It’s a fall Monday midafternoon, and the Portside Tavern in Hyannis is a hive of activity. Owner Bob Murphy is wrestling dining chairs from the trunk of his car and waves me in the direction of the kitchen door with the promise that he’ll catch up shortly. Traditionally, most restaurants on Cape Cod experience a sharp drop in sales after Labor Day, but at the newly opened Portside Tavern something wonderful is happening. The holiday weekend came and went, yet they are still experiencing a steady surge of business. Positive food reviews on social media and in the local newspaper, coupled with the advent of football season resulted in a welcome wave of guests through the doors. As Chef Michael Crowell-Hall puts it, “We got really busy, really fast,” and for that reason, he apologizes that he doesn’t even have five minutes to sit and chat. Prep for the evening dinner service, as well as a setup for a wine tasting they are hosting tonight, takes precedent. Therefore, our conversation will be in the kitchen as the work continues.
Patiently, in his not-unpleasant gravelly voice, Crowell-Hall walks me through the process of making fresh mozzarella. Fascinated, I watch as the man-bun sporting chef bends over a pan of hot salted water and works the curds, continually kneading with his large hands. Adding more warm water as needed, he magically stretches curds into cheese. Some days, when the exhaustion sets in, his staff wonders why he bothers with all the extra labor. Crowell-Hall acknowledges that certain items would be easier to buy when there is always so much more to do. He explains, “The day that I stop being willing to put in the extra step, is the day I stop being a chef. There are a lot of people running around calling themselves chefs nowadays that are basically just cutting stuff out of bags and heating food up.”
In late 2014 Crowell-Hall was pretty content with his life. A gig as a private chef for a family in Oyster Harbor supplemented by restaurant consulting was paying the bills. Best of all was the mere fifty-hour workweek. It was a nice change from the 24/7 rat race of running a kitchen and the myriad challenges that come with the job.
Meanwhile, semi-retired financial advisor and pizzeria owner (Wamps Pizza, Braintree) Bob Murphy was on the hunt for an executive chef for his new venture. Murphy had recently purchased the historic former sea captain’s home located at 70 North Street in Hyannis after a very extensive New England search. Over the past decades, the space had housed a succession of restaurants, including Fiddlebees, The Boathouse, Kendricks, and the Steak House. Making the real estate additionally attractive to Murphy was the added bonus of the eight potentially income-producing apartments at the rear of the property. What he hadn’t anticipated was the tremendous amount of work this “turnkey” operation required. Last December, Murphy dove headfirst into the renovation project acting as his own general contractor. Two months were spent waiting for the snow to melt for roof work to start. Inside, the vestibule was reconfigured, bathrooms were added and painting was completed. Still on the “to do” list is an overhaul of the heating and air conditioning systems.
As renovations progressed, Murphy’s chef search intensified. Crowell-Hall was recommended as someone with the chops for the position. Murphy approached Crowell-Hall and ultimately offered the role. Crowell-Hall was initially reluctant to come on board, but two things changed his mind: “I got the vibe that this guy would work his ass off no matter what to make something successful, and I have always loved this building. I have always thought it was the best restaurant [venue] on Cape Cod. It has always broken my heart that this gorgeous space didn’t have the restaurant it deserved in it.” The opportunity to come in and do something for the locals was a huge lure for Crowell-Hall. “It’s an off-the-beaten-path destination restaurant that, simply put, I thought should offer killer drinks and killer food in a relaxed, affordable atmosphere.” Sharing a similar vision of a simple tavern with a scratch kitchen, Murphy and Crowell- Hall shook hands and began to collaborate. Of course, both men had strong opinions on the direction the restaurant should take.
Crowell-Hall is a self-described “New England kid” and wants his food to reflect this. “I feel like so many chefs around here reach outside of the region for their food influences and this is such a diverse area in and of itself. I want my menu to showcase this as well as the seasonality of the regional dishes that abound.” He favors incorporating fall flavors like apples, squash, and maple into his recipes at this time of year.
Crowell-Hall has spent the bulk of his life living and working within New England. Childhood was spent in Manomet, a seaside village of Plymouth. At the age of twelve, he stumbled into the restaurant world with his first job scrubbing pots and pans to pay for damages incurred when he dropped a motorcycle on his father’s vintage Triumph Spitfire. At fourteen, a move to Vermont brought a new restaurant position. By the age of eighteen, what started as a job had developed into a passion.
Along the way, this business that helped mold and raise him also exposed him to myriad influences, both good and bad. Largely self-taught, he worked for a succession of really talented chefs and under their tutelage received a priceless education. Many recognized that Crowell-Hall possessed an initiative to learn.
