PMEGuide

The Best Restaurants In Portland, Maine

The world’s best oysters, crispy fried chicken, and other things you should plan a trip around in Portland, Maine.
Spread of food at Papi in Portland, Maine.

photo credit: Bonnie Durham

Maine is known for being a place where you can indulge in the fantasy of having lobster for every meal. And sure, incredible lobster rolls abound, but Portland is also a cultural destination in its own right. We have close proximity to both hikes and gorgeous beaches, the best bus stops in the US, and the potential to run into more moose than people. The best part, though? There’s so much to eat, lobster or otherwise, as you explore Maine’s most populated city.

So whether you’re here to visit a lighthouse in your very best flannel, enjoy all of Maine’s state parks, or want to just branch out from your go-to places around town, this guide has all the restaurants and spots worth checking out.

THE SPOTS

photo credit: Twelve

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Twelve is everything and more you’d want from an upscale, special occasion New England restaurant. Set on the Portland waterfront, this spot does a seasonal prix-fixe and a la carte menu with dishes on both that re-envision the classics—you’ll see stuff like locally-foraged mushrooms, cod swimming in whey broth with lots of roasted onions, and a lobster roll on a hand-laminated croissant (that’s one of the best in the state). All the food is well-executed, especially any desserts or pastries, while the service feels attentive without being intrusive—which means your water glass will never be empty and they won’t be pretentious when describing the local kamut flour they use to make their croissant dough.

There are almost as many breweries in Portland as there are Subarus, and once you’ve spent the afternoon drinking beer at a few of them, head to Izakaya Minato to recharge with some excellent Japanese food. This menu at this spot on Washington Ave. covers a lot of ground, with things like sashimi, fried chicken, and udon, along with a wide variety of sake. It’s a great place to split a ton of food with a group, but everyone should get their own uni spoon, which comes with sea urchin and a raw quail egg and might be the best single bite in town.

Housed in what was once a men’s department store in downtown Portland, Leeward is a contemporary, Italian restaurant where, like a good suit, everything is tailor-made. Almost the entire menu is prepared and baked in-house, whether that’s the focaccia or carte di musica that accompanies their homemade chicken liver mousse. You can’t go wrong here with any of their constantly rotating shareable plates like salty, crispy artichokes and butter-poached radishes. Or their freshly made pastas that range from light and pillowy sheep’s milk gnudi or the heartier pork and beef rigatoni bolognese. The dining room is large enough for celebrations but still feels spacious and warm, making it the perfect fit for any type of special occasion. While reservations book up quickly, there are plenty of bar seats and smaller tables that are saved for walk-ins.

photo credit: Bonnie Durham

Banh Appetit is a straightforward and reliable Vietnamese takeout spot. But leaving it at that would be like saying Costco’s just a grocery store or the crown jewels are just a rock collection. It’s there for when you need an excellent lemongrass beef bánh mì to offset a chaotic meeting during a working lunch or a vermicelli noodle bowl to accompany your reality TV binge after a long day. The sandwiches are excellent, but they also do a variety of phở, noodles, and rice dishes, and have some fun specials like a phở- or bánh mì-rittos from time to time. Stop by on Saturday evenings to check out the Mama Le menu, where you can get a bunch of different vegetarian and vegan dishes like the banh mi chay—a sandwich stuffed with rice powder glass noodles, sweet chili, and vegan mayo—freshly prepared by the owners’ actual mama. 

photo credit: Bonnie Durham

Quanto Basta translates to “just enough” in Italian, but that’s an awfully humble tagline for this East End pizza spot, natural wine bar, and restaurant that’s home to a gorgeous wood oven. What began as a mobile pizza truck, is now a casual, counter-service restaurant for a nice Happy Hour, new date hang, or even a little dinner with your kids at the bar. Come for the thin, Neapolitan pizza that highlights the seasonal produce in Maine on a tender, naturally leavened sourdough that is somehow both crisp and chewy. Yes, they do a good margherita, but our pick is La Stagione: Quanto Basta’s rotating special that features anything from local arugula and pea shoots to Italian horse mackerel and pickled maitake mushrooms. 

