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Fifty Years at The Pilots Grill

By JOHN GOULD / February 22, 1991



THE Honorable J. Hollis Wyman packed blueberries and sardines Down East and was able to perpetuate himself in the Maine state Senate. On the wall behind him at his desk was a framed motto that said: ``Nothing Beats Blind Luck.'' Salesmen and buyers who came to call enjoyed a laugh from this, for they had soon recognized that Hollie had advanced acumen, was shrewd, and none of his success depended on chance. It's hard to believe that 50 years have passed since I came to know another gentleman who ascribed his prosperity to ``luck,'' Paul Zoidis of Bangor. Paul came from Albania at 17 with a desire to become a restaurateur, and after learning his English and laying aside enough money, he opened a restaurant which he called The Pilots Grill.

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Was it blind luck that caused him to select a vacant lot quite a distance from Bangor's downtown shopping district? Or did he foresee how things would trend and was far ahead of his time? Near the restaurant he opened was the ``flying field,'' to become Bangor's International Airport, which today can handle anything that flies, and does.

This was in 1940, a little more than 50 years ago, and airplanes were not yet wholly accepted, and the idea of shopping malls with parking space was yet to be decried by in-town merchants. Paul chose the name for his proximity to the flying field and because pilots were derring-do and it was possible to come in and have lunch and see one eating. Also, World War II was about to erupt for us, and Bangor would have the nighest runway to Europe. Paul looked ahead.

Fifty years later, some folks will tell you Pilots Grill is the best restaurant in Maine, but I repeat that not as an unpaid testimonial but as introduction to my yarn of the day. Paul's place was never a simple eatery, fast and junk food. It had class, with linen on the tables and cloth napkins. His first menu had 14 entrees, plus 10 seafood dishes.

Paul's son, William, operates Pilots Grill today, a competent successor to his amiable father, and he has been observing the golden anniversary with special advertising in the newspapers and on the TV. When I saw one of his TV commercials, I said to my lady, ``Why'n-cha call Bill and tell him to toss another pail of water in the soup - we'll come up and help him celebrate?''

So we did that, and although it was a busy Saturday night Bill was able to snatch time from his routine and sit at our table while we remembered things past and had a good time. Dorothy had the scallops and I had the lamb chops.

As part of the 50th observance, Son Bill had reproduced his father's first menu (Me-n-U at Pilots Grill) and has been giving them to present-day customers as souvenirs.

Now, bear in mind that this is not something from the Delmonico legend of the Gay Nineties, a century ago with Diamond Jim Brady looking on. This is merely 50 years ago. 1940. The Maginot Line had proved ineffective, and there had been Dunkirk. It would be a year before Pearl Harbor brought our United States into the conflict. Plenty of folks are still around who remember dining out in 1940. Now consider that first menu:

Broiled Scotch ham, guava jelly, potatoes, etc. 40

Broiled hamburg steak, etc. 35

Broiled single kidney lamb chop 40, two for 60

Broiled single pork chop 35, two for 55

Broiled tenderloin steak, etc. 85

Under seafood, the traditional down-Maine lobster salad roll, listed as a specialty, was priced at 25, but a hot boiled lobster with drawn butter, potatoes, and sliced tomatoes was expensive at 85. The chef's masterpiece, the broiled live lobster with fixin's - steady now! - $1.00.

Today, 50 years later, Bill doesn't print a lobster price on the menu, but says ``market price.'' To the fisherman bringing in lobsters this day, the buyer pays him $2 a pound. A restaurant lobster, then and now, runs from 1 pound to 1 and 1/4 pound.

Paul's special hamburger sandwich was 10. His toasted roll with special-made frankfurter was 10. Toasted double-decker club sandwiches came at 30, 35, and 40. Home baked pies, 10. His ice cream sodas were 15, but that was for two scoops.