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Portland restaurants 'a victim of our own success'

Experts, insiders say recent restaurant closures in Portland are likely due to 'a confluence of different currents'.

PORTLAND, Maine — In the wake of the closure of two Portland restaurants and a popular bar, industry insiders say a variety of factors, including their own success, likely played a role.

Earlier this month, Lolita on Munjoy Hill said it would close at the end of the month.

Longtime Washington Avenue eatery Silly's announced this week it will also close on Sept. 1. Overnight Thursday, Brian Boru on Center Street announced this would be its last weekend in business.

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David Turin, owner of David's Restaurant, David's Opus Ten and David's 388, said Friday that a variety of factors likely contributed to the decisions.

Among them, he said, the rising cost of rents in Portland, the cost of labor and the general difficulty of running a restaurant.

For some, the pressure to compete in an increasingly popular market simply isn't worth the effort.

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There are only a couple of ways to make it work -- "attract more business or charge higher prices," he said. "It's really, really taxing. People are working harder and, on the cellular level, are just exhausted."

Erik Urbanek of commercial real estate company SVN The Urbanek Group, said it's possible the increasing national focus on Portland as an upscale dining destination could be a factor, but he argued that Portland has always been a "restaurant-rich city," and that the game has just accelerated.

"Sure, retail and restaurant spaces are in much higher demand now, and obviously when that happens, landlords can demand higher rent prices," Urbanek said. "And maybe some older, established restaurants that don't keep up with current market trends and the demands of customers -- you could make the case that they get priced out of the market...especially someone who moved in 20 years ago when we didn't have the visitor population we do now, with like 90 cruise ships a year."

But he said other factors contribute, as well. He pointed to the Bird Dog cafe in Cape Elizabeth, which temporarily closed earlier this year because the owners couldn't attract staff.

"It's a little bit of a Catch 22," he said.

Urbanek agreed with Turin that as the caliber of Portland restaurants has increased, and with it, the expectations of diners. And not all restaurant owners are willing to evolve.

But Urbanek said another argument to be made is that, with the increased traffic, "You should be able to scale your business to take advantage of the traffic. Some people just don't want to chase Yelp reviews."

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