10 Reasons to Drive to Portland, Maine

This New England seaport has one of the country's coolest dining scenes
February 27, 2017
by Scott Kearnan

At this point, it's no secret that Portland, Maine, is one of the hottest food cities in the country, never mind New England. It's also well represented (once again) on the latest list of James Beard Award semi-finalists. But for this latest list of travel-worthy spots, we focused on a mix of revered stalwarts, lauded newcomers and lesser-known gems. There are many more we could have included — apologies to still-awesome staples like Duckfat and Miyake — but these are the old and new favorites that are perking our palate right now. 

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 later this year. 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 tipples. Co-chefs Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley, together nominated for "Best Chef: Northeast" at last year's James Beard Awards (they're currently semi-finalists for 2017), offer an eclectic array of untraditional dishes, from various noodle bowls to a standout Vietnamese-inspired crêpe filled with fried mussels and maple nước chấm to a rare beef salad (pictured) dosed with tamarind and smoked oyster mayo. Get your paws in. 

78 Middle St., Portland; 207-774-8538

Central Provisions
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 entering 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 unwavering popularity.

414 Fore St., Portland; 207-805-1085

Portland Hunt & Alpine Club
Imagine your coolest cocktail nerd friend (who works a second job as a ski instructor) opened 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 is now a Beard semi-finalist for Outstanding Bar Program. It's not hard to see why. The small but nifty list of über-creative noshes, from smörgbørd spreads to Fernet donuts on weekends, are 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

For a truly divine dining experience, discover this friendly, unstuffy white-tablecloth establishment housed inside a former church. The design is definitely a draw: Gorgeous stained glass windows stretch to the tops of cathedral ceilings, banquettes are made of repurposed pews and the open kitchen dramatically occupies the former altar space. But while you may come for the concept, you'll return for the fine food, a New American assortment that may include seared duck breast with duck confit spanakopita and black garlic crumble or seared scallops with pickled mulberries and a chestnut and truffle risotto.

15 Chestnut St., Portland; 207-828-4422

EVO Kitchen + Bar
At this funky corner restaurant, a bi-level jewel box enclosed by 30-ft.-high windows, chef Matthew Ginn (alum of Harvest and L'Espalier) offers an upscale yet accessible menu of Mediterranean plates with a Lebanese bent. A meze tasting (with available wine pairings) is the perfect way to graze through the offerings, but you won't go wrong with dinner options like basmati- and mushroom-stuffed grape leaves and lamb shank with black garlic, or lunch eats like a horseradish- and fried cheese–topped burger that is one of the best in the city. 

443 Fore St., Portland; 207-358-7830

The Holy Donut
Carb lovers worship at the altar of these twin donut joints. Show up early, because the addictive treats tend to sell out super-fast (and once they're gone, the premises close up). These Maine potato-based donuts come in a wide variety of eclectic flavors, like maple-bacon, pomegranate, chai-glazed and even a cannoli-inspired ginger glazed option with ricotta filling. Bonus: There are always vegan and gluten-free options available too, so every early bird will be well fed.

7 Exchange St., Portland; 207-775-7776 and 194 Park Ave., Portland; 207-874-7774

Fore Street
Nearly 21 years old, Fore Street has long been at the, well, forefront of the impressive food scene in Portland. Chef Sam Hayward, a "Best Chef: Northeast" winner at the Beard awards, has cultivated a New England icon known for a sustainable, farm-to-table approach to sourcing that was well underway before that philosophy led to trendy, ubiquitous buzzwords. And Fore Street continues to meet the high bar it sets for itself — it's a Beard semi-finalist for Outstanding Restaurant again this year. The impeccable daily changing menu, anchored by staples like roasted half chicken with black cumin sweet butter and pork loin with sauerkraut, still hasn't lost its luster. 

288 Fore St., Portland; 207-775-2717

Drifters Wife
Wife, a 2017 Beard semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant, is also a sibling — to Maine & Loire, the adjacent wine shop well regarded for its selection of organic, biodynamic bottles. The husband-wife team more recently opened Drifters, where the (expectedly excellent) pours are complemented by excellent seasonal plates like hake with nettle broth and lamb meatballs with sweet potato and mushrooms.  

63 Washington Ave., Portland; 207-805-1336

​Local sourcing is now de rigueur at a certain caliber of restaurant. At the smart, high-concept Vinland, though, chef David Levi proselytizes a more radical, exacting philosophy — outlined in a lengthy, 19-point manifesto on the restaurant's website. Levi goes hyper-local (if it's not raised in Maine, you won't find it on the menu) and seeks to redress issues raised by everything from the industrial food system to the more problematic sides of kitchen culture. If that all seems too high-minded, take heart: You can always leave the deep thinking at the door and simply visit Vinland for the oft-changing assortment of excellent, passion-fueled dishes, from black trumpet lobster to monkfish with sunchokes, best enjoyed in a tasting format. 

​593 Congress St., Portland; 207-653-8617

Elsmere BBQ & Wood Grill
For your fill of hipster-friendly barbecue, hit up this awesome joint housed inside a former auto shop, where indigenous Maine woods like maple, oak and apple are used to smoke locally sourced meats to fantastic effect. Brisket, burnt ends, pulled pork — they're all here, they're all slathered in spicy housemade sauces and they all ought to be devoured with delicious sides like mac 'n' cheese and BBQ beans. Elsmere is actually in South Portland, technically a distinct city — but for grub this good, we'll let the geography slide, like tender meat off a rack of ribs. 

448 Cottage Rd., South Portland; 207-619-1948

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