Duplicates can fence frustrating and flattering. But, there must be something in a name.
Though its larger, west coast name-fellow pulls the weight of critical dining and travel buzz, Portland, Maine, is no vacuum in reflection. In the past decade, maybe even just the past half decade, Maine’s largest and most striving city has not only grown, it’s transformed. The first Portland is now, well, the new Portland once again.
Despite its colonial age on paper, the Portland of today feels more relevant and magnetic than ever. In fact, save Boston, Portland is the most dynamic city in New England right now. From the waves of disembarking tourists in Old Port, to the foreshadowing hipsters encroaching on Downtown’s eastern and western fringe, it’s bluntly apparent the city has graduated from blue collar, mid-tier port town to near-roaring capital of the area’s newfound creativity and ingenuity.
This remarkable footnote can be visualized most practically by booking a table at one of the city’s white-hot restaurants, gifting a front-row study on the melting pot Portland has become today. Stubborn, rebellious new chefs, entrepreneurs, and tastemakers in the region are no longer narrowly dreaming of the brighter streets of Boston, New York or Montreal. They’re dreaming of Portland.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the best restaurants, bars and hotels in Portland, Maine, right now. This is where you should eat, drink and sleep.
Bookend the start of your day at Downtown’s Bard Coffee. Informed, engaging baristas and house-roasted beans give Portland’s young-set fuel for the day’s itinerary.
Hungry? Breakfast pro-tip: hold off eating until 11:00 a.m. That’s when cozy, food-charged Central Provisions; in Old Port, already one of Portland’s most popular restaurants and watering holes any time of day, begins serving its rightfully-acclaimed small plates brunch menu. Diners huddle around the open kitchen bar for favorites both creative and sentimental like scrapple and eggs, warm brioche cinnamon rolls with sea salt and the bialy (think a crusty, Polish take on the common bagel) and lox.
Sunday Brunch at East Ender; makes no excuse for anything less, serving gold standards done right like chicken and waffles, eggs in purgatory and the savory crawfish and grits.
For the anti-breakfast crowds, steal a spot in line at Standard Baking Co. for no pressure coffees to-go and brown bags of their blue-ribbon, caramel-hued croissants.
For lunch, jog down to Duckfat for their crispy, hand-cut Belgian-style fries, decadent poutine and signature pressed sandwiches. Check out Pai Men Miyake, Portland’s go-to for Japanese-leaning staples like ramen, soft pork belly buns and a laundry list of handmade gyoza. Be sure to save room for Slab’s hulking, thick-cut squares of hot Sicilian-style pizza, or the West End’s Bao Bao Dumpling House for superlative Chinese dumplings, noodle soups and colorful tiki drinks.
Burn gas across the Fore River toward Cape Elizabeth and the Portland Head Light where the cheerful Bite Into Maine food truck anchors most warm-season afternoons, serving tourists and locals in-the-know some of the area’s best lobster rolls—cold mayo, hot buttered and more—as you overlook the emerald, rocky cliffs along storybook Casco Bay.
As sunlight fades over Portland’s Back Cove, any effort selecting the best place for dinner will leave hungry enthusiasts exhausted. And, the great options continue to snowball each day.
Jump off the top of that list at high-minded Fore Street, already one of Portland’s senior standard bearers, a handsome space that remains just as consequential today for its hyper-seasonal, loyally local, wood-fired menus as it was in 2004, when chef-partner Sam Hayward won Best Chef Northeast by the James Beard Foundation.
Don’t miss the Middle Street trifecta: the stylish and equally esteemed Hugo’s for its finely orchestrated, internationally-inflected tasting menus, nor its two younger and more boisterous cousins next door: Eventide Oyster Co., for its matchless chalkboard of bivalves local and far west, modern takes on New England seafaring classics and soul-reviving tiki cocktails; or, animated darling The Honey Paw for its colorful menu of globally inspired noodle dishes and fresh-made dumplings of persuasions Asian, vaguely Italian and beyond.
