Maine restaurant leaves diners in state of Grace

Tue Feb 28, 2012 2:32pm EST
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By Ros Krasny

PORTLAND, Maine (Reuters) - - A passerby seeing the imposing church building with its massive, red doors bearing the word "Grace" and a mysterious triangular logo could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon some kind of new-age congregation.

In a way that's true, for Grace - the restaurant, housed in a former United Methodist church in downtown Portland, Maine - is now a temple of high-end dining. The two-year-old venture is, visually at least, the crown jewel of the vibrant dining scene in Maine's largest city.

Stepping into Grace, patrons are met by soaring ceilings, 27 original stained-glass windows, and painstakingly restored woodwork inside a landmark building.

The brick-and-brownstone church was last used for services in 2006, but abandoned to pigeons and vagrants because of a waning congregation and the high cost of upkeep for the 1856 Gothic Revival structure.

Entrepreneur Anne Verrill and her then husband Peter bought the property in 2007 for $675,000, saving the church from likely demolition, and set about a top-to-toe, $2 million renovation.

It was a giant step beyond the Verrills' first venture, a cozy tavern in nearby Falmouth, where diners can kick back and watch a hockey game along with their microbrews and burgers.

And long before the first entree could be served, painstaking repairs needed to be done. Funding was scarce and banks skeptical - especially as the U.S. economy slid into recession just weeks after the purchase was made.

"I approached 10 banks and was turned down 10 times until a local bank (Norway Savings Bank of Norway, Maine) and two very kind and forward thinking loan officers saw something in the proposal," said Verrill, a transplanted New Yorker.   Continued...

Diners eat at Grace Restaurant, housed in a church built in the 1850's, in Portland, Maine February 11, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder