After over six decades of service to the community, Sangillo’s Tavern will open for the last time on Sunday, Feb. 15. The family-owned neighborhood gathering place at the foot of Munjoy Hill succumbed to several forces, most notably a mayor and city councilors whose values are very different than those of the working-class Portlanders who’ve long loved Sangillo’s and who made this city great.
Last April, the Portland City Council narrowly voted not to renew the tavern’s liquor license. Nevermind the fact that, as one of Portland’s oldest drinking establishments, Sangillo’s has been scrutinized by Portland police and state liquor authorities, and found to be in compliance with the laws, more often and longer than nearly every other business in Maine that serves booze. In today’s Portland, one period of relative rowdiness and a mistake or two trumps decades of responsible operation.
Mayor Mike Brennan and the four councilors who voted to close this third-generation family business were concerned that its bartenders hadn’t taken a short course that provides tips on how to responsibly serve alcohol. Nevermind that the three ladies most often working behind this bar collectively had over 50 years of experience serving Sangillo’s patrons.
Andrea Lee worked at the tavern for 37 years. For someone like Councilor Dave Marshall — a former Sangillo’s customer turned Judas who wasn’t even born when Lee served her first drink there — to decide she should lose her job because she lacked training is outrageously offensive. I wish Lee could have made this point during the bar’s (ultimately unsuccessful) appeal to state officials last November, but she died in the midst of that process, not knowing in those final days if she’d have a job even if she got out of the hospital.
The mayor and councilors who shuttered Sangillo’s also cited a lengthy list of disturbances in the vicinity of the business that the police department compiled to make its case for closing it. During the appeal hearing, the Sangillo family’s attorney, Tim Bryant, demolished the cops’ case, forcing Lt. Gary Hutcheson to admit over and over again that incidents he included in his report could not be determined to have involved either the tavern’s staff or patrons, and thus should not have been presented to the council in the first place. What remained were a couple incidents when the bar’s staff called and assisted police to resolve a crime, and the violation that occurred when Sangillo’s served an underage customer — a young adult the police themselves sent into Sangillo’s for an undercover sting operation.
In response to the cops’ concerns, owner Dana Sangillo, the grandson of founder Adam Sangillo Sr., and his aunt, manager Kathleen Sangillo, spent thousands of dollars they could scarcely afford on additional security staff and equipment for this tiny watering hole. In the year since they took those expensive measures there have been virtually no problems — this according to the neighbor who made most of the complaint calls to police in 2013, who spoke in support of the bar’s appeal during the hearing last fall.
When I visited Sangillo’s last Saturday night, the usual convivial crowd was there: a mix of workers from nearby restaurants and other regulars, as well as tourists who’ve been discovering the place in recent years, like two young women who’d read the tavern’s glowing reviews on Yelp and traveled from Boston to have a couple beers. Most of the people there had no idea it was the final week.
I sat next to Lynda Eaton, who’s tended bar at Sangillo’s for over a dozen years. She was having a post-shift cocktail and worrying about finding a new job at this late stage of her working life. Sangillo’s has been much more than Eaton’s place of employ. It’s her “home,” she told me. The regulars are more like family than customers. The tavern’s been open from mid morning till late night every day of the year for many, many years. The day of the big blizzard last month was the only day Eaton could recall that Sangillo’s didn’t open.
Bottom line: If you can’t appreciate the dedication, the genuine warmth and the importance of a place like this, you don’t deserve to represent the people of Portland.
As Eaton’s dark eyes welled with tears, the small crowd around us kept bursting into song. Someone played Macy Gray’s “I Try” on the jukebox. “I try to say goodbye and I choke / I try to walk away and I stumble,” they sang, oblivious to the irony. “Though I try to hide it, it’s clear / My world crumbles when you are not near.”
Goodbye, Sangillo’s. Thanks for the memories.