Half his lifetime ago, Eli Irland left Augusta intent on becoming a chef.

His journey took him to Colorado, the Philippines, the fancy restaurants of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills and then to the world of corporate hotel restaurants in Portland.

Now, it’s bringing him back home.

Chef Eli Irland whisks butter and cream together at the Oak Table & Bar in downtown Augusta on Friday. Kennebec Journal photo by Jessica Lowell

Last Tuesday, Irland’s own restaurant, the Oak Table & Bar, opened at 233 Water St.

“I liked the idea of the Augusta comeback and the work that people are doing to make this city a better place,” Irland said on Friday.

The opening of Irland’s restaurant is one of a range of attractions drawing people to the city this summer and is part of a greater renaissance of historic downtown Augusta.

Even before the official start of summer on Friday, the City of Augusta Parks and Recreation Bureau kicked off its free 2019 Waterfront Wednesday concerts, which started June 19 and will continue to Aug. 7.

The Augusta Colonial Front Street Music Series is bringing four shows to the waterfront this summer, starting with the Jamie McLean Band and opener Hambone on June 29. Tickets for the four shows are on sale now.

And on Thursdays, the Children’s Discovery Museum, along with the Augusta Downtown Alliance and J.R. Davis Entertainment, are hosting Movies in the Park from July 11 to Aug 8.

Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said the two downtown parks, Market Square and Waterfront Park, are being dressed with lighting schemes to give them the feel of an outdoor patio for the summer.

All of those activities are likely to highlight downtown businesses, but for Irland, the decision to open the restaurant was based on his own sense of timing.

“For the longest time, I have had the feeling that Augusta really needed a good restaurant where people are actually cooking,” he said.

But more importantly, he said, it was time.

“I’m 35 years old,” he said. “I’ve got plenty of youth and energy and spunk, and you need all of that in order to start a successful restaurant.”

The new American farm-to-table restaurant, which can seat 24, will capitalize on what’s available. That will mean menus that could change a couple of times a week.

There are, he noted, a lot of apartments in downtown Augusta, and the number is expected to double in the next few years.

“It’s weird that downtown didn’t cater to the people living here until recently,” Irland said.

That’s not for lack of trying. Earlier this year, the Augusta Downtown Alliance announced the Pop-Up Downtown Program, through which low-rate, short-term leases would be offered to businesses interested in staking out a retail space either for the summer season or for the fall holiday season in November and December.

On Friday, Hall said interest was stronger for space at the end of the year.

“We intended that to be a temporary program,” he said, in the middle of last-minute preparations for this year’s Masquerade Ball, one of the organization’s major fundraising events. “We have a bunch of applications for the fall. The ones we have for the summer, they wanted to stay year-round.”

Discussions are ongoing with landlords for both retail and restaurant space, he said.

Tobias Parkhurst gives a tour June 13 of the second floor of 217 Water St. that is being renovated into an apartment in downtown Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

One of the spaces that could be restaurant space has yet to undergo renovation. It’s the ground floor of 217 Water St., one of the two buildings that Tobias Parkhurst bought with plans to renovate.

The co-owner of Oakes & Parkhurst Glass has renovated several buildings in downtown Augusta, as has his father, Richard Parkhurst.

By the end of the year, Parkhurst said earlier this month, the two apartments planned for the upper floors of 217 Water St. are expected to be ready to rent. And by then, he may have a lease in place for a restaurant.

“It’s not a very easy way to make a buck to develop these old buildings,” Parkhurst said. “You need to have a little bit of passion for it.”

The second building that he bought, at 164 Water St., will need both his passion and his experience.

It’s the middle building of a block of three and one of the few to have survived the 1865 Great Fire, which wiped out nearly all of downtown Augusta.

Now that the building has been cleared out, its path to redevelopment is less clear.

“Let’s put it this way,” Parkhurst said. “I paid more for the windows than I paid for the building. I paid more for the roof than I paid for the building.”

And the work doesn’t stop there. The five-story brick building requires significant structural work. Once that’s done, decisions can be made about how the inside will take shape.

In the meantime, Irland has his own problems and hiccups to fix, including bathrooms that lock from the inside while vacant and wrinkles in the point-of-sale system that need to be ironed out.

For Irland, the restaurant business is not “all rainbows and butterflies.” But he said the opening week has been good.

“It’s been great so far. Kyle Neilson, the mixologist, has cocktails that are selling well, and the food has been getting fantastic feedback,” Irland said. “We’ve already had repeat customers and people making reservations on the way out the door.”

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