Monday, October 27, 2014

Supper and Dinner in Portland, Maine

"Unexpected Party" Illustration by David T. Wenzel.  Available here.
For the past several days I've been thinking and eating like a hobbit in order to list some of my favorite restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops here in Portland, Maine.  I've wanted to compile a list like this for some time now, as I'm often asked by friends for food recommendations in Portland.  It's never easy.  This place is foodie heaven.  I figured that breaking it down into the seven meals that Pippin lists in The Lord of the Rings would give me a chance to include more of the places I love as well as to be as specific as possible about what makes me love these places. Today I'm up to the last two meals, Supper and Dinner.  

"It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did" (The Hobbit, Chapter 12). 

I'm going to try to be brave as a hobbit as I attempt to list both meals in this post.  Supper will be restaurants that I tend to visit on the early side; Dinner will be places that are open later or that are perfect for a late-night snack.  Within each category the restaurants are listed in no particular order.  These lists are not all-inclusive.  If I were to list all my favorites, these lists would be at least twice as long!

  1. Grace  This is one of the most beautiful restaurants in Portland.  Located in a former church, Grace is elegant and lively at the same time.  The perfect spot for a romantic dinner or for incredibly creative drinks at the gorgeous bar.  Go here if you want lovely food in a memorable atmosphere.
  2. East Ender  I think this bustling two-floor bistro gets overlooked by some folks.  It is one of my favorite places to go for comfort food and a friendly atmosphere.  Mr. Magpie and I order the lobster nachos (think loads of lobster, avocado, cheddar, salsa, and sour cream) to split, and then I get a salad with calamari for dinner.  Perfect.  They also have fun house drink specials, like the strawberry-rhubarb pie martini.  Yum.
  3. Schulte & Herr  Everything at this tiny German restaurant is homemade, including the delicious breads.  On a recent visit with friends, I tried the spatzle, with caramelized onions, emmenthal cheese, chives, & cucumber salad, which was hearty and filling, but with beautifully balanced flavors.  Another real standout for me is the zwiebelkuchen, a caramelized onion & gruyere tart that is simply one of the best things I've eaten at a restaurant in a long time.  If you like salmon, try the potato pancakes with house-cured salmon.  This dish will change any preconceptions some might have about German food being too heavy.        
  4. Veranda Noodle Bar  This place has my favorite peanut sauce in town, so I always, always always order the fresh spring rolls here.  And sometimes a little extra peanut sauce.  :)  This is the place to come for fresh, Vietnamese food.  It's just off the peninsula on Veranda Street, so it's a bit of a hidden gem.  We go here for the noodle bowls.  The one I find myself ordering time and again is the grilled shrimp vermicelli bowl.  The shrimp are marinated in a tumeric-flavored sauce and then grilled until slightly blackened.  
  5. Becky's Diner  I hesitate to include Becky's on this list, not because I don't love this diner, because I do love this diner.  This place has been featured on a certain Food Network show that shall remain nameless, and I have to say that shows like this kind of ruin places for locals.  I'm sure people all over the country share this same problem when their favorite diners--the places they've been going to for more years than they can remember--get featured on TV.  Suddenly, we can no longer get a table, especially during the summer.  Such is life.  We still go here, we just wait until the tourist season ends, and I usually get the broiled haddock or the broiled scallops for dinner.  This is simple, fresh, homemade Maine food.  Nothing fancy.  Mr. M and I sit at the counter.  Sometimes we even break our no soda rule and order a Pepsi.  Sounds crazy, I know.  We like to live dangerously.  
