Portland, Maine was one of the first places we vacationed together, as it’s a short drive–or for us, train ride–from Boston. But we return to Portland again and again because it’s also a fantastic place to visit for many reasons, not least of which, especially lately, is the vibrant food scene.
We try to get up there for a couple of days once a year, especially in summer, with seafood plentiful and long days for strolling through the city, but any season is great. This past weekend we had the extreme pleasure to attend the wedding of some good friends in Scarborough, Maine, and were also delighted to have a chance to fit in a quick visit to Portland between Friday night’s rehearsal dinner, and the wedding Saturday evening.
We were able to hit just a couple of places on this visit, but there is so much to recommend in Portland, we decided to make this a round-up post of some of our favorite places to eat, sleep and things to do from past visits as well.
There are lots of options for dining in Portland, at all price ranges. It’s easy to spend a lot of money on food, but you certainly don’t have to. One of the best values we’ve come across is the brunch at Vignola Cinque Terre. Fantastic, beautifully prepared food at a reasonable price; and brunch drinks (bloody Marys & mimosas) are only $5/$6. We have also had dinner here, and it’s equally good.
For very casual, but authentic and incredibly fresh seafood, head to J’s Oysters. It’s very much a “townie” bar, but the food and people watching are great. Order a platter of oysters and a beer. Don’t expect a glass. Do expect to meet a fisherman.
Portland Lobster Company is a busy restaurant shack on Commercial Street right on the water, with outside deck seating, where you order at the counter and are handed a plastic lobster that will buzz when your food is ready at the pickup window. But don’t be fooled by it’s unassuming, touristy looks: on this last visit we were blown away by the steamers (or, steamahs, in locals parlance): a super-flavorful, garlicky broth, sweet and tender clams that almost needed no butter (but of course, dip in butter we did!). A lobster roll was exactly as it should be – a pound of shucked meat, au natural, in a buttery bun, crisp coleslaw on the side. This place is also surprising for its extensive wine list: over a dozen whites by the glass, and almost as many reds. Weekends also come with live music on the deck.
For a total splurge, head to Fore Street. Menus change daily, based on what is available. Delicious, meticulous food, this is a special-occasion place. Their sister restaurant, Street and Company is less expensive and specializes in seafood dishes, with a cozier atmosphere. Order the Lobster Fra Diavolo for two.
Amazingly good, inexpensive Mexican food, and a fun, lively atmosphere can be found at El Rayo Taqueria. We’ve been there a few times, and have never had anything we wouldn’t happily order again. The grilled corn is particularly tasty.
Novare Res is a fantastic beer bar tucked away in a courtyard off Exchange Street with a leafy outside terrace and a cool, tin-ceilinged bar inside. Dozens and dozens of beers to try, and a decent wine selection too. We have not tried the food there but they do offer light sandwiches and charcuterie, and what we’ve seen on other tables has looked good.
Duckfat is a casual sandwich shop a bit outside of the immediate Old Port area, but worth the walk if you are in the mood for trying the. best. fries. in the world. Seriously. That’s all we’ve had here, but it’s enough.
Across the street from Duckfat is Eventide Oyster Company, a newish place that opened maybe a year or so ago, and has a fantastic and extensive selection of oysters & seafood, a very unique and small wine list, and interesting beers. Not inexpensive, but a lovely, upscale bar that’s worth a visit if you really love oysters.
Two other good beer options: Gritty McDuff’s is a local microbrewery with a nice selection. Go here for the beer, not the food (or wine). Sebago Brewing Company also has great beer, and decent quality pub food.
On a recent visit, friends introduced us to Caiola’s, a neighborhood place tucked away in a residential district. This place is a find. It was small, cozy and the food was fantastic.
Front Room is a fun, hip place for brunch, which was hearty and really, really good. Expect a wait.
We’ve stayed at a few different hotels over the years, but our favorite by far is the Portland Regency. Lovely service, great amenities, and right in the Old Port, walkable to restaurants, shops, and lots of other things. The onsite spa is one of the nicest we’ve been to, and hotel guests have free use of the whirlpool, steam room, sauna, and fitness center. Massages and facials can be booked for a fee.
Depending on the season, Portland hotels can be pricey, and there aren’t many bargains at high times. But, other good options are the Marriott Residence Inn, and the Hilton Garden Inn, both in the Old Port, and if you have rewards points for either place they are a great choice. Tip: The Hilton has a pool & whirlpool, but the Marriott does not.
One of the best cultural things in the city, in our opinion, is the Portland Museum of Art. This is a beautiful, light-filled and well-designed museum housing some amazing artwork, including great rotating exhibits. Well worth a visit if you are an art lover.
The Museum is in the downtown area at the corner of Congress and High Street, just a short walk from the Old Port. Nearby there’s a great used bookstore, Yes Books, if you want to browse. Another nice used bookstore, also selling antique maps, is Emerson Books on Exchange Street, back in the Old Port.
For a view of the harbor, there are many sightseeing boat options along Commercial Street. On a recent visit we tried a sunset sail cruise, which accommodated about 15 people on a large, two masted sailboat, on which you could bring your own beverages (there are several wine shops in the area where you could buy a bottle to bring on). Other folks had coolers of beer. It was a fun atmosphere, and if you wanted you could help work the sails. We just sat back and enjoyed the view, and our wine.
We enjoyed some very good jazz music one night at Gingko Blue. Also on a past visit we did a brewery tour at the Shipyard Brewing Company, which was fun and informative, and offered free tastings at the end.
All of the above is walkable from Downtown or the Old Port area. If you have a car, you can explore the coast of Maine as well. But even without a car, Portland itself offers tons to do, and we can’t wait for our next visit.