“When I want to learn to make a demi-glace, for example, I would ask the chef to get me a case of veal bones and I would say if it comes out good, you can sell it, and if I screw up, I will pay for them.” In turn, Crowell-Hall realized that “food is fluid” and there is often more than one way to do things. He learned not to be boxed in by one particular style. Crowell-Hall states, “This is the blessing of being a chef in America today.”
In 2005, after stints working and learning in kitchens in New Jersey, Philadelphia and New Hampshire, Crowell-Hall made the decision to settle on the Cape where he had friends and a place to live. He figured the winters would be milder than those he had experienced in New Hampshire. He jokingly recalls how he returned to the Cape and found himself digging out of two feet of snow.
Crowell-Hall soon began building an impressive resume. Starting with some seasonal work, including a restaurant flip with Derek Sanderson at the old Grille 16, Crowell-Hall eventually earned the title of first executive chef at Embargo in Hyannis. He also spent four years overseeing the kitchen at Five Bays Bistro in Osterville and consulted on both Añejo Mexican Bistro (Falmouth) and Crisp Flatbread Inc. (Osterville).
Over the years, he garnered a lot of fine dining experience, which he has modified to suit the vibe at the Portside. He likes the philosophy of a fine dining “scratch” kitchen, but paired with simpler concepts in a more informal atmosphere. Crowell-Hall elaborates, “Just because we are technically a tavern doesn’t mean our food shouldn’t be on point.”
In addition to his New England-style cuisine, his goal is to offer up “modern man’s food”, including his spin on comfort classics like meatloaf and pot pie. He recognizes that while it’s great to incorporate local, sustainable food, at the end of the day he needs to run a business. He laments the lack of a farmers’ market within walking distance to downtown. Since he doesn’t have the time to run to the farms and they often don’t have the quantity of product he needs, he supports the idea of a local “traveling market” where a truck would travel from restaurant to restaurant to offer produce for sale to busy chefs. It’s a concept he hopes to drum up support for in the coming winter months. For now, he relies on buying produce from Sid Wainer & Son, which sources largely from farms on the South Coast as well as its own Jansal Valley Farm in Dartmouth. Crowell-Hall hopes as they eventually bring in more staff, he will more time to build a relationship with the local farmers.
At this point in his career, Crowell-Hall expects creative control over his menu; he also believes you always have to keep yourself open to suggestions. Thus, it has been a collaborative effort with owner Murphy. Murphy envisioned bringing his version of South Shore pizza to Cape Cod. Crowell-Hall, initially skeptical, thought, “Where the hell are we going to jam a pizza oven in this kitchen?” Out came the misplaced employee bathroom and in went the behemoth Baker’s Pride oven. Crowell-Hall agreed to the idea of the “workingman’s” pizza as long as he could elevate the concept with his homemade toppings, including the aforementioned mozzarella. Determined to see if this marriage of ideas is translating into great tasting plates, I make multiple forays to Hyannis to see if this diverse menu actually works.
North Street runs parallel to and one street behind Main Street in Hyannis, and there is ample parking available in the public lots across the street from the Portside to handle the overflow. The sprawling Victorian-style exterior is painted a light gray, and a handicapped access ramp leads up to the entrance. Passing the hostess station and large aquarium, the 155-seat interior is divided into three distinct areas.
The main level boasts a large, three-sided, lively bar dominated by a large projection TV. Murphy informs me it’s twelve feet by seven and may be the largest one south of Foxboro. Numerous smaller screens line the walls for the partaking of sporting events. There is a smattering of high tops and a chalkboard wall map of New England pinpointing the origins of the Portside’s craft beer selections (Naukabout, Entitled and Cape Cod Beer to name a few), as well as the local farms and vendors where food is sourced.
If you are craving a slightly quieter spot, you can request an upper level booth. Just be forewarned, you will have to maneuver your way up the spiral staircase, so you might want to wait to order that martini until you are seated to avoid spillage. There is also a more accessible lower level dining room where we settle on our first visit. A combination of dark wood topped tables and booths fill the space and some bronze maritime sconces adorn the walls in addition to more TVs. Our large, extremely ravenous crew decides to skip the previews and go right to the main event. An astonishing seven out of ten (me being in the minority), settle on the fried chicken entrée.
While others enjoy a local craft beer or a glass of wine, I sip on my Absolut Breeze, a delightful concoction of citrus vodka, fresh grapefruit juice and prosecco. I have yet to board the “no carbs bandwagon” and am obsessed with the bread service at the Portside…warm thick slices of their homemade bread served with the most addictive spread. This is chef Crowell-Hall’s spin on Jewish schmaltz: butter whipped with either rendered chicken or duck fat, which he then combines with Vermont maple syrup and whole grain mustard. If I weren’t in public, I’d have licked my condiment dish clean.
