Homecoming Kings

At Luke’s Lobster in Portland, native son Luke Holden preserve a piece of the working waterfront and brings his iconic brand to Maine.

Homecoming Kings

At Luke’s Lobster in Portland, native son Luke Holden preserve a piece of the working waterfront and brings his iconic brand to Maine.

Issue: September 2019

By: Susan Axelrod
Photography by: Nicole Wolf

The first time I visit Luke’s Lobster in Portland I have a hard time finding it. Given its significant advance publicity and the stature of the company (28 lobster shacks scattered across the country, plus 9 in Japan and 1 in Taiwan), I figured the newest location—the first year-round restaurant in Maine despite its native-son namesake, Luke Holden—would stand out. But there is no sign on Commercial Street directing diners down Portland Pier and past J’s Oyster to the two-story restaurant, which, when I finally get there, is more modest than I expected. The building and the pier it sits on reflect the ethos of company cofounders Luke Holden and Ben Conniff: purposeful, unassuming, and equally devoted to Maine fishermen and their customers.

Luke’s Lobster cofounder Ben Conniff, chief development officer
Bryan Holden, and cofounder Luke Holden on the pier outside their flagship restaurant.

Portland Pier is literally and philosophically the restaurant’s foundation. Two years ago, the end of the pier was crumbling and unsafe for vehicles to access, and the floats where a few fishermen docked were falling apart. Luke and Conniff, along with chief development officer Bryan Holden (Mike, the youngest of the three Holden brothers, also works for the company), initially took on a project to rebuild the pier and establish a lobster-buying station. About 15 Portland-area lobstermen now land their catch at the pier; 9 of them are berthed here. Most of those lobsters go from the saltwater tanks at the buying station, which diners can see through a glass wall just inside the restaurant entrance, to a state-of-the-art processing facility in Saco that supplies Maine lobster to all of the company’s locations. The rest of the lobster is cooked on-site for lobster dinners. “Our father [retired lobster processor Jeff Holden] operated on a lot of these piers when we were growing up,” says Bryan. Luke adds, “We had the opportunity to invest in our own town in a thoughtful project that enabled us to restore the working waterfront and get fishermen to support the idea of development on this side of Commercial Street. The fishermen here believe in this pier and are now incentivized by the success of the restaurant.”

The “More Fun Than Humans” cocktail is a refreshing mix of Cazadores blanco tequila, triple sec, house-made watermelon juice, and lime juice.

Luke, a Cape Elizabeth native who built his own lobster boat in high school, and Conniff,who spent childhood summers on the midcoast, opened their first Luke’s Lobster shack in New York City’s East Village on October 1, 2009. The premise was simple, as was the menu: lobster, crab, and shrimp rolls; clam chowder and lobster bisque; a poppyseed cole slaw and kettle chips, all ordered at a counter and served in plastic baskets lined with waxed paper. On the Portland waterfront, they knew they needed to do things differently. “There are all sorts of innovative restaurants in Portland, but we are that carefully honed, classic lobster shack where you can get those 20 perfect, essential Maine items in a very beautiful space,” says Luke Holden. Quietly stylish, Luke’s Lobster is indeed beautiful. Huge windows wrap both levels on three sides, allowing an unparalleled view of Casco Bay. On each floor, French doors open onto a deck from the dining room; the downstairs deck has white-painted picnic tables with blue umbrellas, while upstairs a bar shelf along the railing of the wraparound deck makes an ideal spot for standing and gazing out at the water. “We actually started with seats out there, but what we found is that people were putting in their name, grabbing a drink and just hanging out andenjoying the view,” says Conniff. (The restaurant does not take reservations.) All of the furnishings, including barnwood tables and handmade wrought-iron chairs with reclaimed wood seats, were built by an in-house construction team headed by Bryan. “That’s how we do it in all of our shacks; there’s just more of it here,” he says. The minimalistic decor includes vintage photos of the pier, coils of weathered trap line, and pieces of driftwood, the last of which were dragged off the beach near the Holden family home by company creative director Matt Villaverde just a few days before the restaurant opened.

Luke’s classic lobster roll; a platter of broiled haddock and the restaurant’s Lighthouse Salad with mixed greens with asparagus, sunflower shoots, red cabbage, and kelp buttermilk dressing; and a fried haddock sandwich.

On my second visit, a blue-sky, early summer evening at a window-side table on the second floor, I’m mesmerized by Casco Bay boat traffic. The schooner Frances is gliding into port. My dining companion takes advantage of the bird’s-eye view to wonder about all the gear on the fishing boats docked below us. Seagulls wheel by at close range as we order drinks, which are served on coasters printed with photos of local lobstermen. My “More Fun Than Humans” cocktail is a refreshing, pretty-in-pink mix of Cazadores blanco tequila, triple sec, watermelon juice, and lime juice with a spicy-salty rim. The Portland location is the only Luke’s Lobster with a full bar—two, in fact, one on each floor. With our drinks, we make short work of hot, crispy whole-belly fried clams and lightly sherry-ed lobster bisque. Next, we share a Lighthouse Salad. Appealingly presented on an enamel tin plate, it’s a generous portion of mixed greens, red cabbage, chopped raw asparagus, and sunflower shoots, with tangy kelp buttermilk dressing. Our forks and napkins come from a tin bucket on the table, adding to the casual vibe and no doubt helping the servers, who are friendly, attentive, and busy, with a full restaurant both inside and out.

This building to the left of the restaurant’s entrance houses the lobster buying station, where lobsters brought in to the pier by local fishermen are held in tanks before being sent to Luke’s Lobster’s processing facility in Saco.

Luke’s Portland offers entree platters, including a steamed whole lobster, fried or broiled haddock, and a large portion of the excellent fried clams, but since sandwiches are the backbone of the menu, that’s what we choose. Luke’s Trio—half each of a lobster roll, crab roll, and shrimp roll—deserves its popularity. The classic hot dog buns are toasted with butter and warm, while the seafood is cool, dressed with a whisper of mayonnaise and sprinkled lightly with a signature blend of celery salt, oregano, thyme, and pepper. The trio comes with chips and a tart, crisp pickle, while the substantial and perfectly fried haddock sandwich is presented with hot and greaseless fries. With Lone Pine Brewing Company’s Portland Pale Ale (for my companion) and a dry rosé from Provence (for me), we raise our glasses to chef Zac Leeman, another Mainer who has come home with the opening of Luke’s in Portland. “Zac is a very fortuitous choice for us, a worldly chef who comes from a long and prolific lineage of commercial fishermen,” says Bryan.

“It took awhile for us to come back and do something like this because it was so personal and we wanted to make sure we were doing it right.”

With decks on two levels and huge windows, Luke’s Lobster offers an unparalleled view of Casco Bay.

Despite being the flagship of one of the most successful fast-casual restaurant brands in the country, Luke’s Lobster on Portland Pier feels authentic and down-to-earth. A large part of this is due to its location, where dinerscan’t miss the working aspect of the waterfront, and to the consistently high quality of the food and drink. But another significant factor is the steady influence of Luke and Conniff, both of whom now live in the Portland area. “It took awhile for us to come back and do something like this because it was so personal and we wanted to make sure we were doing it right,” says Bryan. Luke adds, “What we knew would define success would be if locals not only adopted us, but brought their out-ofstate friends to Luke’s to say, ‘This is what a Maine experience looks, feels, and tastes like.’” From what I see and hear around the restaurant, and in the eager groups making their way down Portland Pier, that’s already happening. Luke’s Lobster in Portland has been found.

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