To some people, winter in Portland is all about crackling fires and parking bans. To me, it means finally being able to score a table at some of my favorite restaurants without being forced to eat dinner at 4:30 or 10 p.m. It means sauntering into my favorite bakery after noon, knowing I’m probably still going to leave with more than a bag of day-old cookies.
Restaurant Week feels like a celebration of this in-between time when the crowds of tourists have thinned. It’s a time to get out and reconnect with our food-mad city (and its neighbors). Not sure where to start? Here are a few suggestions to get you out and about. Just don’t forget your mittens.
Five places to take a design fanatic
1. Via Vecchia
The food at this hip, ivy-covered Old Port hotspot might be Italian, but the interior is all 19th-century, Palais-Royal maximalism. Order a non-alcoholic N/A-groni ($8) and say a silent prayer for the people responsible for dusting this place!
2. Speckled Ax (waterfront)
When it opened mid-pandemic, I thought this third-wave coffee shop’s new waterfront location seemed a bit spartan. But in the intervening year, Speckled Ax has grown into its Thames Street digs, mirroring the space’s angles and stark geometries in precisely brewed drinks, like effervescent, refreshing espresso-and-tonic ($5).
3. Batson River Brewing & Distilling
Perhaps still a place where drinks and design outpace the success of an iffy menu, the Portland outpost of this Kennebunk-based brewery is worth a visit for its décor: one-third hunting lodge, one-third gentleman’s club library and one-third roller rink. The Batson G&T ($13), a gin-and-tonic made with the distillery’s own American-style Riparian gin won’t disappoint.
4. The Garrison
A rare restaurant where the food — like enticing, warming braised rabbit fettucine ($29) — is as appealing as the interior, this Yarmouth gem could have earned a place on a few of these lists. But it’s here because of the simpatico relationship between its modern interior and the frothy river frontage just outside the windows.
5. Evo Kitchen + Bar
From the outside, this Fore Street fishbowl looks its size: little. But inside, asymmetrical floor-to-ceiling windows and illumination that radiates from hundreds of sources make the space feel enormous. People-watching from the perimeter is fun, but a nightcap and a slice of strong-coffee-infused chocolate-orange cake (desserts, $13-$14) devoured in the loft-like mezzanine is an excellent way to end an evening out.
Five spots to take a visitor for breakfast
You’d be forgiven for thinking of South Portland’s Indy’s Sandwich as more of a lunch destination. It is, but show up a little earlier if you’re in the mood for a Southeast Asian-style kickstart to your day, like my favorite: the Spam-and-egg sandwich with spicy mayo ($8).
2. Other Side Diner
Never leave the peninsula? Your loss. East Deering is the place to be on a chilly morning. Other Side Diner’s Levantine-inspired Falafel Benedict ($15) and elegant cheese-and-spinach omelettes ($15) are reason enough to haul yourself out of bed.
The newest resident of the former Walter’s space in Old Port, Lenora might have just opened, but it has already begun to impress with its creamy horchata ($7) and a superb Bodega Sandwich ($8) with eggs and house-made maple-habanero sausage.
4. Ohno! Café
A neighbor once told me that she enrolled her child at Reiche Elementary School just so she’d be able to walk past Ohno! every day. I can see why. Taste the No. 1 with maple-glazed prosciutto on a bagel ($7), and you might consider transferring your kids, too.
5. Navis Café
I get it. Nobody wants a breakfast sandwich every single day, especially when the weather is chilly. Times like these call for a bowl of steaming Navis oatmeal (with your choice of sweet or savory toppings, $5.99) and a cup of freshly brewed La Colombe coffee ($2.55) at this Thames Street cafe.
Five quiet restaurants for a chat or a canoodle
Miyake has always been a peaceful spot for date nights or special occasions. But since it reopened its dining room on Fore Street after nearly three years, it is somehow even quieter. For maximum silence, sit at the brand-new ten-seat sushi bar and order the omakase nigiri ($68). All you’ll hear is the click of knives.
