(By Ros Krasny - Reuters) - A passerby seeing the imposing church building with its massive, red doors bearing the word "Grace" and a mysterious triangular logo could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon some kind of new-age congregation.
In a way that's true, for Grace - the restaurant, housed in a former United Methodist church in downtown Portland, Maine - is now a temple of high-end dining. The two-year-old venture is, visually at least, the crown jewel of the vibrant dining scene in Maine's largest city.
Stepping into Grace, patrons are met by soaring ceilings, 27 original stained-glass windows, and painstakingly restored woodwork inside a landmark building.
The brick-and-brownstone church was last used for services in 2006, but abandoned to pigeons and vagrants because of a waning congregation and the high cost of upkeep for the 1856 Gothic Revival structure.
Entrepreneur Anne Verrill and her then husband Peter bought the property in 2007 for $675,000, saving the church from likely demolition, and set about a top-to-toe, $2 million renovation.
It was a giant step beyond the Verrills' first venture, a cozy tavern in nearby Falmouth, where diners can kick back and watch a hockey game along with their microbrews and burgers.
And long before the first entree could be served, painstaking repairs needed to be done. Funding was scarce and banks skeptical - especially as the U.S. economy slid into recession just weeks after the purchase was made.
"I approached 10 banks and was turned down 10 times until a local bank (Norway Savings Bank of Norway, Maine) and two very kind and forward thinking loan officers saw something in the proposal," said Verrill, a transplanted New Yorker.
Because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, each step needed to have an official stamp of approval, a process that was not budget-friendly.
Over 60 mortar samples were produced, for example, for the front of the building.
"It took us three months to get the right color of mortar," Verrill said.
But the building has always been lucky, she added. Nestled up against Portland's current City Hall, it has survived two "Great Portland Fires," in 1866 and 1873.
Tax credits designed to make the preservation of antique buildings feasible covered some of the costs. Verrill made a "hands and knees kind of plea" to an investor willing to buy some of the credits.
Two years in, 175-seat Grace has a hip but comfortable vibe; the towering space is inspiring, but not intimidating. It draws a diverse crowd of special-occasion couples, families, business associates, tourists and drinking buddies.
The circular ground-floor bar is one of Grace's distinctive features. Designed and built at Tivi Design in Colorado, it was made from six concrete sections, each weighing about 500 pounds (227.3 kg), and assembled onsite after being trucked cross-country.
Overhead, a three-sided balcony wrapping around the nave holds more tables and a cozy lounge area.
Every element of the design shows a keen eye for detail. Napkin rings are made from spare parts harvested from the original pipe organ. The dramatic architectural feature over the bar echoes two trefoil stained glass windows. Even the knives mimic tall, spear-shaped windows.
Chef Peter Sueltenfuss presides over the large open kitchen located in the church's former altar. There, he produces an eclectic blend of modern American cooking that leans heavily on Maine seafood and locally-raised produce.
A rotating "Maine farm feature" emphasizes meat from area farms. Sueltenfuss has an "everything but the squeak" philosophy that can carry pork products from a charcuterie plate appetizer through to "pretzels and beer," a dessert where salty-sweet bacon ice cream makes a surprise appearance.
Grace doesn't overdo a church kitsch theme, but its signature cocktails include the "dust to dust," the "holier than thou" and the "redemption."
Verrill said that many former ministers and life-long parishioners have visited Grace.
"They've been thrilled," she said, lauding "this building, and the loyalty and love people have for it. In the end, this is why I love Maine."
(Reporting By Ros Krasny; editing by Patricia Reaney)
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