How to Eat and Drink in Portland, Maine, Like a Restaurant Industry Pro

In warm weather, countless Bostonians flock north to Portland, Maine, to explore its burgeoning restaurant scene. Summer hotel pricing is getting steeper by the year, though, so don’t discount Portland as a winter destination as well. The trip will be less expensive and still full of amazing food and drink. Here’s Briana Volk — owner of restaurant and cocktail bar Portland Hunt + Alpine Club — with some favorite industry haunts to add to your must-eat list.

“Where do you like to go eat?”

There is rarely a bar shift that goes by when my staff or I are not asked that question here in Portland. Everyone has their own answers and places they love, but when you work with others in bars and restaurants, you have this conversation with your peers.

As someone who has owned a restaurant for seven years now, I have always had a list of places I love to recommend. From the dive bar that serves great food to the restaurant that helped put Portland on the map, these restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, and bars are places you’ll hear as recommendations from others — or see your server/bartender after their shift.

747 Congress St., Portland

View of a restaurant dining room, including a maroon booth, wooden tables, mismatched wooden chairs, and a vase with pink flowers.

Tucked inside the Francis Hotel and across the street from Tandem Coffee is Flood’s. Run by Greg Mitchell (of Palace Diner fame), Flood’s feels very at home in the West End. Full of places to get cozy, including a beautiful back/private dining room, Flood’s makes for a great ending to a day out in the elements.

The menu is small and filled with recognizable dishes, and everything is delicious. Standouts include “‘the celebrated’ cheeseburger” and the “sardine party.” Get the large Caesar salad for your table to share, and always say “yes” to the fried chicken.

Even with the cocktails, you realize that everything is meant to go with the food on the menu — which can still be a rare find even in great restaurants. Since opening, Flood’s continues to be the spot where you will consistently see someone who just got off shift from their restaurant or bar job hanging out at the bar. It’s not uncommon to find industry folks from other towns who have made the journey to spend their day off eating and drinking.

Ruski’s Tavern

212 Danforth St., Portland

The epitome of your classic neighborhood bar: In the morning, it is filled with workers who have just finished the night shift and are drinking Allen’s Coffee Brandy with their breakfast, and at night, it is packed with bartenders, servers, cooks, musicians, and neighborhood regulars.

You don’t go to Ruski’s to get a fancy cocktail; you go because you get a vodka soda in a pint glass or a $3 Bud Heavy. And that’s part of the reason why it’s a perfect post-shift hangout. It has great local beer on tap, so anyone who wants to keep sampling what the local breweries offer will still be happy here.

If you’re hungry, the food is standout, and the menu is filled with classic American bar food: chicken tenders, BLTs, breakfast all day. You can nurse your hangover or prevent one, depending on where you are in your day.

643 Forest Ave., Portland

A latte in a white mug on a yellow saucer on a wooden counter top. A person’s arm rests across the counter, behind the mug.

Exterior of a cafe with a large black sign with white lettering that reads “coffee.” A rainbow flag flies outside of the cafe with the words “Make America Gay Again.”

It isn’t hard to find a great cup of coffee in this town, but Little Woodfords is worth traveling off-peninsula for. This cozy and friendly place is part of the emerging Woodfords Corner (where you’ll also find the beloved Woodford Food & Beverage). Inside is a mix of morning-after industry folks, artists, and freelancers.

It’s the perfect spot to start your day or get a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. It has pastries from Norimoto Bakery; games to play; a fun little retail section with Vivid Coffee from Winooski, Vermont; Chemexes; and items like astrology pencils that are eerily accurate. Little Woodfords is a peek into what the future of Portland will be as the neighborhoods off the peninsula grow.

104 Exchange St., Portland

Oysters and other snacks sit on a red table, along with a drink in a mug that says the Highroller Lobster Co.

In a town with so much great food, the late-night options can seem frustratingly few and far between. Thankfully Highroller serves until 11 p.m. almost every day (9 p.m. on Sundays). Owned by some of the same folks who bring you the wait-in-line-for-great-beer Bissell Brothers Brewing, Highroller is their answer to the lobster roll.

