Portland is the largest city here in Maine, with a population of about 67, 000. It is a port town, with a total area of around 69.44 square miles. The city itself rests on a peninsula in Casco Bay, situated in the Gulf of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean.
Portland has seen some rough times since the 1970’s when it experienced an economic depression (Due to the Maine Mall being built), but once the downtown area began to be developed and reshaped, it has experienced an unprecedented boom in recent years. Now, people flock here to eat, to eat some more, and eat again. (Seriously, there are lots of places to eat here – more restaurants per capita than San Francisco … Well, sort of. The truth in that statement lies somewhere between fact and fiction, but there is still around one restaurant for every 118 people).
Eating isn’t the only thing worth doing here, though. There are plenty of cafes, bars, theaters, and attractions to keep the casual traveler busy for a few days (or even years…I was born here and as an adult I’ve lived here for half a decade and I still haven’t experienced everything in Portland) or especially for a day trip. My goal as your Maine Man is to provide you with some jumping-off points, some basic places to hit that will enable you to experience what Portland has to offer you. There are some spots I don’t really frequent due to my own personal tastes, but the ones I list I have not only been to but have enjoyed in some capacity, and I hope you will too.
PLACES TO EAT
BREAKFAST or BRUNCH: There are many really decent breakfast places around, and breakfast is one of the meals I routinely go out to eat for. Portland is a haven for brunch but also has some really decent breakfast options, too. First off, if you want something simple – Katie Made Bakery is a very good choice; The dining space is small, with only a couple of tables, so if you plan on eating there then you may have an issue. Aside from that, Katie Made serves up very delicious breakfast sandwiches which Katie makes herself, right in front of you – I always get the “Fully Loaded with sausage” (and if you don’t try one of their strawberry cheese pastries you’re missing out on food of the gods). If you want a more traditional dining experience, Becky’s Diner and Maelily Ryleigh’s are two of my favorite local breakfast diners. Both Becky’s and Maelily’s are very affordable, with the service being on the faster side. Maelily’s is open at hours geared toward the breakfast and lunch crowd only, while Becky’s is open most of the day for other meals. I would say that I generally like the food at Becky’s better, but prices are lower at Maelily’s. Both places serve traditional American diner food. Portland Pottery Cafe is another great mid-price option for brunch as well, and they serve up some delicious and generous portions of Huevos Rancheros. If you’re looking for a more high-end experience, try out Hot Suppa, Local 188, or The Little Tap House for delicious brunch or breakfast options. At Hot Suppa, where comfort food is king, you must sample their famous Eggs Benedict (I like mine with pulled pork). At Local 188, check out their mouthwatering “Legs And Eggs” option – confited and fried chicken leg, eggs any way you want them, yummy grits, and a golden biscuit. Lastly, at Little Tap House, you can get Poutine and Eggs…the perfect brunch meal, and they do it so well. There are plenty of other local spots for breakfast or brunch here in Portland, but these are my favorites, all largely based on cost and also the quality of food. I always come back for more, and so will you. HONORABLE MENTION: The Porthole
LUNCH: So, now that you’ve had breakfast and explored Portland a bit – you’re starting to get hungry again. Luckily there are lots of places around for a takeout meal if you’re picnicking or on the road. There are also some sit down places with light fare that will give you some energy throughout the day. If you’re like me and love sandwiches to fulfill your lunchtime needs, you’re in luck. For the literal best sandwich in town, you need to check out The Local Press – where the owner mans the counter and chats with you while he prepares delicious paninis and other sandwiches. My favorite panini from the Press is the “Buena Vista” – Black Forest Ham, oven gold turkey, swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard. Po’ Boys & Pickles is a local favorite, and the favorite of most of my co-workers. I usually get the Debris Po’ Boy, which has slow cooked roast beef, gravy, lettuce, tomato, and horseradish mayo…though sometimes I spring for the red bean soup or the pulled pork potato skins. If sandwiches aren’t your thing, maybe a slice of pizza will do the trick. There are many places for pizza here in Portland, but my personal favorites are OTTO (which can be found in many locations throughout Portland) and Bonobo Woodfire Pizza. OTTO is my personal favorite with generous thin-crust slices and fresh ingredients. I love the Chicken Basil, as well as the Margherita. Really, really affordable as well. Bonobo serves up the more traditional deep dish pizza, and while I can’t get enough of their regular pepperoni pizza, I sometimes spring for a whole pie of their “Caspian” – which is topped with roasted chicken, smoked tomatoes, garlic, and basil. Also, I mentioned both Katie Made Bakery and Portland Pottery Cafe in my breakfast section, but Katie Made has a killer sandwich selection around lunch time (my favorite is Katie’s Cubano sandwich), and Portland Pottery Cafe has really, really rich and elegant soups and stews which they change up mostly every day. I have never been disappointed there. Another affordable and delicious lunch option, if you happen to like Thai food, is the Mi Sen Noodle Bar. At Mi Sen, you can choose between many delicious appetizers (the Green Curry Satay is my favorite – grilled chicken skewers marinated in green curry and topped with basil leaves and green curry-basil sauce), soups (try the Chicken Num Sai – chicken broth, ground chicken, bean sprouts, green beans, scallions, cilantro, and a crispy wonton sheet). They even have rice and noodle entrees, to boot – and my favorite is their version of Drunken Noodle (I usually get mine with beef). HONORABLE MENTION: Ruski’s Tavern
DINNER: If you’ve been in Portland, you probably feel like you’ve eaten all day – and you probably have, because there are so many great places to eat. If you’re only going to eat one meal in Portland, you really should focus on a nice dinner somewhere. The choices before you are daunting, but I am here to help. As such, this category will have its own subsection.
