Judy Gibson, acclaimed South Portland restaurant that opened days before COVID shutdown, to close

Food News

Owner Chris Wilcox said the restaurant never fully recovered from the shutdown, and they weren’t busy enough.

A picture of booth restaurant seating, featuring several chairs and place settings.
Judy Gibson, an acclaimed restaurant in South Portland that opened just days before the COVID-19 shutdown of restaurants, will close Nov. 19. Courtesy of Judy Gibson

Judy Gibson faced a difficult start when the acclaimed restaurant in South Portland opened its doors in early March of 2020, just weeks away from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown that would especially impact the service industry. 

After some time and much pivoting, it seemed the neighborhood joint had gotten past bumps they could have never anticipated, receiving praise from locals and New Englanders elsewhere for its seasonal dishes and creative ways of mixing flavors.

But on Nov. 19, the South Portland restaurant will close its doors for good. The team announced the unexpected closure on its Instagram account.

“I cannot begin to express the sadness I feel as I write this,” the post said. “The last four years of my life have been wholly dedicated to Judy Gibson.”

Owner and chef Chris Wilcox was the chef de cuisine at Eventide and executive chef at Velveteen Habit before opening his very own restaurant March 4, the name coming from his two grandmothers. But Wilcox’s first restaurant was forced to close just 10 days later. 

During the lockdown and eventually when they were able to open the restaurant for outdoor seating, Wilcox and his team served up fried chicken that was popular enough to get the restaurant through those first two difficult pandemic years. 

“I laid off all of my staff except for one person and just fried chicken every day and was miserable about it, to be completely frank,” Wilcox said. “It wasn’t anything super special — everyone was making comfort food and takeout-friendly food, so that’s what I did.”

What came after that was a menu that utilized seasonal ingredients in innovative ways and became one of the most celebrated new restaurants in Portland as a result. According to the Instagram post, the restaurant “had a great summer” that kept them afloat.

But despite getting such high praise locally, Wilcox said the problem was that the restaurant was rarely booked full.

“People really say how much they enjoy the restaurant — that’s great,” Wilcox said. “The reality is that people didn’t show up as much. We weren’t busy enough.”

Wilcox really isn’t sure what’s next — his entire professional life has been spent in kitchens, and his time in restaurants is more than likely not coming to a halt because of the Judy Gibson closure. 

But he would like to take a moment to think of his next steps, he said. 

“I’m grateful that I got to have the opportunity, period,” Wilcox said. “There’s something about doing your own thing and doing it the way you would like to do it. It’s an experience that’s pretty hard to put into words for people.”

Until Nov. 19, Wilcox said Judy Gibson is mostly booked solid after a “flood of support” came following the closing announcement. 

Though that may be the end of Judy Gibson, Wilcox said the best way to support restaurants you want to see in your communities is to just show up — don’t cancel those reservations you do have, and don’t just assume it’s too booked for you to go. 

“I know for a fact that I’m not the only person that didn’t have as busy of a summer here in the Portland area,” Wilcox said. “I guarantee there’s lots of people in my immediate area that are definitely concerned about going into the winter.”