Hugo’s has fed Portland diners for over three decades since opening in 1988, but has been closed since the pandemic and is not reopening for fine dining. Photo by Zach Bowen

Even for a city filled with great restaurants, the concentration of good eateries on a block or two of Middle Street in Portland is notable: Eventide Oyster Co., Honey Paw, Duckfat, East Ender, Ribollita.

Also, the restaurant that started it all: Hugo’s.

Big Tree Hospitality, the company that owns Hugo’s, Eventide and Honey Paw, announced Wednesday that Hugo’s was closing for good. In one form or another, the restaurant has fed Portland diners for over three decades since opening in 1988. In 2009, then-owner Rob Evans won a James Beard Best Chef Northeast award for his cooking there. He and his wife, Nancy Pugh, owned Hugo’s for 12 years, and the couple put it on the culinary map.

In 2017, then-owner/chefs Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley won the same award for their work at the three adjacent restaurants. (Taylor remains at Big Tree, along with partner Arlin Smith; Wiley left the company in 2021.) And in 2019, the Press Herald gave 4 ½ stars to avant-garde, fine-dining Hugo’s. In short, the restaurant was a Portland institution.

But since the pandemic began in March 2020, Hugo’s had been shuttered, the warm, beautiful space used, or maybe underused, in the past 2 ½ years for takeout, storage, a Big Tree burger operation known as XO, and as a prep kitchen for cooks at Eventide and Honey Paw. Yes, Hugo’s was a victim of the pandemic. But its story is more complicated than that.

The team that ran Hugo’s is gone, including Wiley, whom Taylor described as 50% of the creative culinary energy there. Like Wiley, some other staff have moved on; others have been reabsorbed into other jobs at Big Tree. Without Hugo’s experienced team to cook the adventurous, meticulously crafted food and provide the smart, attentive service, “it felt like a Herculean effort to even consider opening it,” Taylor said. “We would have to effectively start from zero.”


Since the then-partners bought Hugo’s in 2012, Biddeford-based Big Tree Hospitality has grown into a much larger company, which also owns Higgins Beach Market in Scarborough, Eventide in Boston and online ordering division Big Tree Grocery. The two remaining partners are stretched thinner than they used to be. “I couldn’t give (Hugo’s) the time I would have wanted to,” Taylor said. “So much attention from ownership needs to be put on the food at a place like Hugo’s.”

Hugo’s, at 88 Middle St., was a Portland institution that offered a fine-dining experience for over 30 years. Big Tree Hospitality, which owns Hugo’s, plans to use the location for as an events space for private parties. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Also, that labor-intensive food and drink requires skilled labor to create it, and Maine’s restaurant industry is in the midst of a dire labor shortage.

Taylor said Big Tree has known for some time that it would not reopen Hugo’s. But it was still “a sad announcement to make, given the history that Hugo’s has in this community. There is so much wonderful history that we weren’t part of and that we have been a part of. Seeing that go away, losing that fine-dining beacon, that avant-garde beacon, is difficult to imagine.”

But he added that new Portland restaurants like Regards and Twelve are “doing a wonderful job” carrying a similar style of dining forward.

For the next year and possibly two, Hugo’s will be used as an events space for private parties. Within a day of Big Tree posting an announcement of Hugo’s closure on Instagram, the company had already had five inquires about parties. Management has been discussing long-term possibilities, though Taylor isn’t ready to talk about those ideas publicly. But don’t look for Eventide to expand into Hugo’s, challenging as it is to nab a table in peak tourist season at the buzzy, delectable oyster bar.

“I don’t think we are going to do that,” said Taylor, shutting the idea down fast. “We like Eventide kind of the way it is. It’s a funny balance you have to strike in Portland in the winter. A space that feels full and crowded in the summer can feel cavernous and empty in the winter.”


Elsewhere in Portland, Miyake, which served elegant Japanese food but also has been shuttered since March 2020, is undergoing renovations and is scheduled to reopen next month. In March, Back Bay Grill, another – though very different – fine-dining restaurant closed. But Taylor said he does not think the closure of Hugo’s signifies a post-pandemic change in the habits of the dining public. Diners will always want celebratory restaurants, he said.

Lucian Burg, a West End resident, former cook at the highly regarded Zuni Cafe in California and long-time observer of Portland’s food scene, agreed that one restaurant closing, however beloved, doesn’t represent a bigger trend. On the other hand, Hugo’s “was so high-end, so rarefied, that it was a once a year restaurant for most folks,” he wrote in an email, “and post pandemic, it doesn’t seem like that is what we want or need now, what with the big psychic rock we have all been living under (in) the COVID years.”

It was a decade ago that Evans and Pugh sold Hugo’s to three ambitious, talented employees – Wiley, Taylor and Smith. “It feels like a lifetime ago,” Pugh said. The three men met while working at Hugo’s. At the time, Evans and Pugh were ready to simplify their lives, so they sold their high-end place, but kept their more casual eatery, Duckfat. Pugh said it is hard to say exactly what it means that Hugo’s is now closing.

“The industry is definitely in flux right now. COVID has had a national impact, and Portland has been going through so much change,” she said. “We’re feeling our way. What does Portland want? What can survive? I do feel the fine-dining days are not over. But I do feel they are shifting.”

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