- BURGERS: If you want a really good burger, I would have to recommend Shay’s Grill Pub. I have tried numerous burgers from chains as well as other pubs and diners around the area, and I find Shay’s variety and quality to be the best. My favorite is their Cowboy Burger (Cheddar cheese, bacon, Captain Mowatt’s Bar Harbor(que) sauce (spicy), topped with crispy onion rings.) My second favorite would be from Nosh Kitchen Bar – which is more innovative and adventurous in their burger offerings (their “Burnt Trailer Queen” burger contains a NOSH burger patty, blueberry cream cheese, two donuts as the bread, black forest ham, Allen’s Coffee Brandy—dulce de leech, and bacon dust), but also much more expensive. Their fries are to die for, however – and you can get them infused with salt and vinegar, or bacon-dusted.
- IRISH-AMERICAN FARE: Portland is a big Irish town, and so there are still many Irish eateries around. My personal favorite due to the atmosphere and meal options and prices is Bull Feeney’s – located in a building where legendary film director John Ford’s father ran a grocery store from. My favorite dish to get there is the Bangers and Colcannon – pure comfort food. Ri Ra is my runner up, but tends to be a bit more expensive than Bull Feeney’s on many of their dishes. Their Cottage Pie is the best (Braised beef short rib and Guinness brown gravy with peas & carrots, topped with mashed potatoes and Pineland cheddar crust) and it’s usually what I end up getting when I go there.
- BBQ: For me personally, there is really only one option for delicious barbecue in Portland, and that is Salvage BBQ. Salvage has the absolute best barbecued meats in the area, and I have never been unsatisfied. Their basic beef briscuit alone is to die for, but they also serve many side dishes as well as other meats like chicken and pork chops and, of course, ribs.
- JAPANESE CUISINE: There are a couple of decent Japanese eateries in Portland. My personal favorite is Fuji Restaurant. Fuji is also coincidentally my favorite steak place as well, because the way they cook it on the hibachi grill just blows away my taste buds. The hibachi experience is one you should definitely check out if you go with friends. If you want a Japanese ramen bar experience, there is also Pai Men Miyake where I always enjoy a bowl of Shoyu – chicken and soy broth, pork belly, soy marinated egg, scallion, ginger, nori.
- THAI FOOD: My favorite location for Thai other than Mi Sen (which is more suitable for lunch, to me, for their portion levels) is Mekong Asian Bistro. They serve Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese dishes and not just Thai options. I usually end up getting their Chicken Drunken Noodle, but their Pad Thai is excellent as well. My runner up is the Green Elephant – which serves up Asian-inspired vegetarian dishes. Despite not being a vegetarian myself, their food is excellently prepared – just a little on the pricier side. My favorite at the Green Elephant is the Green Curry with Tofu – which contains broccoli, bok choy, green beans, snow peas, bell peppers, carrots, zucchini, Thai-basil, and microgreens in a green coconut milk curry, served with jasmine brown rice.
- MEXICAN FARE: The Mexican options seem to always be changing in Portland, but one of my favorite spots for Mexican food is Taco Escobarr. Whenever I go, I can’t resist getting a nice big helping of Carne Esada Enchiladas. The atmosphere is usually friendly and well-lit, and the service is prompt most of the time.
- ITALIAN: There are a few choice spots for Italian food here in Portland, but my favorite by far would be Ribollita. It’s a very small, homey eating atmosphere (you feel like you’re in someone’s dining room) with absolutely delicious food, my favorite of which is their Penna Arrabiatta. Ribollita also has on hand a collection of really nice Italian wines. My runner up, based on cost and taste, would be The Corner Room – where they serve up a formidable Papardelle and Mushrooms, my favorite dish they make.
- INDIAN FOOD: Finding a place that serves good Indian food is sort of a challenge, but there’s one gem that stands out in Portland for Indian food, for me, and that is Hi Bombay. Situated right in the Old Port, Hi Bombay’s prices are reasonable, the place is clean, and the portions are generous. You can find all the old staples available, and my favorite is the Chicken Labedar or the Chicken Tikka Masala. Their naan is the absolute best in the area, too.
There are many, many more eateries in Portland. Many other sub-categories I could delve into, but Portland has so many restaurants it would be impossible to list them all here. I’ve provided at least a few jumping off places for great local dining, no big chains (which can also be found here in Portland, though sparsely), and hopefully you will like the ones I’ve listed as much as I do. I encourage you to explore and find your own favorite spots to eat – but these are mine.
Now that we’ve gotten eating out of the way, we can move onto places to play.
