The Port Begins New Chapter
By Susan Thompson
October 21, 2018, was a typical Sunday at The Port on Lake Panorama’s main basin. It was late afternoon, and the restaurant was closed, after being open earlier in the day for brunch. An employee doing paperwork in an office on the lower level smelled smoke, and discovered flames. A stray cigarette butt started a fire that ran up the outside of the building, getting into the kitchen walls and ceiling. The Panora and Guthrie Center fire departments put the fire out, and no one was injured.
While the flames didn’t do a huge amount of damage, the water it took to put out the flames did. The restaurant closed, and planned events for the rest of the calendar year were canceled.
The Port building and business is more than 40 years old. In 1972, lake property owners and others began discussions that led to the formation of Lake Enterprises, Inc. (LEI). The company purchased half of a five-acre tract of land overlooking Lake Panorama’s main basin. Company officials said they would build a restaurant and cocktail lounge first, with hopes of later purchasing the other half for a motel.
More than $270,000 worth of stock was sold to finance The Port. Newspaper reports in the fall of 1973 said construction would begin soon. Yet it was 1975 before that happened, with the restaurant opening in early 1976. Court records show the company lost $200,000 that first season. By the end of the year, LEI had accumulated debts in excess of $500,000, and was declared insolvent.
One of LEI’s founders, David Garst, took over the operation. Paul and Linda Wendl purchased The Port from Garst in 1982 and operated it for 12 years, before selling it in 1994. The restaurant moved through several hands over the next 10 years, before being purchased by Dr. Mark Menadue in 2004.
Fast forward to February 2018, when Mike McGuigan was hired as head chef. “We were on target for a record year,” McGuigan says. “We had just reopened after being closed four days for a deep cleaning. We had a full calendar, and were gearing up for the holiday season.”
While the fire and its aftermath has been tough on the business, it’s also given Menadue, McGuigan and their staff the chance to create a new space for their customers, and themselves.
“We are pleased to be restoring a brand new Port, down to the building studs, with services and cuisine the lake has clamored for,” says Menadue. “It's our intent to turn this difficult and untimely casualty loss into a net gain for the lake community, building on the improved reputation, food quality and services that accompanied the hire of Chef Mike.”
“People will see a completely new layout,” McGuigan says. The biggest change was bringing the bar out further into the middle of the south dining area. The U-shaped bar will be lined with 20 stools. A row of high-top tables will line the wall where the bar was originally. Another row of high-tops will be in the north dining room.
Two large padded corner booths will be added to the south dining area along the windows, plus other tables. The dining room originally had two doors leading to the deck. The one on the north was removed, and replaced by a large window. All these changes mean the bar and north dining room now will seat 108, up from 96.
Two service stations have been added, plus a pass-through at the bar, all designed to improve efficiency for servers. A new point-of-sale system will be in use, with servers at tables placing orders on electronic devices. Servers also will be able to handle payments at their tables using the new system.
McGuigan’s daughter, Jaime, is The Port’s front-of-the-house manager. “She has worked for me for 15 years, and knows what I expect,” McGuigan says. Jaime will have an office tucked into a corner of the bar area, so she can be more available as needed. Her previous office was in the building’s lower level.
Before the fire, there were five televisions throughout the bar area. McGuigan is dropping that number to three. “I’m not a big fan of TVs in a restaurant. Unless there is a big sporting event everyone wants to watch, we plan to have the TVs simply showing what’s going on in our kitchen,” he says.
“This is a big restaurant, that also has a large outside seating area when the weather is good. When we’re really busy, I want our customers to see how hard the kitchen staff is working to get everyone’s food out to them,” McGuigan says.
The kitchen will feature all new equipment and appliances. McGuigan is most excited about an $85,000 state-of-the-art exhaust system. “The old kitchen didn’t have a good exhaust system, or air conditioning. Sometimes the temperature in there would reach 140 degrees. With the addition of air conditioning and this exhaust system, conditions in the kitchen will be much better,” he says.
Another result of the fire was the need to bring all electrical wiring up to code, and renovate bathrooms to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Two storerooms were added near the front entrance. All new light fixtures, flooring, furniture and artwork will round things out.
Renovations also extended to the lower level. With a parking lot to the east that sits higher than the building, water seeping into the basement long has been an issue. Repairs to foundation walls and an improved drainage system mean the lower level is dry and ready for large groups. The catering manager also has an office there.
Cost of the restoration work and building and equipment upgrades is estimated at $1.3 to $1.5 million. The work has taken longer than originally hoped, but the harsh winter made everything more difficult.
“At first, we looked at demolition and starting over, but that would have taken even longer,” McGuigan says. “Now when people walk in the door, they’re going to find a new, modern building.”
McGuigan, who grew up on the East Coast, started his cooking career at a high-end New York hotel. “I was the guy in the kitchen who thought I was better than I was,” he admits. “But the head chef saw something in me, and the company sent me through the two-year program at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.”
His employer required him to sign on for five more years, in exchange for the free education. That led to him being transferred across the country for six-month stints at various locations. One of those was the Johnny and Kay’s restaurant at the Hyatt near the Des Moines airport.
He met his future wife Peggy during his time in Des Moines. They married before he transferred back to New York, where they lived for two years. When Peggy became pregnant, they moved back to Des Moines. Mike was hired at the Savery Hotel, where he was the chef from 1979 until the 1993 floods.
McGuigan was involved in a couple of other restaurants in Des Moines before opening The Radish in Grimes, which he owned and operated for eight years before taking the position at The Port. He and Peggy have been married 40 years, and live in Waukee.
Besides the physical changes to the restaurant, there also will be changes to the lunch and dinner menus. “We’re going to increase our focus on fresh seafood, and also offer more daily specials,” McGuigan says. “We need to streamline the menu, and remove some of the things that were the most time-consuming to prepare.”
The Port will be open this summer Wednesday through Saturday for lunch, and Sunday for brunch. Dinner will be served beginning at 5 p.m. seven evenings a week. A full slate of live music on weekends is being developed.
Three nights a week – Friday through Sunday – there will be a special menu for outside diners. This will be limited to a few items available on a grill, and prepared side dishes. “We started this last year, and it worked well,”McGuigan says. “We’re enhancing this for 2019, with a better exhaust system, better lighting and more kitchen staff.”
The adjacent hotel was not damaged in the fire, and has remained open throughout the construction. McGuigan, who now also is general manager of the overall operation, says plans were in place to begin updating hotel rooms last fall, but those renovations are on hold for the time being.
It’s too early to confirm an opening date for the restaurant, although Mendue says he’s looking forward to seeing everyone again in “late spring.”
“We appreciate the patronage of our loyal clients, lake denizens and local customers who have always supported the efforts of the Port to serve the community, especially during this difficult restoration period,” Menadue says. “Stop by and experience the new Port on Lake Panorama – see you next sunset!”
McGuigan encourages patrons to watch for updates on The Port’s website and Facebook page.
“You can’t get a better view than what we have here,” McGuigan says. “After last year, we realize the volume of business this place can generate. We know we made some mistakes last year, not understanding how busy we would be, and how far behind we might get in the kitchen. We’ll be much better prepared this year. We’re anxious to have people return to experience what we have to offer.”