Yosaku has stood the test of time to become a Portland classic with Japanese food that ranges from sushi to soba and teppanyaki. Fishmongers bring their freshest product to the chefs here where the local catch becomes lobster sashimi or scallops on the half-shell served on little wooden boats. Lunch specials like their sushi combinations and ever-changing daily bento boxes are also great, but what makes this place special is their large, outdoor patio with lots of space for big parties to enjoy their manicured Japanese garden. You’ll probably need a reservation for their indoor dining room, which is separated into a sushi bar and both traditional Japanese and Western-style seating.

Cantina Calafia on the West End is Portland’s attempt at a Baja California-style cantina, and we’re pleased to say they mostly succeed. The space is filled with terracotta and tiles, always bathing in pink lighting, and has plenty of rounded booths and high-top tables for friend catch-ups and family dinners alike. The menu is seafood-centric—broiled oysters, fluke aguachile, and classic Baja-style ceviche, served with packaged Mexican saltines—but we also love the large format duck. There’s plenty of seared breast, along with a rich confit duck tamal, ancho chile and pepita salsas, and tortillas that could feed at least four. Always finish the meal with some goat cheese flan or blue corn tres leches.

The word "tavern" might make you think of a dark and rowdy pub with tired people in need of a heavy drink. And even though Wayside Tavern is snug and dim, this restaurant in a boutique hotel in a historic Portland building is a far cry from what we described in the first sentence. There’s a simple neon sign outside, and a green glowing interior with a fireplace for amped-up coziness inside. The staff is always friendly, and everything on their menu is expertly made and comforting—including pastas, beer-battered cod cheeks, and an eggplant terrine with housemade mozzarella. Wayside is good for dinner with friends, a celebratory Sunday lunch, or just a regular Monday night.

Inspired by the Vietnamese quán nhậu (think: izakaya or gastropub), Công Tử Bột focuses on small plates with natural wines, local beer, and cocktails. So naturally, it’s a pretty ideal restaurant for some casual drinking, snacking, and sharing. There are dishes like bánh bèo, which are steamed rice cakes with shrimp and egg floss, chicharrón, and fish sauce, and bigger plates like the Mom Style which layers Maine red hot dogs and pineapple on top of an already delicious garlic fried rice. Whatever you order, it’s pretty impossible to have a bad time here: there’s lush lighting, upbeat R&B that seems to change at the whim of the bartender, and brightly colored decor.

photo credit: Bonnie Durham

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Yes, Isa is right behind the city’s post office, and yes they call their cuisine “eclectic.” What you really need to know is that there might be no restaurant in the area that’s better for a midday Friday lunch or a simple dinner that feels special. Their menu is updated daily but anything involving pastas or tortillas is good, specifically the brown butter lobster tostada and the eggplant lasagna. They also do solid renditions of bistro classics, hello steak and grilled pork chop, but you can also just order a plate of taquitos stuffed with potatoes and cheese and call it a day. No matter what you order, try and grab a seat by the windows that overlook Deering Oaks Park.

Papi is a welcome respite from all the lobster and tourist knick-knacks in the Old Port in the form of Puerto Rican tostones and empanadas. As soon as you walk past the 19th-century wood-and-wrought-iron doors (which they imported from Old San Juan), you’ll hear the reggaeton pumping—the perfect background for a fun dinner at the bar. Enjoy classics like pernil, which is so marinated and so slow roasted that the pork shoulder barely stays on your fork, or the perfectly snackable sorullo: sweet corn fritters filled with cheese that you won’t be able to stop popping. Pair everything with something off their drink menu—the cocktails are good and use ingredients that range from kola nut soda and chile-spiced Pop Rocks to the locally beloved Allen’s Coffee brandy.

