I think most would agree that 2020 was pretty eventful. However, one thing that didn’t get its due around these parts, among others, was Maine’s bicentennial. But as the world begins to open up a bit and time marches on, there is nothing wrong with a belated celebration. And there is certainly no shortage of ways to commemorate the Pine Tree State’s 200th birthday, especially when it comes to dining in Maine’s most populous city, Portland.
Portland has been around long enough to survive a few disasters, like the Great Fire of 1866, only to build back stronger and perhaps in the case of now, tastier. So much so, in fact, that Portland’s motto is Resurgam, Latin for “I shall rise again.” And from the ubiquitous lobster roll to new restaurants and cuisines that celebrate the city’s diversity, Portland is certainly rising to the occasion.
So whether you’re here to buy a mug that says “Vacationland” and eat enough seafood to get mistaken for an aquarium worker with an agenda, or you finally realized that it’s time to branch out from your go-to places in the Old Port, our guide has all the restaurants you’ll need.
It would be extremely wise of you to choose a hotel or Airbnb 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 pick-up 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, and decide that there is no better way to do breakfast. Especially since you have a place nearby to take a nap afterward.
This neighborhood brasserie in the West End turned their pandemic pivot into an outdoor seating glow-up and is now serving Spanish and French-inspired seasonal food al fresco on their heated patio. Their weekend brunch menu features a breakfast basket filled with homemade baked goods, local wood-roasted coffee, and housemade Bloody Marys and mimosas. Take it to the next level and reserve one of their charming, private greenhouses out back where service is provided by walkie-talkie for a more secluded (and possibly fun) experience.
Duckfat could do really well in places like Brooklyn, Austin, or the other Portland - it’s small, casual, and constantly full of people named Winona or Elias. But Portland, Maine is the one that’s lucky enough to actually have it. They serve very good and very not-light food like poutine with duck gravy, brisket sandwiches, and milkshakes for brunch, lunch, and dinner. Come right when they open for brunch and prepare to sit on their covered patio near a stranger who is talking loudly about seeing his ex at a Patriots game. Or avoid the accidental eavesdropping altogether and grab your hand-cut, Belgian-style fries to go so you can eat at the picnic tables across the way for a view of Portland’s working waterfront.
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 French-style rolled omelets, corned beef hash, and buttermilk waffles for breakfast, or the fried green tomato BLT and poutine with local cheese curds at lunch. Or do your own thing as the restaurant has a long list of sides that are vegan-friendly and gluten-free, all of which can be enjoyed under their covered and heated patio for chilly Maine mornings.
When you’re in Portland, there are two things you have to do: theorize about what Stephen King’s childhood was like 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 most popular 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 fried oysters come with Korean BBQ sauce. This should be your first stop in town and while there’s always a wait, it’ll be worth it once you’re sitting outside with a cocktail in front of you.
If you walked past The Honey Paw by chance, you’d probably think it was just another brightly-colored bar. And then you’d walk inside, hear the music, and see that they also play great vinyl. And once the door closed behind you, you’d notice that everyone inside is actually eating bowls and plates of papaya salad, noodles, and fried chicken. This sister restaurant to Eventide serves a mix of dishes from across Asia, like Vietnamese crepes and smoked lamb khao soi, along with great cocktails. Even if you don’t make it here for lunch or brunch, come by for a drink and make sure to get the caramelized honey soft serve for dessert.
Imagine the storybook version of coastal Maine: rocky beaches, bikes with big wooden baskets, and tiny shops and cottages. This is Peaks Island - a small island three miles off Portland’s coast. It’s one of our favorite places to visit, and it’s only reachable by ferry (which runs on a limited daily schedule and costs around $8 roundtrip). Once you get there, rent a bike, explore the beaches and vacation houses, and eat a required lobster roll at Island Lobster Company. Or go all out and book a private lobster bake complete with a boat captain unloading his daily catch. And it won’t matter how much lobster you’ve already eaten on this trip, this will taste special just because of where you are.
It can’t be all lobster all the time, but good thing there are places like Quiero to break up the barrage of seafood. This Latin cafe serves baked sweet and savory empanadas, tamales, Cubanos, and Colombian hot dogs, just to name a few of the best things on the menu. Their quick counter service means more time to check things off your Portland to-do list too, like heading across the street to the historic district and Western Promenade or the Portland Museum of Art. Also an option: just taking a seat in an indoor booth or on the front deck to relax and people watch for a few hours.
Bite Into Maine serves six types of lobster rolls, including a Connecticut-style one with hot butter, and others tossed with chipotle or wasabi mayo, and they’re some of the best in Portland. Regardless of when you go, both of their locations will be slammed (there’s a second trailer located at the Allagash Brewery), and each roll will cost you just under $20. But if you’re truly on a quest for the most Maine experience possible, making the 15-minute drive to this food truck parked next to a lighthouse at Cape Elizabeth is a must.
Yosaku has withstood the test of time to become a Portland classic with their homestyle Japanese food that ranges from sushi to soba and teppanyaki. Fishmongers bring their freshest product to the sushi 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. Reservations are recommended for their indoor dining room, which is separated into a sushi bar and both traditional Japanese and Western-style seating.
Island Creek Oysters harvests some of the world’s best oysters, supplying restaurants all over the country. Instead of scouring menus to find them, though, just stop by The Shop, their Portland outpost, where they sell a selection to the lucky people of Portland. It’s the perfect spot for an afternoon snack of a couple of dozen oysters and a bottle of wine.
