Should you run across a tiny teddy bear, the size of a cat toy, while walking around Portland this month, don’t take it home to your cat. Go to The Great Lost Bear on Forest Avenue, where you’ll be rewarded with a $20 gift certificate to the burgers-and-beer restaurant. The bear hunt is just one of the special events the restaurant has planned for the month to celebrate its 40th “AnniBEARsary.” Reaching a 10th birthday is rare in the restaurant business; 40 is a huge milestone.

Dave Evans, who founded The Great Lost Bear with his wife, Weslie, is now 72, but still comes into the restaurant every day and has no plans to retire. Many Portlanders have their own fond recollections of spending time at the Bear – such as sipping craft brews from one of its 80 taps, or mugging for the Bear Cam at the bar. Evans, naturally, has his own, and recently shared some of his favorite memories of the place that has become his second home.

There was that day, oh so many years ago, when an unknown ice cream peddler from Vermont came calling. Ben Cohen, half of the now-famous Ben & Jerry’s, couldn’t persuade Evans to buy his product, even though the Bear staff scarfed down all his samples. They were so certain Cohen’s product would be a hit one day, they had him sign his name on the walk-in fridge. (Evans has no idea what happened to the fridge, which has been replaced.)

There was that time a bachelor party brought a live donkey into the restaurant. And the time comedian Jerry Seinfeld made a surprise visit after his Portland show and ordered a patty melt. Another time, Evans met Irish mystery writer John Connolly at a book signing, then became a character in one of Connolly’s books, along with the restaurant’s bar and several of the staff.

And on July 1, 1995, the first Allagash White beer was poured at the Bear. Every July 1 thereafter, Allagash Brewing Co. founder and James Beard Award winner Rob Tod has returned to the same seat at the bar for a personal celebration, enjoying a cup of chili with cheese, a few chips and a couple of pints of Allagash White. Tod says the folks at The Great Lost Bear are “great friends” who have “always been supportive.”

“When I started 25 years ago, there were one or two bars in each market that were real champions of craft beer,” Tod said, “and they were definitely one of the earlier champions of craft beer in this state.”

IN THE BEGINNING

In 1979, the Evanses were enjoying the life of ski bums in the Mount Washington Valley of New Hampshire when they decided to open a restaurant. Both had worked in restaurants to support their ski habit, and Dave Evans also worked construction. After a lot of searching, they bought the Bottoms Up, the Portland rock club that was in the building at 540 Forest Avenue. They paid $12,000.

The couple brought in Dave Evans’ cousin, Chip MacConnell, as their partner. The three new restaurateurs had attended Woodstock together in 1969, and MacConnell, a recent Yale graduate, was drifting and needed a job. They named their restaurant The Grizzly Bear because they thought an animal would stick in customers’ heads. “We thought we were very clever,” Evans said.

The trio took possession of the space on June 1, 1979 and started fixing it up, equipping the kitchen with an ice machine and other necessities, and renovating the bar. They slept on the floor, returning to North Conway regularly to take a shower and feed their dog.

“We got some people we worked with in North Conway to come over, and run the bar and the kitchen,” Evans said. “They were barely out of culinary school.”

By June 21 they had found an apartment in Portland and were ready to open the doors of The Grizzly Bear. That morning the city posted no-parking signs up and down Forest Avenue, blocking parking spaces with bright orange cones. “The first thing I did – I said I may be breaking the law – but I picked up all the cones,” Evans said. “There are pictures of me with a cone on my head.”

The restaurant welcomed about 40 customers that day, mostly at dinner, and they were off and running.  The menu was quirky, casual and long, but also innovative. The Bear sold buffalo wings well before they became a staple on American restaurant menus.

“There was stuff out there like fajitas that we’d read about, and we made ours totally different because we’d just read a description in a restaurant magazine,” Evans said. “We made it like a quesadilla. We just changed the name to quesadilla about six months ago.”

Dave Evans (left), Chip MacConnell (right) and Weslie Evans (front) in 1980. Photo courtesy of Dave Evans

The name of the restaurant had to be changed in 1981 after the owners created a comic strip ad to celebrate The Grizzly’s first anniversary. The strip was picked up by a trade publication as an example of a clever restaurant ad. The owners of a pizza chain called Grizzly Bear Pizza in Oregon saw it and had their lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter. The Evanses and MacConnell held a contest to rename the restaurant and got hundreds of entries, but none they liked, Evans said, “so we just sat around one night and got stoned or something, and said Great Lost Bear would be a great name.”

The original Grizzly sign still hangs in the restaurant’s dining room.

VARIOUS AND SUNDRY CROWD

Over the years, The Great Lost Bear has had a reputation as a hangout for students from the University of Southern Maine, but – because the drinking age in Maine is 21 – it’s actually hosted more professors than students. In the early days, tow-truck drivers were frequent wintertime customers.