Norimoto Bakery, in the quiet Deering Center neighborhood just off the main peninsula, sells “European pastries with Japanese sensibility,” which in practice means you’ll see miso caramel millionaire’s bars, red bean-filled baked goods, and more twists on all kinds of sweet things. Their fresh and warm onigiri rice balls make for a perfect breakfast or light lunch, especially if you need something to snack on.

SoPo Seafood isn’t in Portland proper, but it’s worth a short trip over the bridge to slurp some oysters, sip some wine, and maybe even buy some mollusks to take home with you. The raw bar focuses on highlighting the best and freshest the Gulf of Maine has to offer. You already know they’ve got the essentials like oysters on the half shell, but the best things are their takes on classics such as their gigantic lobster rolls, smoked seafood, and caviar with blinis. Or choose your own adventure with a mix-and-match oyster shooter where you can select a spirit and mixer (like tequila and Bloody Mary) to accompany your shucked shellfish. There’s a long wooden bar along with a few tables, and the whole space is bright, airy, and screams "I’m in Maine eating seafood."

Zu may have started off at farmers markets, but it’s quickly become a can’t-miss bakery in the city. They have a brick and mortar in the West End that’s largely occupied by a wood-fired oven that produces some of the best laminated pastries we’ve ever had. Zu also bakes throughout the day, so that means whenever you show up, you’ll get the warmest, freshest bread and different pastries depending on your timing. Stop by in the early morning for croissants of all kinds, currant cream scones, and monkey bread to enjoy with coffee on their small benches outside. Then, come back midday for sourdough loaves and baguettes with house-milled flours that are perfect to use for picnic sandwiches at the nearby Western promenade. Late afternoon, it’s all about herby pizzettes and focaccia alongside housemade granola, biscotti, and a revolving selection of wines. No matter when you go, Zu always hits the mark. 

Portland might be known for its cobblestone streets and lobster, but there’s a large Cambodian American community that started to arrive in the late 1970s. And Oun Lidos, from the crew behind Công Tử Bột, is serving the most interesting Cambodian food in the city right now. The spicy, tender lemongrass beef skewers and deeply flavorful twice-fried lemon chicken are the standouts, as are the noodle dishes like the mi goreng, a stir-fry with frilly egg noodles and a sweet soy curry sauce. They’re a counter-service spot, and only takeout at the moment, but that just means you should bring your spread (with a refreshing coconut limeade) and post up at nearby Tommy’s Park to enjoy it all.

If you’re celebrating a special birthday, or just enjoy a quick glass of champagne and some oysters as much as we do, then Scales should be on your shortlist of dinner reservations in Portland. In a town where seafood is on the menu nearly everywhere, this place sets itself apart by keeping things elegant and simple with New England classics like homemade bread, fish and chips, and a stunning dessert list that features Indian pudding, frozen custard, and a butterscotch sundae. Between the great service, airy dining room, and beautiful waterfront views, Scales is one of the best places to start thinking about booking your next trip to Portland, or maybe just never leaving.

Walking around downtown Portland, you’ll likely experience two things: lots of lobster paraphernalia and the incredible smell of fried chicken coming from Crispy Gai. Step inside the rosy-lit dining room or park yourself at their outdoor counter and enjoy a spread of punchy Thai plates like papaya salad, noodle dishes, and fried chicken in many forms. They’ve got wings with lots of choices of seasoning, extra crispy thighs and drums, and a crispy waterfall chicken that’s served tossed in mint and toasted rice powder. The shareable plates and laid-back service make this a great place for a fun dinner with friends or a late-evening snack to wrap up the night.

It would be extremely wise of you to stay at a hotel or Airbnb (or buy property) near one of Tandem’s two locations—we’re partial to the Congress Ave. one. That way, you don’t have to waste time before you stand in line for what will be a magical, caffeine- and pastry-filled morning. You can even skip the line by ordering online for pickup at a separate window and take a seat on their covered benches to enjoy Portland’s best coffee shop each morning. But Tandem really is more than that—it’s also home to some of the best pastries we’ve ever eaten. This is the place to fill your table with biscuits, icing-covered morning buns the size of your head, and several slices of pie.

