When Richard Clark turns on the open sign this weekend at Benjamin’s Pub, it’ll be the first time since 1988 that the bar and eatery at 123 Franklin St. in downtown Bangor will be open in its original two-floor footprint.
Clark and his wife, Mandy, have spent the better part of a year returning the first floor of the building to the state it was in when Benjamin’s on Franklin opened in the same location nearly 50 years ago. They opened the bar downstairs four years ago, but the upstairs space is a project more than a year in the works.
The new Benjamin’s — technically the fourth time a bar in that location has had that name — reopens this weekend with a new, expanded menu and bar and seating upstairs, with the bar and live music and events venue downstairs.
For Clark, who has spent most of his life in the service industry and even worked at one of the iterations of Benjamin’s in the late 1990s, it was the history of the place that drew him to opening his own bar there.
“It was the legacy of this place that really drew me to it,” he said. “I’ve got my own history here. I’ve always been a fan. People come in all the time and tell their stories about the fun they had here, or meeting their husbands or wives here. That means everything to me.”
Fifty years ago, original owner John Parcak was getting ready to renovate 123 Franklin St., the first location for Bangor Tire Company, from a garage into a restaurant, bar and upstairs apartments. It was a development plan ahead of its time for downtown Bangor, which was in the final stages of urban renewal.
Parcak and his business partner opened the Old Port Tavern in Portland in 1972, which was an immediate success — it would stay open for another 50 years under different ownership before it finally closed last December. Sensing their momentum, the pair decided to look for another city to open a similar place in, and landed in Bangor.
Parcak closed on the Franklin Street building purchase just before Memorial Day 1973, and over the course of a frantic summer, he and his crew gutted it and rebuilt in time to open over Labor Day weekend.
“It was absolutely insane,” said Parcak, now 78, a Connecticut native who has lived in Bangor since the 1970s. “We took it down to a concrete shell and built it back up, and we got it done in three months. I don’t think you could do that today.”
They picked the name Benjamin’s on Franklin because Benjamin Franklin himself was a pretty good mascot. He still looks over the entrance to the building on a plaque on the outside wall, and the Clarks have painted a mural inside as well.
The place did OK at first, but with the introduction of live bands in 1974 and a little bit of advertising, the establishment’s popularity exploded, particularly with the baby boomer generation, who were then in their 20s. Bangor did not exactly have a reputation as a hip town at the time — but Benjamin’s was cool.
“I think to other restaurant owners in Bangor, we were these hippies from Portland that came into town and took their business away,” Parcak said. “But we were just another option. We definitely found a niche.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Benjamin’s found success with inexpensive, fast lunch specials during the daytime, and quality live music at night. It became a stop for touring blues artists like Taj Mahal and J.B. Hutto, and a generation of Maine musicians cut their teeth playing late into the night in the downstairs lounge.
It was such a popular spot that a live album, “Benjamins After Dark,” was recorded there in 1981, featuring Maine bands including Andrea Re and Clouds, the Searsmont Street Band, Randy Hawkes’ Overtones and Blues Over Easy.
“I remember the night we recorded that we had the soundboard in the coat room, because both the restaurant and lounge were absolutely packed,” Parcak said. “It was mayhem. I think the album really holds up.”
By the late 1980s, competition for the nightlife scene in downtown Bangor had changed, with popular bars like the Roxy and Finnegan’s opening during that era. Parcak had had enough of the bar business and closed Benjamin’s in 1988, and in 1989, Panda Garden opened in the upstairs restaurant space. A Chinese restaurant would be located in that space for the next 32 years.
Two new owners reopened the place as Benjamin’s the following year, and over the course of the next 20 years, the basement bar at 123 Franklin St. underwent a wide array of names and changes in ownership. To name a few, there was Karma, Fuzion, Fahrenheit, briefly Benjamin’s again, and finally the Phoenix Pub. When that one closed in 2014, Parcak sold the building to a local real estate developer and retired.
The space sat empty for five years, until the Clarks decided to give it a shot and reopen the downstairs bar under the Benjamin’s name. In the summer of 2019, the couple began serving drinks and pub food and quickly developed a following — one that helped them survive and even grow during the pandemic.
Last year, when the Chinese restaurant that briefly replaced Panda Garden closed, Clark jumped at the chance to expand upstairs and become a full-fledged restaurant.
“We really want to try to recapture some of the energy the original Benjamin’s had, and also really try to bring back their lunch specials,” Clark said. “With all the new people living and working downtown, I think there’s a lot of room for growth. We’re going to concentrate on value and speed. That’s what they did back then, and I am not ashamed to copy them.”
For original owner Parcak, it’s nice to see things come back around.
“I think there’s a lot of positive karma there,” he said. “It feels good to see somebody pick up the flag and run with it.”
Benjamin’s Pub will reopen on two floors this weekend with a limited menu before unveiling a full menu later this month. New hours will be available soon.