“There were a lot of construction workers, and used-car salesman because (a Pontiac dealership) was across the street, and they’d bring their friends in from other dealers,” Evans said.

On a recent Monday, Spencer Plante, a loan officer who works down the street, was ordering lunch with Susan Russell, a Portland real estate agent who has been coming to The Great Lost Bear for 30 years. Russell ordered the Peanut Thai Chicken wrap and Plante got the Cajun cheesesteak sandwich.

“I really like this place,” Plante said. “It’s got good vibes. It’s very laid back and it’s kind of a catchall, the type of people you’ll see in here. She’s a realtor, I’m a loan officer. The gentleman over there has got a suit and tie on. And then you’ll also come in here and see board shorts and flip flops, and tank tops.”

Adding to the laid-back atmosphere? The campy collectibles on the walls, much of them gathered by Evans at antique shops in Bridgton and once-a-year excursions to the famous Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts. The array includes vintage circus posters, photos of members of the 1899 Maine Legislature, a neon bear paw, Smokey Bear posters, a Denmark town line sign, a union sign for the Local 167 Chicken Drivers (whatever that is), and (our favorite) a vintage movie poster for a film called Maine Girls (“Boy crazy! Boat Crazy! Booze Crazy!”), who are apparently “Good girls by day, shameless hussies by night.”

A bear’s head hangs over the bar alongside wall-to-wall decorations and kitsch at the Great Lost Bear. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Over the years three bear’s heads have been stolen, and customers are always trying to work a deal with Evans for a piece of memorabilia.

“We always have people coming in saying, ‘My grandfather started that brewery. Will you give it to me?’ And I say no. ‘Can we buy it?’ No,” Evans said. “What I can do is, if you come up with something equal, I’ll trade you. That makes them go out and realize how much these things are worth these days.”

Partner Weslie Evans, who didn’t want to be interviewed for this story, has contributed a lot to the decor. She etched all the scenes – dancing bears, a nighttime forest  – in the panes of glass in the wall that divides the bar from the restaurant. She also designs all the menu covers. Dave Evans designs and distributes the funky weekly newsletter, the Bear’s Growl, with information on upcoming events and weird features like “Strange Toilets of the World.”

This is the first anniversary ad that led to The Grizzly changing its name to the Great Lost Bear. Drawing by Weslie Evans

 

STAYING THE COURSE

Much of the staff at The Great Lost Bear has been there for decades. Evans says 10 employees have worked there more than 20 years, and the baker, Elaine Strub-Shank, has been there more than 30 years. He also has an ongoing list of legacy employees – children of former employees.

Pam Maria, the longest-running employee, is both a server and manager. When she was 18, like her bosses, she also caught the scene at Woodstock. Now 68, she walked out of a commune in the Maine woods 38 years ago and landed a job at the Bear. The restaurant was “crazy, fast and loose,” back then, she says, and had a counterculture vibe. Indeed, for a long time it was known as “the Grateful Dead bar” because its bear mascot resembled the band’s dancing bears.

“Dave has done a wonderful job of expanding the restaurant as much as he can, of keeping up with the interior,” Maria said. “They’ve done an awful lot to keep that momentum because you’re up against so many new restaurants in Portland. We just stay the course, which is great.”

(Which is not to say, Great Lost Bear isn’t open to change. In 2014, the pub started accepting Bitcoin, and it even managed to make money on the virtual currency.)

Maria said longtime customers ask her at least once a week how long she’s worked there, because they remember her. Carl Burdick of Vestal, New York, contacted the restaurant in early June to see if Byrd Dickson, another 30-plus-year employee, still worked there. She’d helped him propose to his wife, Jennifer, 25 years ago, and he wanted to see if she would help him re-create the event.

Burdick, a partner in a construction company, and his wife lived in Westbrook at the time. Burdick worked a lot, but he and his girlfriend always made a point of sharing Sunday lunch at The Great Lost Bear. When he decided to propose, he asked Dickson to drop the engagement ring into a glass of champagne and serve it to Jennifer.

The couple returned to Portland the weekend of June 7 to celebrate their silver anniversary. Burdick surprised his wife again – this time with a white gold ring with three diamonds “for her other hand.”

“We loved the ambiance there,” he said of the restaurant. “Back in the day we were microbrewing our own beer. The Great Lost Bear had the most selections of the different beers you might want to try.”

THE BEAR GOES ON

Evans says increased restaurant competition over the past decade hasn’t affected the Bear much. “We’re still growing, for some reason,” he said. “Draft beer sales have gone down slightly just because of all the tasting rooms.”

The Evanses bought MacConnell’s share of the restaurant in 2011, and they know their turn to sell will come. Their son, an engineer who just moved to Philadelphia, has no interest in running the business.

Evans said he may be infirm by the time he’s ready to sell, and may have to let the restaurant go “for a song,” but that’s OK with him.

“It’s my identity,” he said. “I love the place. I love coming here every day.”

 


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