The chic decor and modern American menu at new downtown Old Town restaurant and nightclub Kanu are a far cry from what used to be on site at 283 Main St. People who lived in Old Town a decade ago might remember Number Ten North Main, or Kingman’s, both no-frills bars that catered to a mix of local regulars and thirsty students.
Since 2012, however, the building has been empty — until Alex Gray, president of Waterfront Concerts, bought it in 2017, with plans to renovate it into a modern facility where he and his staff could present live music and serve up the food they’ve been cooking backstage for the past decade at the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor for the likes of Elton John, Kenny Chesney and Phish.
“We’ve always said that we had the best restaurant in town that is only open 18 days a year, and almost nobody gets to go to,” said Rich Murphy, general manager of Kanu, which is set to open later this month. “Now we get to show people what we’ve been doing.”
While downtown Old Town has long had its share of struggles — from regular turnover of small businesses, to a devastating fire in 2019 that took out an entire building block — Gray and his crew are betting big on Kanu being a tipping point for the downtown’s redevelopment. They’ve spent the past two years transforming the space into something they think will attract not just Old Town locals and University of Maine students, but people from throughout the Bangor region.
“We want this to be a place for everyone, young and old,” Gray said. “It’s part of what we hope will become an arts and entertainment complex for the entire region.”
Gray has a long history in the Old Town-Orono area — one that stretches far beyond Waterfront Concerts, or even his start in the entertainment business as the owner of Orono nightclub Ushuaia, which closed in 2005. In 1903, Gray’s family started Old Town Canoe Company, the iconic canoe and kayak manufacturer that is still based in the city, though the Grays sold the company to S.C. Johnson in 1974.
As an Old Town native and the scion of an important name in the region, Gray knows expectations for him and his new restaurant are exceedingly high. Even the name of the restaurant is a two-fold reference to the family business, and to the Old Town community.
“I think coming from the legacy of my family, it really forces you to wake up every day and work really hard,” Gray said. “But this also was a unique opportunity. When it went up for auction, the municipality presented the building as a place where we could really do something that showcased everything we do.”
The interior of Kanu was designed by local architect Robert Ervin. The main floor, where the restaurant is, features an open kitchen, a long, ornate bar, a front wall that opens onto the sidewalk, and wooden and metallic accents and inlays throughout. The second floor houses a 200-capacity nightclub, which Gray envisions hosting DJs, comedians and live music, as well as private functions, though large-scale events aren’t being planned until pandemic restrictions are lifted.
Gray said he has no clue as to whether Waterfront Concerts will be able to have a 2021 season at the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion, though he’s hopeful that a vaccine will arrive in time to make things safe for next year. In the meantime, Kanu has been occupying much of his attention for the past six months.
“Obviously the pandemic has been devastating for the arts and entertainment industry,” Gray said. “The short answer is, we have no idea what the future looks like. But one of the good things that has come out of this is the fact that we have had time to focus and really make this place perfect. We haven’t had to rush.”
The most distinctive feature of the facility is its rooftop patio, with views of the Penobscot River and downtown Old Town. The expansive outdoor eating and drinking area features fire pits for each table, and the floor tiles are heated and can drain off, meaning snow removal is easy. With the heated floor, the overall temperature of the patio can be raised up to 10 degrees above the ambient temperature, which will allow for extended outdoor dining well into the winter and then again in early spring.
“We’re picturing snowsuit parties in the winter, rooftop yoga, that sort of thing,” Murphy said. “The possibilities are endless.”
The menu is what Murphy calls classic American, featuring burgers, steaks, salads, seafood and pasta dishes, all showcasing the restaurant’s wood-fired oven, and with an emphasis on healthier, often vegetarian items. That said, the boozy milkshakes topped with whoopie pies or cheesecake are anything but healthy. You can try the roasted honey-glazed carrots or buffalo cauliflower brulee, if you’re looking to rein it in a bit.
Chef Ian DesJardins has been cooking at the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion for years now, and he and head baker Angel Neptune plan to offer daily dinner service, as well as weekend brunch and weekday coffee and pastry.
The bar will serve up classic and specialty cocktails, each featuring something Murphy is particularly proud of — a hand-cut ice cube, embossed with the Kanu logo using a brass stamp. The ice is frozen in 25-pound blocks, which staff will cut into individual cubes using a band saw.
In addition to 283 Main St., Gray acquired both buildings on either side of Kanu. Both are presently under construction, and Gray says it will be some time before either is ready.
“We hope this is just the start of something pretty amazing for Old Town,” he said.