(image: City of Portland, Maine's Facebook page)
We recently celebrated the wedding of our good friend Sue to her wonderful groom Adam. (You'd know Sue from countless Fakesgiving dinners. She's one of the few who's been at every single one we've had.) We were extremely happy to witness their special day.
But we were also thrilled because their wedding was held in one of our all-time favorite places: Portland, Maine.
We've visited Portland 4 or 5 times over the years -- it's a wonderful small town that's very convenient from the East Coast or eastern Canada. The flight from Washington, D.C., is just an hour and 15 minutes. It's a perfect weekend getaway.
What you'll find in Portland is a compact downtown with lots of great shops in stately historic brick buildings, along with a working waterfront of fishing boats (with plenty of tourist-oriented whale-watching ships as well).
But what might surprise you about this town of 60,000 is what a fabulous food destination it is. Bon Appétit dubbed Portland "America's Foodiest Small Town" way back in 2009, and the city's food scene has only gotten markedly better since then.
So we wanted to share some of our favorite Portland spots with you.
Let's start with our favorite restaurant in town, which also happens to be one of our favorite restaurants on the planet: Fore Street. It's not new (it opened in 1996). And it's hardly a secret (it ranked in Gourmet's Top 50 Restaurants in the U.S. in 2001 and 2006, and it's been nominated for a national James Beard award multiple years). But it's outstanding: The produce and meat and seafood are local and consistently amazing. The fresh-baked bread is phenomenal.
But it's the space that makes Fore Street truly special. The woodplank ceiling, the weathered brick walls, the iron posts and window casements, the open kitchen with crackling fires in the hearths -- everything about the restaurant is welcoming and warm and cozy and perfect.
Dining room at Fore Street (image courtesy forestreet.biz)
The restaurant's open kitchen (image courtesy forestreet.biz)
The best word we can use to describe Fore Street is "heartwarming." It's so wonderful, and you must go there.
Eventide Oyster Co.
On this most recent trip to Portland, we had a dinner at Eventide, which we'd describe as sort of a nouveau oyster bar. There's lots of varieties of fresh local bivalves, but the menu is also full of more complex, thoughtful seafood dishes as well. On this visit, we sampled Eventide's incredibly unusual lobster roll: lobster bathed in brown butter and served warm in a bun that's reminiscent of bao. It was incredibly rich and we loved every bite.
Bluefin Tuna Crudo
Bon App calls out the gastropub's General Tso's sweetbreads; we can attest that they are, indeed, amazing. We also had a dish of grilled octopus with fennel, preserved lemon yogurt and salsa verde that was as bright and flavorful as it was unexpected.
We loved our little noshes and will definitely go back for a proper dinner the next time we're in town.
General Tso's sweetbreads at East Ender
East Ender's octopus with grilled fennel, lemon yogurt and salsa verde.
J's is an absolute dive. Open since 1977, it's a squat white slab of a building squatting on a dock in the city's wharf. Inside is bad paneling, worse carpet, and sports trophies along the wall.
We adore it.
Why? Two reasons. First, it has the best lobster roll that we know of in town. Nothing kitschy, nothing fancy. Just incredible, plump, sweet, fresh lobster meat, kissed with mayo.
The lobster roll at J's.
Second: The Bloody Mary. Honest to God, this is the best Bloody we've ever had. Maybe it's the ingredients, maybe it's the (lack of) atmosphere, but we are prepared to say that it's worth a trip to Portland for the Bloody Mary at J's.
This Bloody Mary is EVERYTHING.
The Lobster Shack
J's is excellent for a lobster roll right in the heart of town. But for an overall seafood shack experience, there is no place quite like The Lobster Shack at Two Lights. It's in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, about a 25-minute drive from downtown Portland.
The menu at The Lobster Shack runs the gamut from a haddock sandwich, to fried scallops, to a crab roll and a clam burger. Our favorite order: a lobster roll with a side of fried clam strips. And you've got to leave room for dessert (hopefully there's a blueberry pie that day). And they always have that Maine specialty, the whoopie pie (a layer of cream between two layers of chocolate cake).
The food is great here, but the setting is unbelievable -- perched out on a craggy spit of land overlooking the Atlantic. Grab a seat at one of the red picnic tables, and watch the surf crash against the rocks as you munch on your meal.
Grabbing a bite at The Lobster Shack
On your way to or from The Lobster Shack, you can stop by the Portland Head Light, which is the most photographed lighthouse in Maine -- maybe anywhere. It's beautiful (duh).
You know, THIS ONE. (image courtesy Wikipedia)
The Holy Donut
Donuts made from mashed potatoes may not sound appetizing. (In fact, it may sound a little strange.) But trust us -- trust us!! These donuts, which used mashed Maine potatoes as a thickener in the batter, are out of this world incredible.
On our most recent trip, we stopped by The Holy Donut to grab a donut and a coffee before meeting some people for brunch. Um, we ended up eating four doughnuts before heading off to brunch. And you know what we did the next morning? The exact same thing.
Dark chocolate with sea salt, old fashioned, old fashioned with toasted coconut, and Maine blueberry. Heaven help us.
Other great Portland options:
Vena's Fizz House: Vena's serves mocktails during the day and cocktails in the evenings. They have a staggering number of bitters available and all kinds of things for sale for the home bar. We had a fizz made with bitters and a super spicy but delicious mocktail that included ghost pepper.
Central Provisions: One of the hottest places in town, we weren't able to visit for dinner but we did grab a Sunday brunch at Central Provisions before heading out of town. The menu consists mostly of delicately, intricately composed small plates.The highlight of brunch was a sausage biscuit, topped with egg that was beautifully garnished with a gremolata (a first for us on an egg).
Sonny's: This restaurant in a former bank is one of the most beautiful spaces we've eaten at in a while. From the vaulted ceilings to the terrazzo floors (and don't miss the wine cellar housed in a former walk-in safe!), it's beautiful. The brunch, which tilts toward Mexican -- the pork belly arepas are incredible -- is delicious.
Duck Fat: This is one of Portland's most acclaimed eateries, but it's never worked for us to eat there (partly because it's postage-stamp size and excellent reputation can make it hard to get in for a meal.) On our most recent trip, friends raved about the brunch.
Hugo's: This fine-dining restaurant has been around since 1988, but it continues to get rave reviews. It's definitely on our list to try on a future visit to town.
Where to stay:
We've stayed in a few hotels and B&Bs in Portland. But our favorite is the Inn at Park Spring. It's a lovely B&B within walking district of the Old Port and all the restaurants we mentioned here. On this recent trip, stayed at the West Portland Harborview, which was well-located and offered the typical, solid Westin experience.
So, shall we all meet up in Maine soon?
If you've been to Portland, please share your picks as well. We can't wait to visit again!