sign of a strong industry, we should not neglect those restaurants that manage to stay strong through the years.

Bill Boutwell is approaching his 11th year as chef and owner of Bibo's Madd Apple Café, and says success is largely about knowing your audience. It's a sensible connection for a man whose business is located next door to Portland Stage Company and draws a large theater-going customer base. (Who no doubt also appreciate the eclectic ambiance offered by paintings by local artists and tables made by Boutwell himself from reclaimed wood.)

A restaurant with the name "Madd Apple Café" has been around for nearly a quarter-century (and is thought by some to be the longest-operating restaurant in Portland), but Boutwell and his wife Andrea have been running it just since February 1999. When they took over, they wanted it to be more than a "theater restaurant," but now says, "after being here for few years, we finally accepted that we're a theater restaurant and excel at getting people in and upstairs on time," he says. It means, of course, that a large number of customers all come in at the same time and need to leave before show time — handling the flow is an art form in and of itself.

Customers come back show after show, too, leading Boutwell to constantly change the menu. Doing this has required "a lot of playing" over the past decade. "Some of it is reinventing the wheel, and some of it is taking stuff we've tried before and putting a twist on it," he says.

This week, BiBo's began rolling out its winter-influenced menu with a combination of hearty entrées mixed with eclectic, often Asian-inspired, dishes. The Turducken Meatloaf, for example, with layers of duck, chicken, and turkey meatloaf separated by layers of traditional and sausage-corn stuffing is served over whipped potatoes and topped with roasted eggplant gravy, guaranteeing that patrons leave fully stocked as they head out into the cold winter weather (or anticipated winter weather, anyway).

By contrast, the Thai Grilled Shrimp and Scallops entrée made with red curry marinated shrimp hugging scallops over a bed of rice noodles mixed with carrots, bok choy, and served with roasted peanuts and lemongrass-coconut sauce, looks to spice things up.

Boutwell has a few tricks he has learned about making the most of difficult times. For example, to minimize his wine inventory without losing options, Boutwell increased the number of wines offered by the glass, and reduced bottle offerings from 60 to 30 labels. That lets customers sample more of the restaurant's overall wine cellar, but also moves inventory and enables Boutwell to continue rotating his selection. And so Bibo's keeps going, one show at a time.

Leischen Stelter can be reached at leischen@gmail.com.

BIBO'S MADD APPLE CAFÉ | 23 Forest Ave, Portland | Wed-Fri lunch 11:30 am-2 pm, dinner 5 pm-close; Sat brunch 11 am-2 pm, dinner 5 pm-close; Sun brunch 11 am-2 pm | Visa/MC/Disc | 207.774.9698

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