CAMDEN - Cappy's Chowder House may be currently undergoing a major expansion for the summer, but locals and tourists will find another welcome surprise when they walk through the new doors: John Collins, who goes by the nickname "Big John," is back behind the bar after a 13-year absence.
For six or seven years during the 1990s, Big John was the jovial face behind the bar-and the tallest guy in the room, until he left in 2000. Back then, a loyal group of local ladies would convene every Monday night at Cappy's bar for the weekly Girl's Night Out (GNO). The rules were simple: no kids, no boyfriends or husbands. If a guy wanted to join GNO, he had to wear a skirt. (No guys ever did.) Big John heard a lot of inappropriate conversations and served up a lot of "Wedgies" (Budweiser in a mason jar with a lemon), but he still, to this day, remains one of the most welcoming bartenders Camden has ever seen.
Well, like they say, everything old is new again. His first day back bartending for Cappy's was on this past Monday. At the end of his shift, members of the original GNO group suprised him with a card and a photo (sometime circa 1995) of Big John with the GNO crew. We could tell from the photo it was sometime near Valentine's Day and that several of us still hadn't climbed out of the 1980s fashion-wise. Behind us stood Big John, then at 6 feet, 8 inches.
"I'm about 6 feet, 6 inches now," he said, laughing. "I've shrunk."
Asked what brought him back, he said: "For starters, my wife's schedule has changed, so Mondays and Tuesdays were a perfect time to come back. My friend David [Robichaud, along with Matt Orne] bought the place, so here I am."
In his absence, a few things have changed.
"It's been frightfully familar and very much the same," he said. "There's a new door here," referring to the new entrance to the expanded side of the restaurant. "And a new computer system, which is great."
We pointed out there is also a new mug club, which didn't exist in the 1990s.
"They claim they brought me back because I'm the only one that can move the mugs," he said.
"We've missed his laugh," said GNO veteran Leigh Ann Englander. If you've ever heard Big John's booming laugh, it sounds exactly like Sesame Street's The Count wth its booming Ah-ha-ha!
"I miss his perfect handwriting on the specials' boards," said Joanne Parent, another GNO member and former Cappy's employee. "I'd come into work and the lettering was brilliant. I'd want to know how to recreate his 'n's and his 'h's."
Big John has also had some personal changes since his old days slinging Wedgies. He's now married with two boys, eight and ten. He said he's looking forward to a summer with the new expanded restaurant, which is to open by mid-June.
"It is very well run, clean and organized and I'm just looking forward to having fun," he said. "I love tending bar. There's going to be two more bars and two decks."
How will people react knowing he's back?
"I'm one of those recognizeable people," he said. "I suspect I'll see a lot of people from the old days."
As for Girls Night Out, Big John better get used to raucous inappropriate conversations on Monday nights again. The girls are back.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org