I t was Sonny Porter’s idea to open the restaurant.
He’d invested some of the money he’d made in the construction business building houses in the Berkshires and condos in Jiminy Peak to buy the John A. Porter Plaza (he named it after his father) on Pecks Road, close to his beloved Onota Lake, in Pittsfield.
Sonny, a gregarious sort who often sported a Panama hat to complement his full black mustache and salt-and-pepper beard, and his wife, Paula, were already well known to the neighborhood because they owned the convenience store they placed in the plaza, Johnnie’s Variety.
Eventually, Sonny imagined another possibility.
Let’s open a restaurant, he told Paula.
“It’s crazy,’’ Paula said. “My husband came up with these things and I would follow.’’
They called it PortSmitt’s Lakeway, folding their last name into the name of the restaurant. And in a neighborhood that needed a good hangout, the locals came for the cold beer and wings (“40 for $40 or 50 for $50”) and the Queen cut prime rib that was a specialty of their chef, Mike Lewis, who was with them from the beginning.
Half of the restaurant looked like a sports bar, the U-shaped wood bar surrounded by photos of the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics — Yankee pictures were reserved for the restroom.
The dining room entryway was adorned by a historical mural of the Causeway. Inside were murals of Onota and Pontoosuc lakes painted by a friend and photos of some of the places Sonny had built.
Casualty of pandemicThe business had an early bump or two, but they were making a go of it. It was a family affair, with their kids serving on the wait staff or as bartenders. And then five years ago, while on a hunting trip in New York, Chris “Sonny” Porter had a massive heart attack. He was 54 when he died. He and Paula had been married for 31 years.
“After he died,’’ Paula said Tuesday, “I ran everything by myself for five years.”
Paula was resourceful, what you would expect from a woman who had held so many jobs over the years — secretary, hairdresser, florist, Avon lady. But even Paula could hold off a pandemic only so long.
Just over 10 years after PortSmitt’s Lakeway opened its doors, Paula Porter brought her family together, and then what remained of her staff, to tell them that Saturday would be the restaurant’s last day.
Another restaurant had succumbed to the virus.
According to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, PortSmitt’s Lakeway joined the roughly 20 percent of restaurants (more than 3,600 establishments) that have shut as a result of COVID-19.
“We lived out my husband’s dream,’’ she said. “I’ve been trying to do the best I could do. But COVID is scary. A lot of people were afraid to go out. I understand. Early on, I know one of our customers died.”
Paula did not surrender without a fight. “I’m the owner. I’m the manager. I did everything but cook. Waiting tables, busing tables, answering the phone, running food, washing dishes, taking care of the bills. It was seven days a week. I cut back hours, I cut back the menu, I cut back staff.
“But now, winter is coming. People will not be going out to dinner as much.’’
Paula tried takeout and curbside service. She got the permits that allowed her to set up an outdoor dining area. But it wasn’t enough. She received a $10,000 grant from the city of Pittsfield, but there were restrictions on how she could use the money — she wasn’t allowed to pay back bills, she said. She didn’t apply for any of the federal loans that were available, she said, because she didn’t want to be saddled with more debt.
“I just wish the city could have done a little more for small businesses,’’ she said. “The governor said he wanted to help small businesses, but he didn’t really help anybody. You’re struggling and begging to get things, but you can’t. It’s not fair to the restaurant business.’’
Since she went public with the announcement that PortSmitt’s was closing, Paula said her phone has been blowing up with calls from friends, family and long-time customers.
“I know that this had to be an extremely hard decision to make and one that was made through a lot of tears I’m sure,’’ a family friend wrote on Paula’s Facebook page. “And as sad as I am for Pittsfield to lose such an amazingly wonderful place that people gathered and had such good times at, I wish you all the best of what life has to offer.”
PortSmitt’s Lakeway will be open a few hours (4 to 8:30 p.m.) the next three days. Paula Porter is dreading Saturday, when she will open at 11:30 and close at 8:30 that evening for a final farewell.
“It’s sad,’’ she said. “I’m going to miss everybody. At least I made it to the 10-year anniversary. I did the best I could do.’’
And what comes next?
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Paula Porter said. “I’ll see what life has to hand me. But I’m a worker. I’ll do something.’’