Come Here Often? Kate Christensen on Her Favorite Bar in Portland, Maine

Come Here Often

The following is an excerpt from Come Here Often? 53 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar, a new anthology from our partner Black Balloon. In this essay, author Kate Christensen writes about Sonny’s, “the writers’ bar of Portland, Maine.”

There are few things more cheering than walking into a familiar bar to meet a good friend. Nothing (except maybe a good chicken soup) has ever been more effective at warming both bones and cockles of the heart, at banishing the deep chill and the early dark of winter, than that anticipation of a few rounds of drinks, a good conversation, warmth and conviviality.

During the twenty years I lived in New York City, I had a handful of favorite bars, among which were a hipster bar (Pete’s Candy Store), a hotel bar (Bemelmans), a secret bar (Angel Share), a neighborhood hangout (Irene’s), and a faraway bar (Ruby’s at Coney Island). Like most people I knew, I felt passionate about and possessive of and proud of knowing these places.

I felt the same about my friends in New York, who were just as carefully selected and highly cherished. Instead of a group of them, I had individual close friends. I preferred to see them all alone, on “dates,” so we could hunker down face to face and really talk.

So, for many years, drinking in bars was a nighttime, one-on-one thing for me, in a favorite place with a favorite person.

So, for many years, drinking in bars was a nighttime, one-on-one thing for me, in a favorite place with a favorite person.

Then, in November 2011, I moved to Portland, Maine with my boyfriend of almost three years, on a sort of wild but solid hunch that it was the right place for us. The year before, we’d been using his family’s farmhouse in the White Mountains as a home base for our frequent travels and had often flown in and out of Portland’s little jetport. We found ourselves falling in love with the old brick buildings in the small downtown; the seagull-bustling wharf; the long gorgeous views over Casco Bay on the East End; and the tree-lined streets of the West End.

So it came to pass that, on an updraft of optimism and faith, we bought a 19th-century brick house in the West End. We moved in as soon as the deed was in our hands, having never spent a night in that town before, knowing no one. On our first night in our old, drafty “new” house, we ate Vietnamese delivery amid stacks of unpacked boxes, sleet beating at the windows.

That first winter, we spent a lot of time alone together in a bar around the corner from us called Local 188. It’s big and airy but cozy, full of couches and comfortable tables, with an open kitchen in the back and a full menu. It was comforting to have other people around us, thronging the couches and tables, greeting one another, but we had yet to find a tribe of our own, or even a friend. Luckily, we love each other’s company, because that’s all we had for months.

When spring came, I signed up for twice-weekly Pilates classes and started volunteering at a women’s soup kitchen. Brendan started going off to write at a café, and every morning, we walked our dog on the trails along Casco Bay, on the East End. We were working hard, writing, keeping our heads down, our noses clean and to the grindstone, elbows to the wheel, etc. All of that was well and good, but every night, it was just the two of us. We kept up frequent correspondences with our old friends, all of whom lived elsewhere, while making a new life for ourselves. But we still had no friends in town.

Finally, in early May, our friend Jami, a Brooklyn novelist who was temporarily homeless, came to live with us for a few weeks. She took stock of our sorry lack of a social life and intervened.

“You need friends,” she said. “I’ll introduce you to my writer friend Ron and his girlfriend, Lisa.”

I’ve always been slightly leery of other writers, as well as friends of friends. I’m afraid they’ll be competitive and/or standoffish, and that I won’t like them as much as I should. But I couldn’t afford to be leery of meeting anyone right now. In fact, I leapt at Jami’s offer like a hungry dog catching a thrown tidbit.

The next night, while Brendan was out of town, Jami and I met Ron and Lisa at Local 188. I liked them instantly. Ron was a novelist and Lisa worked in local politics; they both grew up in a small town north of Portland called Waterville. They were friendly, charming, low-key, smart, and (it must be said) extremely good-looking. The four of us chattered the night away.

Happy as I was to meet them, they were Jami’s friends, not mine. And then, after Jami went back to Brooklyn, Brendan and I spent most of the summer in the White Mountains, writing in his family’s farmhouse, while contractors banged and sanded away in our Portland house.