Entrées arrive and again I’m feeling the love from the kitchen. In lieu of dinner plates, the fried chicken arrives heaped on a rustic wooden platter with a side casserole of homemade gemelli pasta and cheeses bearing a buttery, golden brown crumb topping. An added bonus is the accompaniment of bacon sautéed green beans. I am mentally kicking myself for not joining the majority in ordering this visual masterpiece until my own meal is placed before me—beautiful pan-seared scallops atop a mound of creamy corn grits accented with crispy prosciutto and my favorite: haricot verts. Judging by the clean plates and the lack of samples coming my way, I surmise my dining companions are equally pleased with their selections.
The steak frites is a generous serving of sliced aged sirloin enhanced by a rich demi-glace partnered with some well-seasoned hand cut fries and asparagus. The influence of the Portuguese cuisine of nearby New Bedford is evident in Crowell-Hall’s native cod and littlenecks: an enticing blend of seafood, grilled potatoes and chorizo in a fennel broth. I am already noting my picks for a return visit as I scrape up the last bite of a shared dessert of roasted peaches layered with phyllo, caramel, pine nuts, and vanilla ice cream. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Knowing I have just scratched the surface of this kitchen’s delights, I return again with some more friends. We opt for a cozy upper booth that offers a view of the bar crowd below and the game playing out on the big screen. I marvel at the ability of our server, Crystal, to cheerfully deliver our hot food orders despite the challenge of numerous trips up and down the stairs.
We contemplate the appetizer offerings. Tempting us is Crowell- Hall’s interpretation of bar classics with a unique twist. Rather than a traditional buffalo sauce on wings, there is a choice of spicy harissa, smoky root beer BBQ or maple and black pepper. Other starters include a mezze plate (a nod to Murphy’s partial Lebanese heritage) that features seasonal roasted veggies, cured olives, and hummus; and classic bar staples like potato skins, here upgraded with shallot confit, crispy pork belly, and maple-and-black-pepper cream.
Being a South Shore gal, of course I have to sample their version of the bar room pizza. We devour the grilled BBQ chicken one, which had the requisite crispy crust and a not-overly-sauced pie of cheddar cheese, red onion, and bacon. Not to be overlooked is the Portside pizza which showcases both the housemade fennel sausage and mozzarella cheese—barroom style for sure but without the dated décor backdrop, and with a tempting array of toppings to choose from.
Ever the eavesdropper, I overhear a nearby patron discussing the merits of the house poutine (hand cut fries, Yancey Farms cheddar curds, foie gravy). He enthusiastically proclaims, “These are spot-on good. The best poutine I have had outside of my home in Montreal. They nailed the gravy. That’s what most places get wrong.” It appears we are not the only happy campers!
Hands down, one of my favorite aspects of this menu is the opportunity to order any of the salads or pastas in either full or half portions. I sample the arugula salad (peaches, sweet corn, roasted onion and jalapenos) while my husband opts for the half wedge (Great Hill blue cheese, tomatoes, crispy onions and bacon). Both are crisp, fresh, and perfectly complemented by the right amount of creamy buttermilk dressing. I am also tempted by the pasta selections, which include housemade gnocchi with seasonal vegetables and a sumptuous Bolognese with fresh pappardelle. However, this trip I bypass them all to finally focus on the fried chicken, and thankfully it does not disappoint. A perfectly-seasoned, crunchy, flaky exterior surrounds the juicy meat inside without a smidgen of grease. Equally enticing is this evening’s special: a thick grilled swordfish steak nestled in a celery purée topped with crispy parsnips and fingerling potatoes.
My visits have convinced me that there is something for everyone on this menu. Owner Murphy is happy. The restaurant’s concept is proving some local naysayers wrong based on all the positive feedback he has been receiving. He states, “Mike and his kitchen partner Nick Reney are rock stars, and no matter how pretty the place looks, if the food isn’t good, it’s not going to work.”
If success is in any measure based on commitment and work ethic, this crew wins the gold star. Murphy can be found hustling out front in his current role as “General Manager of it All.” Eventually, he will pass the baton to his eldest son. The pizzeria in Braintree is on the market and once the sale has been complete, his son will relocate to Cape Cod and transition into the management role. Until then, Murphy remains at the helm. He is focused on future plans, including the upper exterior deck space and sees other business opportunities beckoning on the Cape.
Chef Crowell-Hall wryly states, “Right now, we are all working a little more than full time, but this guy Murphy is here before me in the morning and is still here when I leave at night.” He adds, “I knew I never wanted to work for someone again that would be phoning in from their yacht while I was sweating my ass off in the kitchen. I may be tired but that’s OK because we are all tired.”
Winter Hours: open 7 days a week from 11:30 AM until closing
Brunch on Saturday and Sunday 11:00-3:00
272 North Street, Hyannis
508-534-9600 / theportsidetavern.com