PLACES TO PLAY
Restaurants and eating are a big part of what makes Portland so great. Other towns I write about in my Maine Man segments will likely not have anything close to the amount of eateries to list as does Portland. But the places to play are going to be divided into sub-categories as well, because for some people, “play” can mean lots of different things.
- COFFEE: Any good traveler knows that, just like their car, they too are going to need fuel. Coffee (if you’re into that) can also be a fun stop in its own right as there are plenty of cafes and roasteries that offer not only coffee but other sorts of entertainment. I work at Starbucks here in Portland, and you can find plenty of those around – but Bard Coffee is a local favorite. The baristas are all proficient with Instagram-able latte art, and their chai is delicious – and if you need a place to rest or do some writing or reading, Bard has plenty of seating space. Yordprom is my personal favorite, with a smaller cafe but an outdoor patio with lots of plants. I usually get their Cafe Mocha latte.
- NIGHT LIFE: There is so much to do and see in Portland, especially at night. My favorite bar for dancing is Bubba’s Sulky Lounge, where there is a light-up dance floor and they have an 80’s Night . If you want to sing or witness some karaoke, Old Port Tavern is the most lively place for it, if a little chaotic. My favorite bar for cocktails is The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box – unmarked by signage and situated inside a nice, cozy environment with tinted windows and candlelight. Their bartenders are extremely knowledgeable and skilled at making original cocktails on a drink menu that changes daily. For wine and live music, I enjoy MJ’s Wine Bar – a classy little place with experienced sommeliers, and very well-put together plates of finger foods (meats, cheeses, fruits). For beer – the best place around with the most beers to choose from is Novare Res Bier Cafe – where you can peruse their pages-long menu of imported and local beers. They have a good number of meads to pick from if that’s your thing, too. The best place for local live music is often at Blue, where they have acquired an eclectic stable of performers – with anything from Middle Eastern music to Irish Folk music. And, if you’re the artistic type and want to paint something while drinking, you can always go alone or grab a group of friends to take with you to Muse Paintbar. And, ultimately, if you’re into the whole strip club scene, we even have a strip club here – PT’s Showclub. Finally, if you’re more of a laid back drinker, you can check out LFK – where every week, there is a literary open mic and writers read their work in front of the entire bar.
- ATTRACTIONS: Aside from the many restaurants, shops, bars, and cafes in Portland – there are lots of attractions to check out. Make sure to make at least one of these things a priority on your visit because Portland has some pretty unique things to do that you’ll remember.——-> THE FERRY: Portland is home to a few islands in its vicinity, the most notable being Peaks Island, which is often bustling in the Summer with weddings and other lively functions. While on Peaks, you can rent a bike or a golf cart and explore the outskirts, or you can visit the few American Civil War museums on the island (Civil War Veterans had a couple vacation spots on the island where they gathered every year). The scenery is beautiful, the people are kind, and the ferry ride through Casco Bay is really relaxing. If you have more time, you can even take the ferry mail route and visit the other islands. One final thing on Peaks is an old abandoned military installation called Battery Steele – 14 acres of World War II tunnels and fortifications which is now used to host interpretive art projects during an annual festival.
——-> THE PORTLAND OBSERVATORY: One of the oldest landmarks in Portland, The Observatory is a wooden signal tower on Munjoy Hill (on Portland’s East End) that was built in 1807. Inside, you can take a guided tour of the tower and learn its history before reaching the (for me) vertigo-inducing top. The tower played a large part in Portland’s economic development, and it’s neat that it survived the multiple fires that burned most of the city throughout Portland’s history.
——-> MUSEUMS: Portland has many museums, but the flagship museum is the Portland Museum of Art. They recently renovated, so the place looks really spiffy. The PMA has lots of great art to showcase, and in addition to that – attached as an installation to the main museum is a historic mansion called the McLellan-Sweat Mansion, where you can walk through and see the “floating staircase”. On top of that, you can schedule a tour through the museum for Winslow Homer’s art studio, located in Prout’s Neck (located not in Portland, but in nearby Scarborough). Other museums in the area include the Victoria Mansion (a 19th century Italian-villa style home with original furnishings intact), the Children’s Museum (if you have kids, it’s the perfect place to bring them to play), the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum (if you’re into Maine’s rich railroad history), or even the Cryptozoology Museum (if you’re interested in learning about Bigfoot or other mythical beasts). There are many more museums here in Portland, but these are some of my favorites.
——-> BREWERIES: There are many breweries in the area, but one of my favorites to frequent when I have that particular itch is Allagash Brewing Company. On their website, you can book a free tour of their brewery, and Allagash has some of the tastiest brews around. Another favorite of mine is Bissell Brothers Brewing Co. There are others, but I’ve had the best experiences with these and also they happen to be some of my favorite beers in general.
These were just a few suggestions, some basic starting points for your adventures in Portland. I enjoy all of these locations and activities for different reasons, and I invite you to contribute your own suggestions in the comments if you feel I’ve missed something vital. Like I said, I still have not experienced every single thing that Portland has to offer, and I probably never will even as long as I live here. But, keep an eye out for future installments of Maine Man, and I will try to give basic write-ups for each town and city I visit in the future.