So that might have been that. But in September, when we were back in town, we got an email from Ron, inviting us to come and meet some of Portland’s other writers at a bar called Sonny’s. Improbably, this was to take place on a Wednesday at the astonishingly early hour of 5:00 pm.

When I lived in New York, I rarely met anyone for a drink earlier than 7:30 (except, of course, for brunch dates.) Dinnertime was generally around 10, so to me, 5 was arguably still lunchtime.

Nonetheless, we accepted Ron’s invitation with gladness in our hearts.

When Wednesday came around, I closed my laptop at 4:30 and walked downtown to Brendan’s café and picked him up from “work.” We walked together around the corner to Sonny’s, which is housed in the former Portland Savings Bank, a high-ceilinged antebellum building on Exchange Street in the Old Port, tucked into a corner of Tommy’s Pocket Park, a tiny European-feeling square where street musicians congregate on benches under the old trees.

It was still light out. Tree leaves rustled in an ocean-scented wind. Seagulls shrieked on updrafts above mansard roofs. The brick of downtown glowed in the sunlight. It felt far too early, too nice out, to duck into a dark bar.

Then we caught sight of Ron with some other people at a big table in the plate glass window in the front. He saw us, too, and waved. In we went, feeling half shy.

We entered through red velvet curtains into a foyer that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Victorian bordello, which I mean in a good way: brocade fainting couch, low-hanging fringed lamps. When the new owner, Jay Villani (who also, coincidentally, owns Local 188), bought the

place in 2000, he took great pains to preserve the old details — exposed brick, vaulted ceilings, tile floors, stained glass windows. The booths and tables were clearly designed to blend in and look as if they’d been there forever. There’s an old bank-vault door high over the bar.

The menu features two of my favorite things, a tamale of the day and an intriguing assortment of original tequila cocktails. The tamales are very good and wholly authentic and only $5 each. For my new favorite cocktail, the Jaycito, house- infused chile tequila (the bar wizard, Christina Klein, also infuses vodka and gin) is shaken with cilantro-infused simple syrup and fresh lime juice, then finished with seltzer. I never order anything besides these two items, even though both the food menu, which is South American- and Mexican-inflected, and the drink menu, which features many great-looking cocktails as well as new world wines and craft beers, are extensive and imaginative. Why branch out when you hit on the perfect thing?

Why branch out when you hit on the perfect thing?

The same goes for a bar. The same goes for friends.

That first Sonny’s night, in addition to Ron, there were Monica and Jessica, both novelists, and Bill and Chris, who run Longfellow, the local indie bookstore, all of whom live in Portland, as well as an old friend of Ron’s from Waterville. We sat around that table until after 8:30. (We would come to appreciate that in Portland, this is late, just as we’d come to appreciate getting home by 9:00 after a big night out on the town.)

Throughout the fall and following winter, Wednesday night at Sonny’s turned into a semi- regular thing. More writers and their spouses were folded in. One night, so many of us showed up that we took over the long table in the back room.

Two years later, Sonny’s nights have become a social regularity. The point is not to get drunk. We all generally have two or maybe even three drinks over the course of an evening, enough to relax us but not enough to send us off our rockers. We’re a warm, convivial, cheery bunch. We laugh a lot and have much to discuss. And this is Maine: We create zero psychodrama — no contentious spats or pissing contests, no factions, backbiting, or bitchiness. We talk shop, commiserate over hardships and setbacks and struggles, congratulate one another on books begun, finished, published, or good reviews, prizes won, and plum assignments.

The thing about Sonny’s itself, and our group of friends in Portland, is that we didn’t choose them. They happened to us, just as we happened to them. But we couldn’t have chosen a better bar or better people. Sometimes life is just lucky.

Our meetings have expanded to cocktail parties at our various houses, smaller dinner parties, individual friendships, and — gasp — occasional meetings at other bars in town. But Sonny’s is still the writers’ bar of Portland, Maine. And it’s always a Sonny’s night in my mind when we all get together, wherever we are.


Looking for a bookish and boozy night out in New York this week? Join our partner Black Balloon Publishing as they celebrate the launch of the new anthology, Come Here Often? 53 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar. Tuesday 10/14 from 6:30–9:30pm at Union Pool in Brooklyn. Editor Sean Manning and contributors Elissa Schappell, Mike Albo, and Scott Raab will read their essays. Bring your friends….

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