The homey, family-style Eritrean dishes you’ll find at Asmara on Oak Street in Portland seem purpose-built for chatting conspiratorially with your companions as you tear off a sheaf of bubbly injera and make a bid for that last mouthful of berbere-prickly lentil stew (Birsen: $19.95).
Sound-dampening panels are part of the reason why this Thames Street raw bar is among the coziest places for a hushed conversation. Another big reason is the food, especially dishes that feature the restaurant’s homemade bread, which is also sold a la carte with cultured butter ($5).
4. Dok Mali
This tiny India Street newcomer won’t stay quiet for long, once tourists descend on Portland again. So head there now, where ultra-funky, Cambodian-style papaya salad ($15) awaits.
It’s true that money can buy luxury, and here, luxury is spelled “s-h-h-h-h.” Elda’s charming dining room is filled with plenty of sound-absorbing upholstery and rough surfaces. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that you’re dining in a leviathan of a repurposed mill in Biddeford, not a cottage in the Swedish countryside.
Five restaurants that are great for kids
Great pizza alone should be the reason why Portland’s Lazzari makes the cut here, but it’s not just about the wood-fired pies. The fire-breathing, metal-domed Le Panyol oven is also a major draw for little ones seeking a dragon-adjacent experience along with their pepperoni.
2. The Friendly Toast
Portlanders of a certain age will understand immediately when I say that The Friendly Toast’s bustling Maine outpost looks like a cross between Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the old Silly’s dining room. In other words, visual catnip to a squirmy kid.
3. Elsmere BBQ
Bringing children to South Portland’s Elsmere, the original location of this easygoing barbecue restaurant, is like dropping them off at a playground or an IKEA ball pit. There’s no shortage of kids, which lends vibrancy to the space. Bonus for parents: They serve beer.
4. Cheese Louise
Kids aren’t the only people who love grilled cheese sandwiches, but they are certainly the most vocal proponents of the dish. At this corner front Old Port restaurant, children will find it hard to complain about the menu, and with meatier, spicy twists on the classic sandwich, adults will, too.
Any restaurant whose name is pronounced “mommy” is bound to be a fun destination for kids. This Japanese comfort-food spot is no exception. It earns extra points for its wonderful, squid ink brioche-topped Big Mami burger ($11) — a BBQ-flavored sandwich in a stark black bun that may also lead to… interesting bathroom conversations later.
Five spots for a takeaway snack
1. Norimoto Bakery
Strolling through Baxter Woods or exploring Evergreen Cemetery? You’re in luck: One of the state’s best bakeries is within easy walking distance. Grab a vegan ANZAC cookie ($3.50) or gooey cinnamon roll ($5) from this James Beard Award-nominated shop and get those steps!
2. Cheese Shop of Portland
Sure, this Washington Avenue business is a great place to visit when you’re hosting a get-together and require nibbles, but it has also quietly become the home of some of Portland’s best sandwiches. Most of them, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, feature stellar cheeses and meats that are also sold individually.
3. Chocolats Passion’s Bergamot bonbon made with Earl Grey
When a full meal isn’t in the cards, sometimes a piece of candy is all you need. When you’re in the West End, there’s no better place to satisfy that need than at the award-winning Chocolats Passion, where a decadent bergamot-infused bonbon ($2.75 for hearts, $3 for squares) will tide you over nicely.
4. Bake Maine Pottery Café
Sugary glazed scones, tender banana bread and croissant sandwiches have taken up residence in this newly renovated pottery workshop and retail store on Washington Avenue. Not sure what to try before you take a turn at the (pottery) wheel? Go for a macaron, in particular anything filled with the shop’s transcendent ganache.
5. Ben Reuben’s Knishery
Call it the original hand pie, call it the great-great-granddaddy of the Hot Pocket — it doesn’t matter. As long as you order one of this Knightville shop’s signature knishes, you can’t go wrong. The harissa-spiced roasted cauliflower ($6.25) and sticky-sweet Schtick-y Bun ($5.75) are both perfect for noshing as you explore South Portland’s quaintest neighborhood.
Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]