Portland is one of the hottest towns in the country for restaurants. Since being named “America’s Foodiest Small Town” by Bon Appetite back in 2009, the city’s restaurant scene has exploded. It feels like a new spot opens every day, touting farm-to-table cuisine and an emphasis on local products.
A big driving force behind the growth is the movement of chefs from NYC and Boston to Portland, seeking cheaper rents and lower overheads for their first solo projects. That has brought in an immense amount of talent to a city of only 80,000 and we as diners get to reap the benefits!
For someone visiting on vacation, the options can be frankly daunting. Where to go when so many places are amazing? You could spend an entire week in Portland, eating out lunch and dinner, and still not come close to enjoying all of its great restaurants. So what to do?
Having spent over nine years managing restaurants in Portland, I know the scene well and, more importantly, I know a lot of the people who still work in the industry in the city. An insider’s edge if you will. After spending a long weekend here visiting some new hot spots and revisiting some old favorites, here is my guide to eating/drinking your way around Portland.
Opened for a little over a year, Salvage is producing the best barbecue in Maine right now. Housed in a cool, industrial space, it is run by the team behind two other great spots in Portland, Local 188 and Sonny’s. Order at the counter, take your number and grab a seat at one of the communal picnic tables. They we track you down when your food is ready.
The go-to order is the fatty brisket. With great smoke flavor and intense beef flavor, it’s the best brisket I’ve had in Maine. The mac and cheese, collard greens and pinto beans are fantastic sides as well. If you are not in the mood for one of the many local beers on tap (including their own Bunker Brewery beers), they make some solid cocktails too!
This is probably the best restaurant in Portland right now. Central Provisions puts out plate after plate of ridiculous food with great flavor combinations. The place is packed every night, so the best bet is to grab a counter in the downstairs bar and order some dishes from their small plate driven menu. The wine list is stellar and of course, they feature a ton of Portland beer. The service is on point and the staff is super knowledgeable.
The menu changes frequently, but the suckling pig, foie gras and grilled rare beef with chimichurri from the “hearty” portion of the menu are always on point. The caramelized sheep’s cheese with peaches and balsamic is an amazing addition this summer and they feature Benton’s ham from Tennessee, probably the best ham produced in the USA. Frankly, no matter what you order, it will be a winner.
Huong’s Vietnamese Restaurant
This is definitely a local’s pick, a place frequented by all of the city’s chefs, servers and bartenders. The type of place will not be featured in a guide book or in an article by Food and Wine magazine. But Huong’s is putting out some of the best pho we’ve ever tried. Super aromatic broth, full of spices with delicious flank and thinly sliced raw beef. This place is perfect for anyone who loves to get down on a bowl of pho. And, if you have never tried pho before, Huong’s is a great place to start.
Located in a converted auto garage, this place is a coffee destination. They have their own ‘roastery’ nearby and serve slow drip as well as hyper-trendy aeropress coffee. The bakery goods are amazing as well and it’s a great place to grab a snack and a latte if you are on the go. They also put out some solid sandwiches if you are looking for a quick and easy lunch.
Our favorite breakfast place. Ever. Anywhere. In my estimation, we have been to Hot Suppa more than any other restaurant. The breakfast is absolutely amazing. My standard order is the French rolled omelette (perfectly fluffy every time, never dry and overcooked) with goat cheese, caramelized onions and sausage. My wife always orders a breakfast sandwich with hash browns. But the local bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese is delicious as well. As is the corn beef hash and the biscuits and gravy. So basically, the entire menu.
They also do great lunch and dinner (when we first started going there, they only did breakfast and lunch, which made the name especially confusing), with the fast food inspired HS double cheeseburger being one of the best burgers in town. The fried green tomato BLT is ridiculous too. Can you tell we like this place?
The best pure oyster bar in town. They have at least a dozen or more varieties every day, at least half coming from Maine and the rest from “away”. The oysters are beautifully fresh and every time. They even do inventive sauce besides the standard cocktail sauce or mignonette. We love the tabasco ice and the horseradish ice which add a surprising note to the oyster experience.
Besides the oysters, Eventide also serves a collection of small plates. The fried chicken bun and the fried oyster bun are unbelievable. Order one more than you think you need. You can thank us later.
The Honey Paw
Owned by the same crew behind Eventide (and Hugo’s, a great fine dining option) and located right next door, this new restaurant is focused mainly on noodles. Whether it is Thai, Japanese or Italian, it’s all about the noodle. They serve up ramen, soba, rice noodles and some ravioli in a ham broth and they do it all well.
They offer some fantastic cured meats and starters, like the soy-marinated grilled pork with puffed rice and lime. We also like that all the music is played from vinyl. You can expect anything from Wu Tang to Fleetwood Mac to be playing while dining on some noodles. Eclectic and fun.
Owned by the talented Rob Evans (James Beard winner), Duckfat is home to the greatest french fries on Earth. As the name implies, they are thicker cut fries (Belgian style) fried in pure duck fat. This is certainly not health food, but worth the indulgence. The sauce options are fun too, and truffled ketchup is our preferred dip. If you are feeling particularly feisty, they do their version of poutine, the classic French-Canadian dish, made up of the duck fat fries topped with cheese curds, fresh chives and duck gravy. Guaranteed to result in a nap and maybe a heart attack.
The panini sandwiches are on point too and there are no slouches in the lineup. Just pick one and you will be happy. If it’s possible, save room for “The Original” Duckfat milkshake, made with locally sourced vanilla gelato, Tahitian vanilla beans and creme anglaise. Decadent, but you only live once!
Portland is located a quick two hour drive north of downtown Boston. If you choose to fly, you can fly into Boston Logan Airport and make the drive north, or fly into the small Portland Jetport, conveniently located just a five minute drive from downtown Portland.
In terms of the main areas of interest, the Old Port neighborhood and the Arts District are where most people will spend a majority of their time and where most of the hotels, restaurants and bars are located.
The Old Port runs along the still working waterfront, full of commercial fishing vessels on the aptly named Commercial Street. The Arts District is located in the heart of downtown Portland, and Congress Street is the main artery. Both areas are relatively small and can be explored by foot, which is nice since parking can be challenging in the heart of the summer tourist season.
For accommodations, there are a bunch of new options. The Press Hotel, located in the former Portland Press Herald newspaper’s office, is a smaller boutique hotel opened by Marriott and just opened in May 2015. It has a great location, sandwiched between the Old Port and the Arts District on Congress Street, so both areas are a short walk away.
Further up Congress Street in the middle of the Arts District is the Westin Portland Harborview, recently completely refurbished. The biggest benefit? The rooftop bar, The Top of the East, offering 360 degree view of the city and of the harbor.
Note that during the peak summer season, hotel prices will be quite high. If possible, head to Portland in May or September, when the weather is still nice and the city is significantly quieter. Either way, follow our guide and you will have a blast in one of the best restaurant cities in the country!
** photos kindly provided by Drive on the Left unless otherwise noted
Drew & Julie from Drive on the Left are an American expat couple that are currently living in London. They have a passion for travel and especially food that is contagious. We love reading and following along with them as they get settled into their new lives living as an expat in London and you will too.
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“Creative Commons Portland, Maine” by Garden State Hiker is licensed under CC BY 2.0