A Southern kitchen and bar, Hot Suppa is always there when you need it—whether you had a late night of brewery hopping in Bayside or have a big day of walking around the Old Port ahead of you. Just make sure to follow their number one rule found in the entryway: Be nice or leave! Fill up on corned beef hash and buttermilk waffles for breakfast, or the fried green tomato BLT at lunch. We also love the long list of vegan and gluten-free sides, all of which can be enjoyed under their covered and heated patio for chilly Maine mornings.

A bakery housed in a historic storefront at the top of Munjoy Hill, Belleville focuses on laminated pastry and thick slabs of margherita, pepperoni, and vegetarian pizzas. We like to grab a coffee and one of their rich cardamom buns or flaky croissants and head a few blocks up to the Eastern Promenade overlooking the ocean. Or, you can soak up the sunlight in their bright cafe that’s across the street from a lighthouse.

Twenty years ago, Portland wasn’t the eating destination that it is today, but then Fore Street opened and that all changed. This was one of the first places in town to really focus on using local everything, and today, it’s still one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Eating here feels like you’re at a dinner party in a house you could never afford, with a large open kitchen in the middle of the restaurant and plenty of exposed wood to constantly remind you that you’re in Maine. All of the food is roasted or grilled over the large hearth that’s impossible to miss and will probably make you want to go camping afterward.

Regards is a warmly-lit spot in the Arts District that has range. Grab a seat at their marble bar for a margarita with eucalyptus during their Happy Hour, or make a reservation at one of their banquettes and let their knowledgeable waitstaff walk you through their menu that’s inspired by the chefs and owners’ time spent in Los Angeles, Mexico City, New York City, and Maine. Come for cocktails, delicious desserts, and great seafood that goes beyond the usual suspects you’ll find in Portland—you might eat housemade heirloom corn tortillas or fried brown rice cooked with peekytoe crab, husk cherries, and aji amarillo.

When you’re in Portland, there are two things you have to do: theorize about Stephen King’s childhood and attempt to eat your body weight in lobster and oysters. For the latter, head to Eventide Oyster Company, which serves some of the best seafood in the city. This small oyster bar near the East End carries 20 different types of bivalves, along with one of the best lobster rolls in town, which is served with brown butter in a steamed bun rather than the typical hot dog bun. Other dishes have twists with a similar spirit: the lobster stew involves green curry and the bluefin tuna tartare comes doused in nước chấm. This should be one of your first stops in town—there’s always a wait, but it’ll be worth it once you’re sitting outside with a cocktail in front of you.

We all have those mornings where we wake up horrified that we’re adults who have to ... make decisions, pay taxes, and cook our own breakfast. Let Ocotillo handle one of those responsibilities (and we're not talking about how to maximize your refund). Stop by their vibrant space for breakfast or brunch. They do great masa pancake shortstacks with caramelized-pineapple syrup, we constantly dream about their Tex-Mex egg and hash dishes, and the burger or brisket are lunch-y go-to’s—this is the sister restaurant to Terlingua, after all. Ocotillo is one of our favorite low-key places to sidle up to the wooden bar, talk with the friendly bartenders, and hang out among the chatty brunch crowd.

Bar Futo doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a secret chicken menu and they serve up a Big Mac skewer to nod to the fact that their space used to be a former Five Guys. Generally, though, they do a lot of cooking over Japanese binchotan, whether it’s all kinds of skewers or small plates like charred shishitos with horseradish ranch. Go for one of their highballs from their short cocktail menu and learn about the Toki machine that serves up Suntory whiskey with superpowered carbonated soda. The place works for groups when you want to have a light dinner after dropping a ton of cash on seafood, or for a low-key date. Despite the fact that this space was once probably covered in peanut shells, now it's filled with cozy two tops and two different bar areas.

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