A gourmet guide to Portland, Maine

Maine's biggest city has a relationship with the sea that helps make it an attractive stop for the gourmand. Jim Clarke shares the best places to eat and drink in Portland, a destination that has always sought to underline the quality of the local produce

Words by Jim Clarke

Maine lobster roll
Maine's famous lobster roll, served with drawn butter

For visitors from points south, Portland is the gateway into the state of Maine. Much of the state’s famous coastline, Acadia National Park, and the forests and mountains that define the state lie beyond, but those with an interest in good food and drink will want to stop and take in their surroundings. Portland’s restaurants are more than prepared to lay out a delicious welcome.

The city’s culinary offerings have always underlined its locale; lobster, blueberries, chowder and the like were featured prominently on Portland’s menus long before locavourism came into vogue. In the past, those local ingredients may have received straightforward or even rustic treatment but these days Portland’s restaurants are showing off Maine’s best in guises both refined and down-to-earth.

Portland is Maine’s largest city but with less than 70,000 full-time residents, remains easily navigable to visitors. The restaurant and bar scene is centred on the Old Port, where Commercial Street runs along Portland Harbour on the southeast side of the city and, from there, west into the Arts District. But good food can be found in many parts of the city.

Portland, Maine
Portland is Maine's most populous city

In between meals, you’ll most likely want to spend your times enjoying the outdoors. In autumn, foliage across the entire state famously turns a brilliant mix of red, orange, and gold; in Portland, the spectacle typically peaks around the third week of October but extends into early November most years, long after trees further north have gone bare.

Acadia National Park
Park Loop Road in the Acadia National Park in Maine, a three-hour drive from Portland

A handful of state parks lie within an hour’s drive: Bradbury Mountain and Wolfe’s Neck Woods to the north, and the smaller Ferry Beach State Park to the south between Portland and Kennebunk. West of the city, country roads can easily accommodate a leisurely drive through vibrant foliage and that other fall staple, apple orchards. If you’d rather stay by the water, take advantage of the extensive ferry options and boat tours to explore the islands of Casco Bay; Peaks Island and some of its larger brethren are large enough to accommodate fall’s brilliant colors without giving the crash of the surf.

Portland’s restaurants are showing off Maine’s best ingredients in guises both refined and down-to-earth

A number of Portland’s hotels have enjoyed renovations in the past dozen years or so, giving visitors options far more exciting than the corporate vs. rustic dichotomy of the past. The Canopy by Hilton Portland Waterfront and the more characterful The Press Hotel are larger hotels with easy access to the Old Port and Arts District. Also nearby are the Blind Tiger and The Francis, both 19th-century buildings that have been updated within and without; both are small and boutique, with only nine and 15 rooms, respectively. If a central location is less of a priority, the grand Black Point Inn and the Inn by The Sea, both about 15 minutes out of town, offer old school charm and elegance along with modern conveniences and excellent views of the bay.

The Canopy and several other hotels are on Commercial Street and from there it’s a short walk to Standard Baking Co., where visitors can start their day with superb, seasonal scones both savory and sweet, croissants, and a variety of breads. Those looking to stretch their legs a bit more before breakfast should make their way to Tandem Coffee + Bakery, housed inside an old gas station.

Two glasses of wine at Sur Lie
Wine at Sur Lie, a restaurant and bar in the downtown area of Portland

Food trucks prowl the streets of Portland in abundance, offering a number of high-quality options, especially for lunch. One of Bite Into Maine’s trucks lives at Allagash Brewing; their lobster rolls are among Maine’s best. They recently opened a brick-and-mortar location closer to downtown as well.

Beer and cider fans can not only eat local but drink local too; Portland is considered by many to be the East Coast capital for craft beer. Wine lists are typically more international but keep an eye out for the local wild blueberry wines. Bluet caused a stir when they unveiled their dry, vinous, traditional method sparkling wild blueberry wines a few years ago, and have helped a handful of other wineries such as R.A.S. get on their feet; all feature the intensely flavourful wild blueberry that’s indigenous to Maine’s granitic soils. For cocktails, the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club brought the modern cocktail movement to Maine a decade ago and still leads the way, offering classics, variations on classics, and originals in profusion.

While Portland’s food offerings are at a high level, the city’s leading restaurants haven’t gone in much for formality; white tablecloths are uncommon. Most restaurants hold a few tables or seats at the bar for walk-ins, but if you’re only in town for a few days, make reservations in advance so you don’t miss out on any must-do experiences.

Four of the best restaurants in Portland, Maine

Eventide Oyster Co.

The oyster bar that is the defining centerpiece of this laidback, all-day establishment is carved from local granite; with ice and oysters piled atop it, it stands as a summation of Maine’s natural environment. It typically stocks a dozen or so different oyster varieties from the state’s shores, along with a few guests from elsewhere and a few other shellfish besides. While the oysters take pride of place, the rest of the menu should not be neglected. There are a handful of crudos and several buns; the Eventide brown butter lobster roll is a more-than-worthy variation on the local favourite. Among the hot items, the Asian-tinged lobster green curry stew and scallop waffle-yaki are standouts.



Scales is one of the larger establishments in Portland, with a dining room stretching down the wharf of the Old Port. Gentle lighting and light wood fixtures bring a warmth and intimacy to the space, despite the bustle of service. The menu, too, is larger than many in the city – there are, for example, four bread options, all very worthy of your attention – and while fish and seafood remain the focus, the kitchen’s touch is more readily at play here. It is, however, a careful one that brings out the best from whatever proteins are on the plate. Depending on the season, the usual local suspects might share space on the menu with King Salmon, halibut, or branzino. There are typically several worthy meat options if you need a break from the sea, though vegetarians may struggle to assemble something like a main course. The wine list leans toward France but takes in other places in Europe and the US.



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Sur Lie

The name screams wine bar but the list is actually modest – about a dozen wines matched by a similar number of beers and cocktails. Sur Lie is, in fact, a tapas bar, but a distinctly New England take on the genre. The menu is divided into four sections – Crisp, Pleasant, Bold, and Sweet – and while local ingredients take pride of place, the kitchen’s gaze is not so firmly turned toward the sea. Yes, lobster, mussels, and crab are on offer but local cheese, charcuterie and even potatoes also enjoy some time in the spotlight.



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The Clam Shack

If you’re driving into Portland from the south, pause in Kennebunk for a lobster roll with fries at The Clam Shack. The lobsters themselves are steamed and the meat extracted by hand; care is taken to make sure each roll contains a balanced mix of claw and tail meat. It’s served in a round roll with mayo and/or melted butter, atop a paper dish, and you can enjoy it outside at a picnic table by the water. The round roll is not traditional, but The Clam Shack’s lobster roll is nevertheless close to the platonic ideal for Maine’s signature sandwich, and will set the bar for the rest of your food experiences in Maine. Remember to stop for another on your way home, too, if you have room.

theclamshack.net (Open from May to October)