BATH — No Coward Soul, at 128 Front St., arrived with a polite, newborn yelp in early May, fighting for a little elbow room in Bath’s downtown restaurant scene.

“Bath, open up your palates, we are here,” the eatery seemed to cry, serving up earthy, soulful food with Portuguese roots.

Now that’s a little different, for Bath.

On a recent chilly night, several silver-haired Bath residents warmed themselves with bowls of caldo verde, a kale and chorizo soup, while tattooed bar patrons drank locally-brewed craft beer and nibbled on a mussel and clam dish, at the former address of Solo Bistro.

An intrepid reporter for the local weekly salivated over each salty burst in her appetizer of salt cod cakes, or bacalhau, accompanied by a sassy Tempranillo wine. Ears were treated to vintage blues, possibly Brazilian jazz, classic Leon Russell and even—are you ready for this? —the Singing Nun, made famous in the 1960s by her song “Dominique.”

That too, is a little different for Bath.

And it all works, in a most delightful, thoughtful, surprising way.

You might expect a bit of manic energy from Bath native Johnny Lomba, the main force behind No Coward Soul, a guy who loves good food and interesting people as much as he loves the act of producing and orchestrating. Those are skills he honed over a decade ago as maestro of The Skinny music and arts venue in Portland.

Favoring that “producer’s hat,” Lomba also happens to be this year’s coordinator for the upcoming controlled chaos that is Bath Heritage Days. Sleep is probably not high on his agenda right now.

While No Coward Soul already has the feel of a fairly well-oiled machine, Lomba and his crew are far from being in cruise-control mode.

“Oh, we’re far from done,” he says with a sigh that barely masks excitement for the task at hand. “We’ve still got so much to do.”

Typewriter keys set into the bar at No Coward Soul in Bath. Lorry Fleming photo

That seems kind of crazy, when one admires the cool vintage-style lighting, the Lomba-designed and built tables, benches, and bar; in essence, a complete transformation of the space.

But then he points out a space for a “writer’s nook” that will come, complete with a typewriter and paper. And the downstairs area is being readied for live music, readings, storytelling and perhaps film events, all happening on a regular basis.

The offerings are sure to be on the quirky side, as one of Lomba’s favorite phrases during our interview is, “something just a little bit different.”

That phrase peppers discussion of the food—fresh, organic, and “honest” according to chef Kate Squibb—as well as the vibe of the rooms, the programming downstairs, and the eclectic music served up by 33-1/3 rpm vinyl platters.

“Yeah, I just scored some great records today, in fact,” Lomba says as we discuss the viability of turntable duties on a busy night. The day’s bounty included LPs by the inimitable Captain Beefheart (“maybe for playing later at night,” Lomba mused), “anti-folk” artist Cindy Lee Berryhill, ‘70s soul outfit The Cornelius Brothers, and an LP by the British post-punk outfit Chameleons UK.

“I loved them so much in high school!”

But he’s completed the migration of his family’s own Portuguese culinary traditions into a simple, straightforward menu of delicious sounding dishes. Pistachio-crusted hake, steak with tawny port butter, and red wine duck await the eater.

“My dad’s side is Portuguese, we’d visit those relatives, and it was different food, good, hearty food,” Lomba said. “I thought it would be interesting to try. I’ve always felt that Bath was different, having lived in some other cities and comparing the experience. I always felt people here are pretty gregarious, and straightforward, and not afraid to try something new.”

Lomba also imbued the very bones of the restaurant with his love of poetry. You’ll find Emily Dickinson’s “Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant” inlaid into the bar itself, and the restaurant’s name is from the poem, “No Coward Soul,” by Emily Bronte.

One intuits that Lomba’s love of that poem—“a steadfast statement, about someone who is not afraid of anything, not death or dying”—has been something of a personal compass.

“The Skinny experience gave me a different perspective, a way to think about arts in the community and how it’s presented, what people can tolerate, and what people are really interested in,” Lomba said.

“I hope in regards to this place, I hope it makes people think, not just because we’re doing Portuguese food and nobody else is, but I hope it makes people think about being in a different kind of place; something that is just a little bit different.”

Lomba has particularly enjoyed the build-out process. “It’s a lot of fun, a tremendous amount of work but it’s gratifying. You realize how one thing is going to trickle down to another. Each atmospheric decision is important, helping you decide what you want to present, how to do it so it’s not the same old, same old.”

Lomba and his partner in No Coward Soul, Dan Lounsbury, both grew up in Bath. Lomba has lived in other cities and states, most recently returning from Seattle, and knew for many years he’d return to do something like this in Bath.

“It’s great doing this with my old buddy. I haven’t spent this much time with him since we were teenagers.”
Lomba has known his chef, Kate Squibb, for a good number of years, as well from the food and arts scene in Portland.

“She’s awesome, she’s a kick in the pants,” Lomba said. “I just hoped she would be available when the time arrived.”
Squibb, who was on the Food Network television show “Chopped” twice (making it through the dessert round both times) was a sous chef at Liquid Riot and cooked at 158 in South Portland among other places. She recently moved to Bath, to “submerge” herself in the birthing of No Coward Soul.

“I’m borderline obsessed,” she laughed. “But it’s more than a restaurant to me. We’ve all been on a journey, working very hard, and I feel like, to pull it off and be authentic, you really need to immerse yourself.”

The Portuguese idea appealed to her immediately. “They eat very seasonally, like we do in Maine. That’s a really nice approach, and we do everything as fresh and local as possible. I break down everything in-house.”

Squibb seems enchanted with Bath, and all the promise of the evolving City of Ships.

“I couldn’t be happier to be part of this. And Bath is amazing, I love it. On Saturday mornings, I walk down to the farmers market on the waterfront and get everything I need.”

Her enthusiasm for cooking authentic dishes like jag, infused with lima beans, garlic, carmelized onions and paprika, is so palpable, it stirs the taste buds over the phone.

The smaller restaurant size also appeals to Squibb. “I want to touch every single plate that leaves the kitchen. It’s important to me, even though it’s such a grandma style.”

That idea complements Lomba’s thoughts on the importance of chemistry among the “right people,” working together to make a little magic.

“There’s a great group of people here, who mesh well together … They really care about what they are turning out each night.”