By Carol McCracken (Post # 2,156)
Ever since Chef Harding Lee Smith began his restaurant chain on Munjoy Hill with The Front Room, controversy has swirled around him. He got into a public relations nightmare when some of his employees filed a lawsuit against him. The lawsuit was settled out of court. Much of this controversy and others were detailed in two articles in “The Bollard” written by Chris Busby. This is the same Chef Harding Lee Smith, a/k/a The Chef From Hell.
Controversy has once again come calling on Smith. Last year he re-opened the long closed Boone’s Seafood Restaurant, 86 Commercial Street on the Portland waterfront under a new name: Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room. Extensive repairs, according to Smith’s own admissions, were required – far beyond his own estimates – the estimates of a chef, a really good one at that, with multiple restaurants in the Old Port area. Smith served as his own general contractor for the restoration, probably not a good idea. Anyone who works or plays on the waterfront knows that Mother Nature can be so hard on wooden structures – especially ones far too long neglected. (Smith, a sailor, can attest to how hard Mother Nature can be on the human body after his infamous dip into Casco Bay from a dock at DiMillo’s Seafood Restaurant several years back.) The bills the cotroversial Smith accumulated must be staggering and combined with the limited kitchen capability he has, according to Deep Throat, Smith is struggling to keep his business afloat. Will he succeed?
At least two of Smith’s food and supply distributors will do business with him on a cash only basis because he doesn’t pay his bills; he just doesn’t have enough money according to Deep Throat, a source close to the situation. Smith relies on the cash from other “Rooms” to pay his bills. One current employee of the re-invented Boone’s recently told Deep Throat that he is one of only three of the original staff that opened with Smith at Boone’s.. “Yes, he still yells at us,” he admitted. “But he’s a good guy underneath it all.” However, the high turnover rate of the wait staff is a problem at Boone’s. One server told Deep Throat recently: “I’m a veteran here. I’ve worked here since July,” she said joking about it. The high turnover rate is not surprising, because it’s been well documented that Smth’s a lousy manager of people. Getting dinner can be a long, long wait. Some attribute this to the high turnover rate of an inexperinced wait staff thrown into the mix with minimal training.
Others, however, attribute the painfully slow service to a small kitchen on the second floor of the restaurant that can’t begin to keep up with the number of dinners that guests at the huge Boone’s order. Part of its popularity is because of its scenic waterfront location and Smith’s reputation as a really good chef. No one disputes that. But, service is slow and that is a real turn-off for guests. Life may have gotten so financially difficult for Smith, that Boone’s is for sale according to Deep Throat. Incidentally, the two are in the process of getting a divorce and have hired attorneys to that end.
A DMillo’s Restaurant on the Water manager, Danny DiMillo, said today: “I’d sure hate to see Smith sink,” with a big grin on his face. DiMillo’s is a nearby competitor of Boone’s. The seafood restaurant business could get really competitive when the expected new seafood restaurant, Scales, moves into the area in the spring of 2015. The new restaurant will be owned by Dana Street, of Street & Co. fine reputation. The Big Three will duke it out.
Is Boone’s leaking and taking on water? Yes. Can Smith plug up the holes in time to keep it from sinking to the bottom of Portland Harbor? Many think the financial problems are so severe, Smith cannot save the sinking restaurant.
MHN.com called Boone’s and asked to speak to Chef Smith about the situation there. He wasn’t available and he never returned the call. MHN.com was the author of an article herein on the Crab Rolls at Boone’s – a dish that is no longer on the menu at Boone’s according to several employees. Following that, mhn.com was banned from Smith’s restaurants.