In the decades since it was built, the structure at 671 Main St. in South Portland has housed more than half a dozen restaurants. Chicago Dogs lived here until early 2018; before that were Tony Roma’s, a Chinese buffet, a Mexican restaurant, and even the diner and ice-cream shop that once serviced the vanquished-looking Howard Johnson’s hotel next door.

“Nothing special, though,” Coppersmith Tavern & Table’s general manager Gene DiMillo told me, as if absolving me for not being able to recall any of the businesses that once occupied this spot. “Bob and Paula (Coppersmith, the bar-restaurant’s co-owners) are the first ones that have done a complete facelift of the place, got the fireplace working, all of it.”

There’s no denying that much of the interior looks recently renovated (apart from an annex dining room that looks like a suburban rec room), from an L-shaped, wood-topped bar coated in a layer of high-gloss polyurethane so thick it looks wet, to Edison-bulb pendant lighting and seven mammoth flat-screen televisions, each tuned to a different sports channel.

Yet it’s not all mancave-modern. On several walls hang moody brown-and-gray ink illustrations by local artist Middy Thomas that contribute a humanizing, hand-crafted warmth the 90-seat restaurant desperately needs – especially in a space so laden with flickering screens and logo-and-brand-heavy visuals.

“You watching the game, hon?” my server asked on my second visit, as I sat solo and nursed a pint of Allagash White ($5.50). “Which one?” I replied, pointing at the three screens in my field of view. “Good point,” she laughed, then set a shallow dish of fried calamari ($11) in front of me. “Well, then here’s something else to distract you.”

I dipped the crumb-breaded tentacles and rings into house-made, oregano-forward marinara, lazily giving myself over to the stream of playoff data as I chewed… and chewed. The calamari had been left in the fryer just long enough to make eating it a chore. And then I discovered the ultimate distraction: a deep-fried hot pepper hidden in the pile. It wasn’t a complete surprise – the menu does indicate that cherry peppers are tossed into the fryer with the squid – but the wattage caught me off guard.

When I asked my server if this happened often, she looked at me quizzically and told me she had no idea there were peppers in the calamari.

Her response didn’t shock me. On both visits, I encountered service problems that ranged from one server not knowing if the overdressed Caesar salad ($9) came with anchovies (it did not), to another who told our party of six that we “might have to move from our table if one of the regulars comes in.”

Then there’s the bartender, who spoke in baby-talk for 15 minutes, setting down a glass in front of a customer and asking him what would happen if she accidentally served him a “Bud Wight.”

Atmosphere, too, was an issue on my first visit, when my party was seated in a room where laundry bags overflowing with soiled linen and tablecloths rested against one wall. A toddler from another table kept running over to jump on them before her horrified parents figured out what was happening.

All of these issues should be easy enough to remedy. After all, DiMillo is a food-service veteran with more than 40 years of experience in hospitality and knows how to train staff. But for the moment, another of Coppersmith’s shortcomings keeps him otherwise occupied: There is no head chef.

DiMillo, who pitched in behind the scenes at his family’s famous floating restaurant before starting his own business in Portland, has been running the back-of-house at Coppersmith since it opened in August.

“But I’m not a chef.” he said. ” ‘Jungle cooks’ is what my father used to call us.”

It’s hard to blame DiMillo, but the food coming out of the kitchen reflects a lack of culinary vision and, much more importantly, minute-to-minute quality control.

Some dishes squeak by – a lackluster but satisfactory take on cheese pizza ($9), a 10-inch thin-crust pie, made with homemade dough, but served barely cooked on a sling-like, paper pizza liner. Or a decent, if lukewarm, steak & cheese sandwich ($13) stuffed with shavings of Angus beef griddled together with onions, peppers and mushrooms, then topped with provolone cheese.

Potato kegs at Coppersmith Tavern & Table in South Portland.

Most dishes that require little-to-no prep are similarly adequate, if uninspiring. Best among these are the Applewood-bacon BLT ($9) and deep-fried “tater kegs” ($9) mammoth, distributor-sourced tater tots seasoned with bacon, cheddar and chive.

Desserts (also from a corporate manufacturer) – like light, yet too-sweet carrot cake ($6.50) and a dense, super-fudgy three-layer chocolate cake ($6.50) that, on my first visit, was served chilled and a little dried-out from its time in the fridge – feel like placeholders rather than dishes anybody would get excited about eating.

The absence of kitchen leadership grows ever more noticeable as you order more complicated menu items. “Hope you like paprika,” my server said flippantly as she set down a grilled hot dog bun overflowing with fresh-picked stone crab meat that had been enthusiastically crop-dusted with the red powder. Remove the layer of paprika, and the lightly mayonnaise-dressed sandwich is enjoyable – exactly what you’d expect from a restaurant owned by the same people who run Docks Seafood just a few miles away.

Worse was the Black Angus Burger ($10): a 6-ounce, char-broiled Angus beef patty on a toasted bun sourced (as is all of Coppersmith’s bread) from La Marca and Sons in Malden, Massachusetts. Burgers may seem simple, but they overcook quickly. Mine arrived not medium-rare, but verging on well-done. Eating it was like trying to gnaw through a rope.

The fish bowl at Coppersmith Tavern & Table in South Portland.

And I’m still scratching my head over the Fish Bowl ($11), a haddock fillet rubbed with Cajun seasoning, then cooked to a cinder before being interred under bland coleslaw and a pile of salsa made from mango, onion, bell peppers and garlic.

I took a bite, then went back for another confirmatory taste before taking a cleansing swig of my guest’s nutty dry-hopped Sebago Frye’s Leap IPA ($5.50). “I’m a little worried about this place,” he whispered to me. “Me, too,” I replied.

As a spot to watch football while you drink one of the dozen draft beers and snack on skin-on, pre-frozen French fries ($3.50), Coppersmith Tavern & Table fits the bill just fine. But if it hopes to avoid becoming yet another unremarkable layer in the palimpsest of this building, there is still quite a bit of work left to be done.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AndrewRossME

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