PORTSMOUTH — An iconic restaurant and lounge in downtown Portsmouth is getting a new owner and a name change after 41 years.
The Rusty Hammer was opened on Pleasant Street near Market Square in 1978 by Russell Hammer and Bill MacMillan. The establishment became known over the years for its “Wimpy” burgers and relaxing atmosphere.
Current owner Crystal Cronin said Tuesday that certain challenges have led her and her husband, Ryan, to make the decision to keep the building but rent out the restaurant to Joe Scarlotto, who owns The Shanty Seafood & Grill and Lazy Jack’s restaurants in Portsmouth.
Cronin said the landscape in Portsmouth has changed over the years, and that after losing some loyal employees it became harder for the restaurant to find dependable people, especially during the summer months when seasonal restaurants can offer higher wages.
With four children between the ages of 3 and 8, Cronin and her husband were having a hard time running the restaurant, covering for staff members and balancing their family life.
At the same time, Cronin said losing the popular State Street Saloon across the road in a 2017 fire has caused business to slow. The lot where the “Cheers of Portsmouth” was located is still vacant, and The Statey Bar & Grill is now on Deer Street.
“We found ourselves at kind of a crossroads. This little side of downtown needs some life, and we think Joe is the one to do it,” Cronin said.
Cronin said Scarlotto is developing a new theme for the restaurant and is planning to change the name.
Mayor Jack Blalock said he has fond memories of The Rusty Hammer, especially since the restaurant opened just a few years after he and his father opened Old Ferry Landing on Ceres Street.
Blalock said when the two establishments started, Portsmouth was not the bustling city it is now, and the friendship he had with Hammer helped build both businesses.
“There was a lot of advice exchanged, using each other’s equipment and trading back and forth,” Blalock said. “It’s a little bittersweet. Of course, I’ll be sad to see the name change.”
Blalock said Hammer retired after selling the restaurant in April 2014, but he still sees him from time to time.
Blalock said he wishes Scarlotto the best in his new adventure.
“You always hope the new owner does something exciting,” Blalock said.
Cronin said the restaurant will remain open from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. through this weekend, including Sunday.