Published Date Written by Curtis Robinson"It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours... [but] a clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep." — Ernest Hemingway, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"
Johnny Lomba has a finely tuned sense of place.
He is best known, at least in Portland creative circles, for a venue that closed nearly a decade ago called The Skinny. Occupying a converted theater at 625 Congress Street, where Geno's is now, The Skinny is widely credited for foreshadowing some of Portland's iconic cultural-creative venues like Space Gallery, Portland Music Company and One Longfellow.
It was a place that might have poetry readings or legendary rock shows or Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Musicians raved about the sound quality and national acts went out of their way to play the room.
When The Skinny closed in 2003, it was front-page news at The Phoenix weekly newspaper, with writer Sam Pfeifle noting that while "... other great Portland clubs (Stonecoast, Better End, Zootz) have closed up shop since the Phoenix started publication in 1999, not one has gone out in style. They've either been forced out, opted out, or ducked out — fans left to knock on locked doors and shuttered windows."
But The Skinny went out in a style all its own, hosting a series of events and reminding its many fans of why they loved the place.
Pfeifle wrote that "... we will admit no small amount of melancholy at the thought of no more slanted-floor, hazy-smoked, PBR–swilling, indie-rocked good times at 625 Congress Street. ... it's nice to at least be allowed a goodbye."
And, from that goodbye, The Skinny entered Portland venue legend.
Lots of people "knew" why it closed, with reasons ranging from poor business practices to personal problems to city problems to ... well, it's a long list, none of it true. Lomba notes the real reason was that the building changed owners — "lease gone" isn't as romantic as rock-and-roll drug stories, but there you go.
Over the years, there were the occasional Lomba uprisings.
It was said that you might find him plotting his next venture at certain Old Port haunts. Or he'd moved Out West once and for all. Did you hear about that time he and a friend were making some kind of documentary, touring the National Football League venues in a vintage white Grand Marquis adorned with Patriots logos? You know, the one they flipped over in Buffalo?
With all that backstory, the new Lomba venue at the corner of Congress and Pine streets opened three weeks ago amid the sort of buzz usually reserved for band reunions or Rogues Gallery arrivals at Find.
Would this be Skinny II? That his partner and co-owner is John Welliver, son of the Maine landscape painter Neil Welliver and not exactly a scene newby himself, increased expectations.
Besides, hey, there were other business rumors that didn't pan out.
Most notably, Lomba a few years back was designing a typewriter-themed bar in the Munjoy Hill space that now houses Moma's Crow Bar. There were other ideas and perhaps other locations, but then the Longfellow Square space opened up after a bookstore exited and the new "LFK" was born — the letters stand for Longfellow's Fellowship of Knights, except that they don't.
That backstory: "LFK" is just a starting point, and patrons are welcomed to come up with their own name. And that's just the start of a venue that is sure to send writer-types to their thesaurus.coms to avoid overusing "eclectic."
With the sweeping bar offering a window seat to Longfellow Square (well, if you get there early enough), it's easy to forget that LFK is a restaurant that opened (after only about eight months of prep) to strong reviews.
Writing for DownEast Magazine, John Golden found that "... it was easy to see that they wanted to create something different from the usual Portland hangout. They have accomplished this in spades. It is the apocryphal corner bar like none other in the city.
"Without question LFK is also highly idiosyncratic. Vintage Remington Rand style typewriters are scattered about the room. And when at first I saw a young man at the typewriter I thought central casting had sent him over to perform. But during the course of the evening a sundry succession of typists took turns as though belting out pages of a collective work in progress."
And Golden gave the food high marks, especially the signature meatloaf.
That "works in progress" vibe, says Lomba, is the idea. Or at least part of the idea. Or one of the ideas.
"What we were trying to do," he said during an afternoon interview at the bar, "was create a place where conversation begins."
The typing station is part of that, and so are the large tables where multiple parties are seated together. Lomba likens it to a dinner party where you might arrive knowing a couple of people, but leave having met a few more.
"We want it be a place that when you're here, you know you're here," he said. And while it's not a music venue, some creative "programming" is likely.
As for the inevitable third-beer question — why so long between The Skinny and LFK? — Lomba says he more or less disappeared to some degree, but still heard plenty.
"I heard all kinds of things ... my roommate said, 'I heard you were home under your piano' and it was true that I had a piano at the time, but couldn't fit under it."
He calls the time "my country music years" and lists the loss of truck, dog and wife as lyrical proof. It's a good story, not as good as the NFL story but good. So is the story about the dog. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find part of LFK lacking in backstory.
That window? The huge one up front? True story: That just may be the largest single pane of glass in Maine; it costs hundreds extra just to insure it.
What's with the typewriters? Lomba recalls a 1923 machine from when he was 9 years old, a connection to his grandfather, and he's loved the big machines, mostly manuals, since.
The menu? Well, that's driven by just using pizza ovens — you know, because they vent differently and are easier to install and there are plans to invite some of Portland's best chefs to see what they can do in that kitchen environment.
The books? You can buy them. Or borrow. Or just take one and bring back another.
That "Vat 69" Scotch? Well, the only reason we carry that is ...
It's all part of the skinny, if you will, in what turns out to be a clean, well-lighted and conversational place.
(Curtis Robinson is the founding editor of The Portland Daily Sun.)