Portsmouth restaurant pioneer James Haller, whose Blue Strawbery on Ceres Street set the tone for the city's growth as a dining destination, is returning to lend his presence to Portsmouth's fall Restaurant Week, which starts Thursday. COURTESY
James Haller is noted for recipe-free cooking. His 1976 "The Blue Strawbery Cookbook" (Harvard Common Press) is subtitled "Cooking (Brilliantly) Without Recipes."
PORTSMOUTH -- James Haller had no plans of becoming a chef when he moved to the Portsmouth area in 1969, but he knew whatever he did, it would be here.
Almost 50 years later, Haller is known as the grandfather of "new American cuisine" and of the Portsmouth restaurant scene. He built the Blue Strawbery Restaurant on Ceres Street with two partners from a small start-up "dining room" to the city's star restaurant. He spent 16 years in the kitchen there before moving on; the restaurant itself continued for another nine years before making way for a new generation of restaurateurs.
Today, Portsmouth is home to almost 100 restaurants, and more restaurant seating than there are residents in town. But as Haller notes, it is has gotten expensive to both operate a restaurant in the city and dine at one.
Restaurant Week Portsmouth is a semi-annual event that offers an opportunity for visitors and locals alike to sample some of the city's finest cuisine at set prices for lunch and dinner.
This year, more than 50 restaurants in and around Portsmouth will participate in the fall event from Nov. 7 through Nov. 16, and Haller is taking part in the festivities.
Haller came from New York City and the Midwest, and said Portsmouth was everything he expected a seaport town to look like in New England when he arrived in 1967.
"It had been so untouched from the early 18th century and even part of the 17th century, so there were wonderful buildings that are still there, and the waterfront is still there," Haller said.
Real estate agents in town thought he was crazy when he told them he wanted to open a restaurant in 1970. With a couple of exceptions, there was not much in the way of a restaurant scene in town back then.
Haller said he always loved to cook, and things just fell into place with the support of the community, and even the State Liquor Commission: Before the Blue Strawbery, in order to get a liquor license, a restaurant had to serve eight entrees for both lunch and dinner, Haller said. When he explained what they wanted to do — two seatings with a choice of three entrees — the liquor commissioners said they would give Blue Strawbery a summer license and if it worked they would change the rules. It worked.
Haller and his partners bought second-hand kitchen equipment, furniture, dishes and cookware and built a reputation based on Haller's self-taught adaptations of traditional meals.
The restaurant was named in honor of Strawbery Banke Museum, which had just begun its efforts to save some of the city's historic homes.
"This is what was happening in Portsmouth then — the renaissance, the food and the houses … all sort of happening at one time," Haller said. "It was the basis of what saved the city."
Haller said he is impressed by what Portsmouth chefs are doing today.
"Their imagination, what they have to work with and what they do with it — it's a wonderful combination of kitchens we have," Haller said. "To think I even had a tiny part in it makes me humbly grateful I was able to do it and have fun with it."
Haller went on to do television shows and has written seven books, including two based on his time at the Blue Strawbery, where he cooked without recipes.
"As Portsmouth restaurateurs in the 21st century, we are so aware of the debt we owe to James Haller for putting Portsmouth's culinary scene on the national map," said Massimo Morgia, owner of Ristorante Massimo and Upstairs at Massimo's on Ceres Street.
Close to 70,000 people dined out during the spring restaurant week, and the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce is hoping to surpass that number this fall.