From the forested, craggy coastline to ornate Victorian architecture and an enviable local food culture, Portland, Maine, may be one of the most well-rounded cities in America. Those who come for the briny sea air, sandy beaches, and crustaceans will be surprised by the depth of the city’s deliciousness—not to mention their own hunger to return summer after summer.
Ask for the best coffee shop in town and the unanimous answer will be Tandem. (We’re happy to report the lines at this independent shop were five times the length than those at the local Starbucks.) With a bicycle-centric design housed in a former 1960s gas-station, this shop has all the cool factors—plus some seriously satisfying coffee and baked goods. A few standouts: the generously spiced cinnamon roll, pistachio cake, and the egg sandwiches, served on a house-made buttermilk biscuit.
The oyster bar, that is. It’s always happy hour when you’re slurping down this local delicacy, and our favorite place to order a dozen is The Shop at Island Creek Oysters. As a new outpost for the noteworthy New England distributor, this bright, airy and modern shop offers ample space to post up and indulge in a spectrum of sweet-and-salty bivalves, as well as a complementary list of crisp wines by the glass. Wondering where to start? Try anything from Damariscotta—especially Norumbegas. And fans of the sweeter side should try the beautifully balanced Mookie Blues. No matter which half shells you choose, you can count on Island Creek’s eliminate-the-middleman prices: just $1.50 per oyster, all day long.
The locals have many opinions when it comes to lobster rolls, and many claim the best are the ones they make at home. But for travelers without a kitchen, there are a few standouts in (and around) town. The Bite Into Maine food trucks and commissary kitchen are consistently recommended among Metro Portland’s best options, but downtown, most folks will point you to Eventide Oyster Co. A long-standing favorite for all-things-seafood, this shop uses Asian steamed buns and dresses their lobster in caramelized brown butter for an extra sweet and nutty touch. We also loved their “greens” side salad, featuring a briny nori dressing and shaved pickled vegetables.
Portland’s bustling beer scene deserves an article all its own, but among all the breweries in town, Urban Farm Fermentory is arguably one of the most innovative. Beyond their mainstay gruit and other seasonal beers, the Fermentory also makes cider, mead, kombucha and jun onsite. Never heard of jun? This green-tea-and-honey cousin of kombucha (which is made with black tea and sugar) offers a leaner, less sweet, and more herbal flavor profile. We also loved tasting the Fermentory’s creative takes on cider (hopped!) and mead (a brilliant blueberry). But what we liked most was the idea of a curate-your-own-flight where all kinds of drinkers can get in on the tasting fun.
When you’re this close to the beach, chances are you’ll be packing a lunch or two. There are a number of great independent markets to try, and Aurora Provisions in the West End is among the best. But if you’re looking for convenience, you can’t go wrong with Rosemont Market & Bakery. With nine locations in the Portland metro area, this gourmet grocery has become an integral part of the city’s eating culture. From raw cuts of meat and fish to fresh produce, packaged snacks, wine, beer and the aforementioned sandwiches, you’re bound to find everything you need—and all at the best quality.
If you’re looking to stay in Downtown Portland, The Press Hotel should be on your shortlist of options. Located in the former home of the Portland Press Herald, the decor sticks with the historic theme, repurposing many artifacts from the former office in the process. From an art installation of vintage typewriters in the main lobby to the journalist-inspired furniture in each room, it’s safe to say you won’t forget to read your morning paper.
Sometimes, it just comes down to basic logic. For the freshest fish, you’ve got to head to the docks—specifically, Harbor Fish Market. From giant tanks of bubbling lobsters, to a variety of freshly caught oysters, squid, whole fish, filets and beyond, you’ll find whatever you’re looking for at this local’s stand-by. They even stock fresh baguettes to accompany your oysters, if you need a one-stop snack.
When the folks at The Holy Donut opened their shop, they had every reason to expect folks to declare that name like the gospel truth. Made with local Maine potatoes, these fluffy fried treats boast a melt-in-your-mouth quality that even those without a sweet tooth will enjoy. We recommend starting simple, with the plain or cinnamon sugar, so you can appreciate just how unique they are.
Of all the restaurants in town, The Drifter’s Wife is surely the buzziest. With a strategically limited menu of chef-driven plates, this lean modern space on the increasingly trendy Washington Avenue has become the center of Portland’s hottest new food neighborhood. If you can’t secure a table, it’s worth popping into their sister wine shop, Maine & Loire. Focused on biodynamic and natural bottles, this carefully curated shop offers some of the best wine selections in town—from the namesake Loire to Austria, Italy and even “new world” selections.
When it comes to opening the ultimate Belgian beer hall, the food is as important as the suds. That’s why Newcastle, Maine-based Oxbow Brewing Company teamed up with their friends at Duckfat, a Downtown Portland eatery known for crisp-yet-tender fries served in brown paper cones. Their new frites shack—onsite at Oxbow—offers diners (and drinkers) a new reservations-free format for getting their fry on. Since opening in early summer 2018, they’ve been serving a pub-grub menu, including a bevy of different dipping sauces for those iconic frites.
Central Provisions may not be the trendy new kid on the block, but this relative veteran of Portland’s restaurant scene offers one of the most exceptional meals in town. At dinner, each plate is designed for sharing, from the melt-in-your-mouth bluefin crudo special to hushpuppies served with Benton’s ham and housemade red pepper jelly. Word to the wise: don’t skip dessert. On our visit, a gourmet ice cream sandwich offered a strawberry-scented dose of summer nostalgia—and the caramelized sheep’s cheese with quince is another exceptional way to end your evening.
Located in residential South Portland, Scratch Baking Co. has long been a local’s favorite for breads, sweet treats, and the most addictive bagels we’ve ever tasted (sorry New York!). With a crusty exterior and light-as-air crumb, these rings of dough have clearly borrowed a few features from sourdough bread. The “everything” bagel boasts all-around seed coverage, while the Maine sea salt features crystals broiled into the bread for a perfectly seasoned crunch. Across town, the more mellow (see: shorter line) Toast Bar also offers Scratch bagels, as well as a dozen enticing sandwiches on the bakery’s signature breads.
CURATED CULINARY HISTORY
2 Main Street, 18-214, Biddeford, Maine 04005 (By appointment only)
The rare book business is a small circle to run in, and one might assume the leading buyers would be based in New York, San Francisco, or other major metropolitan areas. Yet when it comes to rare cookbooks, menus and culinary ephemera, the most important American resource is undoubtedly Don Lindgren of Rabelais Books. Located thirty minutes south of Portland in Biddeford, Maine, this unassuming trove of culinary gems is an absolute must for anyone with an interest in food history, and it’s worth scheduling an appointment just to hear a few of Don’s fascinating stories about the book business.
ONE DEFINITIVE DINER
2502, 18 Franklin Street, Biddeford, Maine 04005
When most people reminisce about their hometown diner, their nostalgia tends to add a warm glow to an arguably mediocre (if charming) greasy spoon. But if you grew up in Biddeford, Maine, you have every right to rave about the Palace Diner. Consecutively run for the past ninety years out of an old Pollard dining car, it ranks among Maine’s oldest restaurants; yet, the latest owners of the Palace have developed a uniquely modern take on diner fare. Every dish that exited the kitchen looked incredible, but the pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the tuna melt. On first glance, it’s massive—almost too big to fathom finishing. Yet as you get closer, you realize half of the filling is a crisp wedge of iceberg lettuce—a brilliant foil to the thin layer of generously mayo’d tuna that also adorns the sandwich. We’ve eaten a lot of melts in our time, and this—without a doubt—is the most brilliant version of the sandwich that has ever graced our lips.