Batson River opened its second location in December in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. Photo by Navadise Media

In December, when COVID-19 numbers were spiking and temperatures were dropping beyond the point of comfortable outdoor dining, an increasing number of local restaurants decided to close for the season.  Swimming against the stream, however, was Batson River Brewing & Distilling, which opened a second location (the original is in Kennebunk) in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood shortly before Christmas.

I was intrigued by how difficult it sounded to open a restaurant and bar during winter in the midst of a global pandemic.

I reached out to food and beverage director Amy Caramante, who said that, while the pandemic did present challenges, including trying to order items for delivery right before the holidays, they were far enough along in the process that they “couldn’t stop a moving train.” The space, which feels much more like a bar than a restaurant, is unusually open and inviting, with high ceilings and a great deal of space between seating areas, so they were confident that people would feel comfortable there.

The curtains were added to make the space more COVID-safe. Photo by Angie Bryan

Unlike other restaurants that had to adapt their existing configurations to meet COVID-19 protocols, Batson River was able to make adjustments during the building process, working with designer Krista Stokes, to do things like installing heavy floor-length curtains to separate tables in some places and putting plans for a gaming area on hold for the time being.  Throughout the construction phase, they ran a tight ship, conducting daily temperature checks and making sure everyone wore masks.

A whiskey punch, a winter margarita and the two Pretty Birds sit on the bar at Batson River in Portland. Photo by Will Russell

One unanticipated bright spot, said Caramante, was that they were able to hand-pick unusually high-quality staff from the large pool of applicants who had lost their jobs when other restaurants closed. As a result, their opening went without a hitch, a rarity in the restaurant business. “I had zero stress,” said Caramante, still in disbelief at how well it had gone.

One of those staff members is bar manager Rachel Dick, formerly of Arcadia National Bar, who along with Caramante created Batson River’s cocktail and mocktail program. The cocktail menu changes periodically, but currently has eight $13 cocktails using Batson River spirits. I tried a to-go version of the pistachio milk punch (gin, the wine-based aperitif Cardamaro, white tea, pistachio and cardamom clarified milk, and lemon).  I detest cardamom, so I was not optimistic, but it was delicious. I was eating takeout sushi at the time, and the flavors were a perfect match, reminiscent of a light sake.

I asked Caramante what the public’s response has been to Batson River, and she said it has been slow but steady. Several Batson River loyalists have journeyed from Kennebunk to check out the new location; Caramante describes the Portland location as more of a “home” vibe and the Kennebunk one as the “camp.” About 80 percent of its current business in Portland comes from dine-in customers, with the remaining 20 percent from takeout, which is also available for delivery via CarHop. They’d love to increase their take-out business, said Caramante, and are working on creating some take-out bundles, such as a pizza with wings and beer.

Batson River thinks of its Portland location as “home,” and its Kennebunk one as “camp.” Photo by Navadise Media

Batson River also recently started a happy hour from 4-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, featuring $5 draft beer and wine and an $8 cocktail special, plus a few $5 snacks and $10 plates. They also do brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. The food menu has a little bit of something for everyone, with the $18 Batson Burger (Pineland Farms beef, white American cheese, Boursin, onion, bacon and lettuce) one of their more popular items.

Once the word gets out, I predict this place is going to thrive.

Angie Bryan is a former diplomat who is enjoying getting acquainted with her new home in Portland, one cocktail at a time.

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