OK, so this isn’t necessarily a recommendation for a specific restaurant, but more for a location and feeling that proves the point that Maine is the place to “summer.” Between May and September, you’ll find a wide range of food trucks lining the Eastern Promenade where you can choose anything from Maine maple creemees to banh mi on homemade (or should we say, truck-made) bread every Friday from 11am-8pm. Grab what you want, spread out a picnic blanket, and lounge with gorgeous mansions to ogle at behind you and a killer ocean view to ferry spot in front of you.
This place serves excellent potato donuts, which are just a slightly denser version of the donuts you’re probably used to. Their flavors are all over the place and they usually have 20-30 options available, like pomegranate, maple bacon, and our personal favorite, chocolate sea salt. Stop by The Holy Donut shop for breakfast, or when you need a midday snack. There’ll be a line regardless of when you go, but it’s always worth it. And if you need some caffeine while you wait, Tandem Coffee is just a few blocks away.
Central Provisions is the small plates restaurant your brother wanted to open during the years he was “finding himself,” but then decided it’d be too much work and just grew a handlebar mustache instead. He missed out because this spot in the Old Port is excellent and extremely popular with both out-of-towners and the people who visited Portland once and never left. They serve a wide range of shared plates, like surf clam ceviche, suckling pig, and a bunch of charcuterie, which makes it a great spot to come with a group and order as much as you can. Since this place is so popular, it’s best to get here early and then head to the bar downstairs, where you can grab a drink and some snacks in the meantime, or just order from the full menu and forget about waiting another hour for lunch or dinner.
Every city needs a go-to pizzeria. Somewhere that you can split a few pies with your friends, or just grab a slice on the nights when one drink turns into four. In Portland, that’s Otto Pizza, which makes some of the best and most interesting pies in the area and is slowly taking over New England. Here you’ll find pizzas topped with everything from cheese tortellini to chicken, pear, and fontina, but make sure to try The Masher, with mashed potato, scallion, and bacon. There are five Otto locations in Portland, but if you want a break from downtown, check out the Cottage Road location in South Portland, which is located inside a converted gas station and will be a little less crowded than the original Congress Street shop.
20 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 here is roasted or grilled over the large hearth that’s impossible to miss and will more than likely make you want to go camping afterward.
There are almost as many breweries in Portland as there are Subarus, and once you’ve spent the afternoon visiting a few of them, head to Izakaya Minato to recharge with some Japanese food. This spot on Washington Ave. covers a lot of ground with their menu, which includes things like sashimi, fried chicken, and udon, along with a wide variety of sake. It’s a great place to split a lot of food with a group, but make sure everyone gets their own uni spoon, which comes with sea urchin and a raw quail egg and might be the best single bite in town.
If you’re celebrating a special birthday, or just enjoy a quick glass of Champagne and oysters as much as we do, then Scales should definitely be on your shortlist of dinner reservations when visiting. In a town where seafood is on the menu nearly everywhere, this place sets itself apart by keeping things elegant and simple with quintessential New England classics like homemade breads, fish and chips, and a stunning dessert list that features New England pudding, frozen custard, and a rotating Baked Alaska. Between the great service, airy dining room, and beautiful waterfront views, it’s one of the best places to start thinking about booking your next trip to Portland, or maybe just never leaving.
While Washington Avenue has become a popular restaurant destination of late, Red Sea has been holding it down for years as a restaurant locals love - particularly Portland’s African community, which reflects the growing diversity of new Mainers. Red Sea features an Ethiopian/Eritrean menu with a wide array of vegetarian, gluten-free, and dairy-free options as well as homemade meat-filled sambusas, lentil stews, and injera. For a taste of what Maine has to offer besides breweries and lobster rolls (though those are great, too), make sure to stop by here.
Texas barbecue may not be the first thing you think you want when you go to the Northernmost part of the United States, but Terlingua might just change that. Think Tex-Mex-inspired dishes made with Maine ingredients, like a rotating ceviche or brisket with homemade tortillas and a decent mezcal, wine, and beer list. Their open-air deck and margarita garden are warmly welcoming (literally with their heat lamps) and large enough for relaxing or for kids to roam free. You can also just drop into their adjacent market to purchase house-smoked meats and locally-made products like blankets and baskets to remember that Vacationland feeling.
In a city as food-centric as Portland, Kuno is the quintessential success story: what started as a pop-up and food truck purchased from an already established Thai restaurant is now a brick-and-mortar serving exceptional food. In this particular case, Kuno showcases owner Nick Yee’s family recipes for stellar Southeast Asian dishes like char kway teow and crab wontons. But their takes on things like the Asian fried chicken sandwich and nasi goreng fried rice, plus cocktails like a Basil Gin Smash, are also winners at this cozy Bayside restaurant.
There’s no wrong place to eat pizza, except for maybe in your bed or an empty bathtub. But you won’t find a more ideal spot to have a few slices in Portland than at Flatbread Company, which overlooks the Casco Bay. The Portland location of this Northeast chain has a huge dining room that’s good for groups and families with kids, but you’ll want to try to get a table on their dock when it’s nice enough to be outside (which, by Portland standards, is anytime there isn’t snow falling from the sky). Bring a group, get a few beers from their outside bar counter, and discuss the name of your future boat over a few pizzas.
WHERE TO STAY
Our go-to hotel in Portland is The Francis. It’s in a historic building, renovated with clean, modern touches - and there’s even a small spa. But most importantly, The Francis is located across the street from Tandem Bakery, ensuring you’re never more than a few steps from the coffee and biscuits you’ll want to start every day with. Book your stay here.
ALSO CHECK OUT
The Portland Harbor Hotel in the Old Port. Book your stay here.
The Blind Tiger in the West End. Book your stay here.
The Westin Portland Harborview in Downtown Portland. Book your stay here.