Portland, Maine has been New England’s ‘best kept secret’ for quite a while now. With a city population of just a little over 65,000, it has appeared on countless lists in recent years touting it as one of America’s most livable cities, greenest cities, the best place in the country in which to alternately raise a family or retire, a top food city, and even one of America’s best hipster cities (though to be fair, with reference to the latter there are plenty of residents who in the thick of a brutal Maine winter choose to wear flannel shirts and grow beards as a matter of function, not form). Either way you look at it, Portland is already on the map, and this in spite of those aforementioned months of the year when a prolonged chill takes over, and with an economy that has at times –like the rest of the country- struggled.
That said, having lived in Maine for over seven years, I can’t help but still feel a tinge of hesitation in letting even more word ‘get out’. It’s a double-edged sword of sorts- Portland -and much of Maine- depend heavily on tourism to keep the state’s finances in order however in the middle of high summer you’ll sometimes hear locals grumble about how much their town has been overrun by outsiders. Yet true enough, you can’t be faulted for wanting to keep a city this great to yourself. From the vistas of the Eastern Prom and nearby Mackworth Island, to the energetic nightlife of the Old Port and a considerably talented population of artists, musicians and chefs, or simply out to Hadlock Field to catch a Sea Dogs baseball game (complete with its own replica of Fenway Park’s ‘Green Monster’), Portland, Maine has a lot to offer. All that, and there’s plenty of lobster- which, need I remind you, is freaking delicious.
Here, then, are a few notable selections for food and drink from Portland that are worthy of consideration when you next make a visit to the Pine Tree State. Even for a city as small as Portland, this list is still far-from definitive and countless other gems abound. But at the end of the day, perhaps keeping just a few secrets to the locals isn’t such a bad thing after all.
20 Food & Drink Highlights from Portland, Maine
Best diner fare
Most will say Becky’s (390 Commercial Street), but to escape the tourists, head to Marcy’s (47 Oak Street) for equally affordable, hearty fare.
Best place for a greasy hangover recovery
Ruski’s (212 Danforth Street). For less than ten dollars you’ll have to be carried out, with a belly guaranteed to be overflowing with eggs, bacon, pancakes and the like.
I’ve seen folks near come to blows arguing between Hot Suppa (703 Congress Street) or Bintliff’s (98 Portland Street) and their competing takes on corned beef hash, but I’ve personally always preferred Local 188 (685 Congress Street), who have a killer smoked salmon scramble. But there are also countless other contenders- you decide.
Best lobster roll (and the fried clams aren’t bad, either)
From late March through late October, the Lobster Shack at Two Lights (just south of Portland at 225 Two Lights Road in Cape Elizabeth) create some of the best lobster rolls in the area. Be warned, you’ll be forced to queue up with countless tourists (and potentially pay tourist prices), but the quality of their seafood, along with the stunning view is worth an extra few bucks. If you’re after oysters, then be sure to check out the Eventide Oyster Co. (86 Middle Street). Eventide are a newcomer to Portland garnering great reviews for their extensive list of both local and ‘from away’ oysters.
Best restaurant for Francophoiles
Petit Jacqueline (190 State Street) is a James Beard nominated restaurant offering classic French bistro fare like steak frites, beef bourguignon, and cassoulet.
Duckfat (43 Middle Street). The name says it all. While they also serve up some pretty tasty sandwiches, their Belgian fries are prepared in duck fat. Duck fat. That’s all you need to know. Run there.
Best sandwich, washed down with a milkshake featuring an entire (blended) slice of Key Lime Pie
Silly’s (40 Washington Avenue). The menu is a chaotic –yes, silly- mess, but their wraps and expansive milkshake options get our vote. That and a menu item known as the ‘Slop Bucket’. Trust us, so long as you’re okay with pork, you’ll love it.
Best Thai with a modern twist
BODA (671 Congress Street) create what they call ‘very Thai’ food, which amounts to tasty, affordable street vendor specialties and home-style Thai cuisine. Try the quail eggs seasoned with soy sauce and scallions. Ridiculously good.
Miyake (468 Fore Street). No contest. Since 2007 chef Masa Miyake has been conjuring up some of the best sushi in Portland but, arguably, in the entire northeast, and a move last year to an updated, spacious location on Fore Street has extended his streak of success.
Best restaurant for a special occasion
Again, local opinions vary widely on this, but three names that consistently come up (and that have, between them, won a slew of local and national culinary awards) are Fore Street (288 Fore Street), 555 (555 Congress Street) and Hugo’s (88 Middle Street). Options abound, however, and restaurants like Caiola’s (58 Pine Street), Bresca (111 Middle Street) and Paciarino (470 Fore Street) are to be ignored at your loss. Heck, the dining room alone is worth a visit at Grace (15 Chestnut Street), built in a space that once housed the old Chestnut Street Church.
Purist locals tout the more rustic, local and organic-approach pizzas at Flatbread (72 Commercial Street, #5), but in recent years many have taken to a relatively new arrival on the scene, Otto’s (576 Congress Street), whose creative pies (including mashed potato, bacon and scallion, and pulled pork and mango) attract the late-night crowds. Two varied takes on pizza, both delicious.
Best coffee house
Coffee By Design (multiple locations throughout Portland) are a local chain that brew a consistently good cup of coffee, but Bard (185 Middle Street), also downtown, is a close second.
Best place to bury your face in a blueberry pie
Two Fat Cats Bakery (47 India Street) bake genuinely sublime versions of the official Maine state dessert that this author will freely admit (without an ounce of shame) to having stashed in his luggage on return trips to New York from Portland.
Best pint of Guinness
(served up by no-nonsense staff)
The Snug (223 Congress Street). Walk into this, the best Irish pub in Portland. Order a pint from Michelle. Now shut up and drink. That is all.
In Portland, three dives consistently make the grade if you’re after the requisite combination of cheap booze, strong drinks and good atmosphere (we’ll leave the definition of ‘good’ dive bar atmosphere up to you): Ruski’s (212 Danforth Street), Sangillo’s (18 Hampshire Street) and Amigo’s (9 Dana Street).
The Armory (20 Milk Street) always buzzes with patrons and they pour a great martini, but we also like the more eclectic cocktail list at Sonny’s (83 Exchange Street) where you can enjoy a drink in an ornate space that was once home to a bank.
Best place to get your music on
For local rock, head to Empire Dine and Dance (575 Congress Street) and Geno’s (625 Congress Street). For jazz, get to the cozy live music venue that is Blue (650 Congress Street), for folk music visit One Longfellow (191 State Street), and for hip-hop gigs look no further than The Big Easy (55 Market Street).
Best place to catch the game
When it comes to the sports fan’s requisite triumvirate of ‘the three B’s’ -beer, big screens and buffalo wings- Portland sports fans pack out Rivalries (10 Cotton Street), Fore Play (436 Fore Street) and Binga’s Stadium (77 Free Street). All three make the grade.
For beer lovers
The beer selections at Novare Res (4 Canal Plaza) and The Great Lost Bear (540 Forest Avenue) are unmatched, even if your liver may hate you for trying to work through their extensive tap list and bottle menus. The Maine-made offerings at Gritty McDuff’s (396 Fore Street) are also well regarded, but no matter what bar you’re in during a visit to Portland, order up an Allagash, and you’ll soon be enjoying a beer from one of the finest breweries in the state.
Best (and only) watering hole with the words to an Emily Dickinson poem set into the length of the bar
LFK (188A State Street) just opened this year and has fast become a popular destination in the West End of town. It’s a great room with a literary theme in place and large front windows looking out over Longfellow Square perfect for people watching.