Every summer, most Bostonians tend to set their sights to the south; Cape Cod and the islands beckon, and we answer with open arms. (And eager mouths.) But turn your attention to the north, and you'll find that coastal Maine offers plenty of vacation-time delights without (much of) the traffic snarl. There are plenty of pearls in its dining scene, but here are a few of our favorites — both established old-timers and hot new hits.
The White Barn Inn
For something fully upscale, head to The White Barn Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property. The seasonal bistro menu is presented as a four-course prix fixe ($125 per person), and it's the definition of classic New England white-tablecloth dining. Chef Derek Bissonnette also offers cooking classes and special packed picnic baskets, so you can enjoy some eats outdoors by the lapping waves of the Kennebunk shore. And the property recently rolled out a brand-new restaurant, The Bistro, which offers a less formal dining atmosphere and menu too.
37 Beach Ave., Kennebunk Beach; 207-967-2321
The Honey Paw
Big Tree Hospitality is the team behind a trio of Portland restaurants, including Hugo's and Eventide Oyster Co., which is opening a Boston branch by Fenway very soon. The third and most recent venture, though, is Honey Paw — a contemporary Asian-influenced eatery dominated by a large communal table and amber-hued bar pouring top-shelf drinks. Co-chefs Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley, 2017 James Beard award winners for Best Chef: Northeast, offer an eclectic array of untraditional dishes, from a standout Vietnamese-inspired crêpe filled with fried mussels to Korean fried chicken and a rare beef salad dosed with tamarind and smoked oyster mayo. Get your paws in.
78 Middle St., Portland; 207-774-8538
Bob's Clam Hut
This 1956-born landmark still has the vibe of a midcentury roadside seafood shack — behold the mural of Elvis in yellow fisherman's overalls — and continues to impress loyal fans and newcomers alike with consistent, straightforward Maine seafood: from lobster rolls to fried clams. Finish on a sweet note with scoops from Rococo Artisan Ice Cream, a local small-batch company. Choose from creative flavors like goat cheese with honey, whiskey and fig, and Blue Fin stout (a beer-based ice cream).
315 US-1, Kittery; 207-439-4233
Earth at Hidden Pond
In 2011, Boston's own Ken Oringer (Clio, Coppa, Toro) opened this whimsical American restaurant at Hidden Pond Resort, a luxury hideaway in the woods (think treetop spa.) Oringer is no longer involved, but Earth has an excellent new chef in Joe Schafer, who just joined in June. An alum of many high-end establishments, he brings finesse to Earth's seasonal menu of rustic-meets-refined fare. The decor is an attraction on its own, and includes a private "potting shed," seen here, for private dining.
354 Goose Rocks Rd., Kennebunkport; 207-967-6550
MC Perkins Cove
James Beard award-winning chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier offer fantastic dining with an awe-inspiring view at their waterfront restaurant in Ogunquit, an adorable artsy enclave that is especially popular with LGBT visitors; think of it as Provincetown's cozier, more sedate sibling to the north. The husband-chefs, who previously competed on Top Chef Masters, turn out farm-to-table fare like duck confit with cherry rhubarb sauce and super-fresh catch like trout fried with dark beer and Xiao Xing wine.
111 Perkins Cove Rd., Ogunquit; 207-646-6263
Perhaps the most in-demand tables in town are found at this buzzing New American wunderkind, a recent James Beard finalist for best new restaurant in the nation. The rustic-chic restaurant in the city's historic Old Port emphasizes cuisine-hopping small plates — from Mongolian braised beef to bone marrow toast with fontina and horseradish creme. There's a reason Central is in its fourth year as the darling of Portland's dining scene, and those continued queues out the door (no reservations are accepted) are testament to its unwavering popularity.
414 Fore St., Portland; 207-805-1085
There's a sense of globe-trotting wanderlust to the eclectic menu at this surprising Brunswick eatery housed inside a fully renovated former mill: There's everything from dashi mussels to mushroom-stuffed Jamaican jerk tacos to a falafel and baba ghanoush–loaded Middle Eastern mini-feast. The inventive gem is also home to a gallery space exhibiting talented local artists and an 85-seat cinema screening international films and hosting workshops and live presentations. A cool, quirky find.
14 Maine St. Mill 3, Brunswick; 207-725-5222
Portland Hunt & Alpine Club
Imagine your coolest cocktail-nerd ski instructor friend opening up his CB2-appointed apartment as a bar. The result might look a lot like Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, a sleek Scandinavian-inspired joint that was a 2017 James Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Bar Program. It's not hard to see why. Owners Briana and Andrew Volk (who are also behind Little Giant), offer a small but nifty list of über-creative noshes, from smorgasbord spreads to Fernet donuts on weekends, washed down with perfectly prepared cocktails both classic and creative. We especially love the Norseman, brown butter–washed Aquavit that reads like a Scandinavian spin on the old fashioned.
75 Market St., Portland; 207-747-4754
Woodford Food & Beverage
It's hard to keep up with all the new openings in Portland, which continues to be recognized as one of America's best food cities. But take note of Woodford, which opened last year and is helping to pioneer some new dining options in the Woodfords Corner neighborhood outside of Downtown. Husband-and-wife team Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer renovated a 1940s steakhouse to look like something more akin to a contemporary spin on a midcentury diner, and chef Courtney Loreg does thoughtful things with New England fare, from baked stuffed lobster to local oyster shooters.
660 Forest Ave., Portland; 207-200-8503
Pig + Poet
The postcard-pretty summer resort town of Camden is a bit further from Boston than some of these other locations — about a three-and-a-half-hour drive. But it's worth it for the unspoiled ocean views in a gorgeous mid-coast area with a surprisingly strong dining scene that appeals equally to well-to-do second-homeowners and hipsters on weekend getaways. We especially recommend Pig + Poet inside the 36-room Whitehall inn, where farm-to-table New American cuisine and craft cocktails are enjoyed under twinkling string lights on a three-season patio, complete with a fire pit for Maine’s chillier nights.
52 High St., Camden; 207-236-3391