For pitch-perfect regional Italian, the pocket-sized Piccolo charms with nuanced heirloom recipes, hand-made pastas and incredibly fresh, local seafood and farm-raised meats. A must do? Piccolo’s infamous Sunday Suppers, a reservations-only, multi-course and chef-driven affair that clears the mark as one of the best eating experiences in Portland.
The exhausted and hungry can also run south of the border, Equator even, at Latin-flavored barbecue spot Terlingua, for build-your-own trays of wonderfully soft, fatty beef brisket, spicy sausages and smoked ribs.
Not ready to end your night after dinner? Cocktail culture is alive, and on fire, in the city of Portland. This sentiment is no better represented than at Portland Hunt and Alpine Club—ground zero for all things we love about a well-made drink in an urbane, sharply groomed downtown setting. Steered by some of the city’s top bartenders, enthusiasts and casual sippers alike find mutual motivation to linger with a rotating cocktail menu of classics, bookish signatures and barrel-aged spirits on draft.
Determined cocktail nerds will find alternative solace at cocktail curio shop and bitters emporium Vena’s Fizz House in Old Port, getting to know affable owners Steve and Johanna Corman as they patiently guide your exploration of the charming corner shop’s menu of signature cocktails and housemade sodas, library of rare tinctures and syrups, and collections of for-sale vintage barware.
Sure, go to Roustabout for their rugged, cool-kid Italian-American food, but stay for the Munjoy Hill restaurant’s simple but skillful cocktails. Already sampled everything on the drink menu? Just ask: Roustabout’s well-schooled team of bartenders will make you the best version of just about anything. (*Update: Roustabout closed for business winter of 2016.)
New kid on the block Rhum Food + Grog brings the trend of tiki, the serious and the sentimental, to city dwellers daydreaming of Pacific sun and shores. Beyond Rhum’s menu of colorful, calling card tiki drinks and modern tropical favorites, the Old Port hideout also offers an impressive raw bar and Polynesian-persuaded small plates.
The just-minted Press Hotel is the stripe of stylish, personality-driven and spiritually ambitious hotel cities crave. The high-profile, meticulous transformation of the Portland Press Herald’s historic Downtown headquarters into a boutique destination for the aesthetic-minded traveler has made for one of the city’s most stunning new hospitality jewels.
Visually layered in tailored navies, khakis and soft grays, spaces both shared and private strike luxe approachability at the Press Hotel. Newsy antiques from a publishing era gone by posture with plush, well-chosen woods, glowing white marble and curated local art—it’s sophisticated, comfortable New England prep for a new generation.
The Press Hotel’s much talked about and architecturally handsome restaurant Union, as well as the airy lobby cocktail corner The Inkwell Bar, mutually present welcome hideouts for hungry hotel guests and locals alike. Driven Executive Chef Josh Berry thoughtfully threads the spirit and bounty of Maine’s finest into his always-changing menus, highlighting classic American standards built with the best of local farms, artisan purveyors and fisherman.
Travelers craving a more characteristically affectionate, New England bed and breakfast scene should trek no further than The Danforth, one of Portland’s most popular small luxury inns—dashing and restrained—located in the city’s stately West End neighborhood. Guest or not, don’t also miss dinner or cocktails at Danforth’s Tempo Dulu.
Also sharing the same vicinity, and not to be overlooked, is Lark Hotel’s colorful and eclectic Pomegranate Inn bed and breakfast, featuring charismatic service and a daily small plates breakfast experience you will absolutely want to wake up early for.
Portland, the original Portland, is a small vibrant city with a very big appetite. Where counterpart seaside towns throughout New England struggle to evolve beyond the working ports they anchor, beyond the insatiable, seafood-craving summer tourists who suffocate their historic downtown streets, Portland exists as a model of reinvention—and beacon of hope.
Discover more at VisitPortland.com.