  6. Green Elephant  After the guilty pleasure of a buttery grilled fish dinner at Becky's, Green Elephant is just what the doctor ordered.  Everything at this Asian-inspired bistro is vegetarian, but I promise, meat eaters will love it, too.  Definitely order the brussel sprouts appetizer for everyone to share.  These little gems are as close to candy as a vegetable can get.  If you think you hate brussel sprouts, give these a try anyway.  If anything will change your mind, these will. I've loved every main dish I've ever tasted here.  One of my favorites is the pineapple brown rice.   I also love the peanut curry.
  7. Saeng Thai House  Our number one spot for take-out!  We also like to eat in at this tiny Thai bistro.  The food is reliably delicious, and I can't think of nicer waitstaff in town.  High up on our list of favorite items are the bikini shrimp appetizer--golden wontons wrapped around shrimp and fresh ginger, then fried and served with a sweet and spicy chili sauce.  My favorite main dish is the special pad thai basil.  It has ruined all other pad thai for me, as this is so much more interesting!    
  8. Walter's  I liked Walter's back in the days when it was on Exchange Street in the Old Port, but since its move a few years ago to very different, decidedly more upscale digs, I think the food has improved dramatically.  My family and I go for the bar menu, which balances creative takes on comfort food with some truly inventive dishes.  The menu changes seasonally, and I especially love the warm ambience here after a chilly afternoon of Christmas shopping in the Old Port.
  9. Back Bay Grill  This is the restaurant we chose to celebrate our anniversary this year, and it was absolutely the perfect choice.  This place was here long before Portland became a famous foodie destination, and I believe it will be here long after trendier places have closed.  The service is impeccable--the very best I've had in Portland--and the food is wonderful.  When you look up Portland restaurants online, this place always winds up very near the top of the list--and deservedly so.  
  10. JP's Bistro  Our neighborhood bistro.  Hearty dishes and incredible homemade desserts in a friendly, warm atmosphere.  It's located well off the peninsula, so tourists never go here, which suits us just fine.  If you decide to be adventurous and go looking for JP's, don't let the fact that it's located in a tiny strip mall put you off.  You'll love the seafood dishes, and seriously, save room for dessert.  Holy moly.
  11. The Front Room  I mentioned this place once before on another list, but I need to include it here, too.  Portlanders know and mostly love Chef Harding Lee Smith's "Rooms" restaurants.  For me, it's always the Front Room that brings me back (with occasional visits to the lovely Corner Room).  Think homemade everything in a noisy, darkened neighborhood bistro.  I crave mussels and gnocchi when I come here, along with lots of crusty bread.  I also crave cedar-plank salmon with pumpkin goat cheese risotto.  Oh, and white cheddar grits.  Pure comfort.  
  12. Flatbread  Honestly, this is my favorite pizza in town.  I do love OTTO, but the spicy sauce at Flatbread wins me over.  Plus the big wood-burning oven, the funky-hippy vibe, and the views of the ferries as they come and go to the islands.  I know Flatbread is sort of a mini-chain, and I've been to nearly all their other locations, but the one in Portland happens to be my favorite.  Lucky me.  On Monday nights they've always got music, and the place just hops.  Plus, and this is huge for me, they make an incredible salad with mixed greens, carrots, celery, sesame seeds, and seaweed.  Sounds odd, but tastes divine.  I get it with local blue cheese on top.  Then I dip my flatbread in the light vinaigrette dressing. 
  13. Caiola's  I've mentioned Caiola's once before, but it's worth mentioning again.  It's very neighborhood-y as in West End neighborhood-y, and the food's just fantastic.  Whatever else you get, please do order the polenta fries.  You won't be sorry.  
The menu on the wall at Otto

  1.  OTTO Pizza  I almost feel like I don't need to mention OTTO.  Everyone in these parts knows OTTO.  Incredible pizza with truly wonderful toppings.  I think their mashed potato, bacon, and scallion is probably the most famous.  I'm a fan of the butternut squash,  ricotta, and cranberry.  There are several OTTO locations now in greater Portland and Boston, but I still love the original best.  We go here for slices after seeing a live show at the State on a summer night.  They also make a good caesar salad, so Mr. M and I often split one and then each have a slice or two.  Perfect date night! 
  2.  Boda  This is where Mr. M took me to celebrate my birthday recently.  Why?  Because I love Thai food, and Boda's creative, street-style Thai cuisine is consistently good, consistently fresh, and consistently fun to eat.  On my birthday, the standout dish was the curried mussels, with a rich, coconut-milk broth and a side of sticky rice to soak it all up.  
  3.  Nosh  Yes, Nosh makes the list twice.  It's a great place for late-night eats.  Period.  Go to a show, then go here.  And, as I said before, you must order the fries.  You simply must.
  4. The North Point  Delicious cocktails, sangria, and lovely cheese and meat platters.  That's what you'll find here, along with a wonderful, warm atmosphere.  Portland has many, many trendy hipster bars these days, but this isn't one of them.  Tucked into a little spot on picturesque Silver Street, this is a perfect spot for dinner and movie or for meeting friends after work.    
  5. Great Lost Bear  I've been going here since my undergraduate days in the late 80's.  This is as local as local gets.  They have seventy-eight beers on tap.  No, that's not a typo.  They really do, plus great comfort food.  Try the chili.  They've got one with meat and one without.  I get the veggie chili, and it's the kind of stick-to-your ribs bowl of comfort that I often crave in the winter.  The Great Lost Bear is also famous for their burgers, and I love their fish sandwiches.  This place is dark, noisy, and just what Mainers need when we're feeling a little stir crazy in the dead of winter.  
  6. Silly's with a Twist  Truth be told, we come here pretty much anytime of day or night, but it can't be beat for a late dinner or even and after-dinner slice (slab, hunk) of delicious cake.  Silly's and the newer Silly's with a Twist right next door are two of the funkiest spots in town, and it doesn't get much more local than this.  The menu is huge and incredibly creative; the food definitely leans towards comfort, with large portions (we always end up taking half our meal home) and lots of cheesy, melty, gooey goodness.  I love the fabuffel burger (falafel doused in buffalo sauce), but I've tried many other dishes here, and I nearly always leave incredibly happy. They've got a huge list of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, plus milkshakes (hello, chocolate-pretzel shake), and one of the nicest staffs in town.  
  7. Local 188  Boisterous and bohemian, Local 188 is the perfect place to go after a film or for late-night tapas with friends.  I really think this is one of the restaurants that kicked off the huge wave of foodie havens in Portland, and it is still very much going strong.  Like so many of the other restaurants listed here, this is a popular brunch spot, too.  
  8. J's Oyster Bar  Extremely local joint down on the waterfront.  Dive bar that also happens to have great oysters and chowders.  I know everyone is raving about Hipster Eventide, and I get it, but I'm still partial to some of the old school spots like J's and Port Hole.  It's the Mainer in me, and the townie girl.  I won't apologize for it.  
  9. Gorgeous Gelato  Technically not a restaurant really, but still, this place is always in the number one spot for Portland restaurants on Trip Advisor.  And with very good reason.  The owners are from Italy.  The gelato is made fresh every day.  I was just in Italy for two weeks earlier this year, where I ate gelato for fourteen days straight.  Gorgeous gelato is as good as the best gelato I had in Italy.  For me, nothing is better than their wild berry, but I also love many other flavors, including, of course, pistachio, made with Sicilian pistachios.   
  10. Gelato Fiasco  How can I mention the competition on the same list?  Because their gelato is also incredible.  I think that the recipe at Gorgeous is creamier, but the variety of flavors at Fiasco can't be beat.  My favorite?  Sweet Resurgam, named after Portland's motto and made with roasted almond, burnt sugar, chocolate chips, caramel.  I think there's a wee joke in the burnt sugar and roasted almond, as resurgam means "I rise," referring to Portland's resurgence after three major fires throughout its history.  In fact, in the great fire of 1866, one of the buildings that famously burned was a sugar factory.  Oh, those folks at Gelato Fiasco are rascals.  The really good news about these two gelateria is that they are located across the street from each other on Fore Street, and they are open late, so if you're out and about late in the Old Port on a Saturday night, you can do a little comparison with your friends at both shops.  


  1. Really, now I am hungry. You mention calamari salad, I must go find it in our Portland soon, one of my favorites. Then absolutely love Thai and good food in general. What treats you have there. Oh also thinking of a spicy pizza too. Yikes! hungry!

    1. We do have so many wonderful treats, Marilyn as I know you do in your Portland, too! We're both so lucky. ;)

  2. Your post makes me want to hop on the next flight and come visit Portland Maine. No place more beautiful than Maine.

    1. That would add another leg to your already full itinerary! I agree, though. It is a beautiful place. :)


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