But it is so much more than a lobster roll joint. The menu is full of stuff you want to eat either before or after roaming around town: The trademarked Lobby Pop, which is literally a hunk of lobster on a stick, comes with your choice of dipping sauce, but there is also lobster grilled cheese, lobster tacos where the shell is made of cheese, and classics like a creamy lobster bisque. Highroller, of course, has a long list of great beer on tap and in the bottle.

After your belly is full and you make your way to the door, don’t leave without one of the wild shirts, hats, or scarves.

1 North St., Portland

Several rows of croissants on a tray

Overhead view of two rectangular pizzas on metal racks

Halfway up Munjoy Hill, BLVL has some of the best croissants in town. In the morning, you’ll find an assortment of laminated pastries laid out on the beautiful countertop. Start your day with a Danish, cardamom bun (available Friday through Sunday), kouign amann, or the above-mentioned croissants in varying flavors, from the classics (pain au chocolat, almond, plain) to the outstandingly awesome croque-monsieur croissant.

In addition to morning options, BLVL hosts a pizza night from Thursday through Saturday. And what a pizza; it’s easily some of the best in the city. With a choice of four or five pizzas (whole or by the slice), one salad, and one pastry, BLVL pizza night is a treat for pizza lovers and families alike.

49 Washington Ave., Portland

A brewery taproom is dimly lit and full of light wooden picnic tables

Portland has a lot of good beer. The city is packed with breweries, and there are more to come. Oxbow has always been one of the best, and while there’s no brewing at this location, it does keep many of Oxbow’s barrels and pour limited releases and special blends, alongside a limited selection of spirits to go with the beer.

Located in the heart of Washington Avenue on Munjoy Hill, Oxbow is packed between restaurants and distilleries. Tucked just off the street, it feels a little more private than some other places that are right along the street. In the winter, there’s outdoor seating with a fireplace, and the famous Duckfat has a “frite shack” just off the entrance. Pick up some poutine, get a beer, and enjoy a little outdoor time in the city.

107 Washington Ave., Portland

A row of sandwiches on a wooden board sit on top of a deli counter case

An ample number of cheese blocks are displayed, each with a sign giving its type and backstory

Washington Avenue has quickly become a destination spot for food and drink lovers in the city. One of the spots that helped solidify the neighborhood as a food destination is the Cheese Shop of Portland.

With the widest, and wildest, selection of cheeses you can find in the city, the Cheese Shop will have you walking out with something you’ve never tried before. The shop stocks a lot beyond cheese; there’s a strong selection of fresh sandwiches, wine, meats, locally produced products like crackers and hummus, and seasonal items.

428 Forest Ave., Portland

An everything bagel stuffed with lox sits on a white plate on a light blue table

Since opening in 2017, Rose Foods has become almost everyone’s go-to recommendation for breakfast. And rightfully so; the bagels are great. Before Rose opened, we Portlanders could only dream of their offerings after a trip to New York. Their bagels — served with lox, pickles, salami or eggs piled high — might be one of the most eaten, and most Instagrammed, foods in the city.

And it’s not just the bagels; everything here is good. If you aren’t feeling a bagel (why aren’t you?), matzo ball soup, latkes, and pastrami sandwiches are there for you. It has become the place where locals meet their friends for one last goodbye before they hit the road, and they are always taking a baker’s dozen of bagels to go.

288 Fore St., Portland

A dining room inside a restaurant blends into the open kitchen. One wall is all brick, and there are lots of wooden accents throughout the space.

Big silver skillet of mussels in a buttery sauce, with a side of bread

For over 20 years now, Fore Street has been the beacon that helped bring national attention to Portland’s food scene. The open kitchen with wood-fired ovens that you can see from anywhere in the dining room is one of the most beautiful spaces in the city.

Sitting at the bar at Fore Street, you get to feel all the energy of the space but in a more relaxed way. The bartenders are knowledgeable and friendly, letting you take a moment to breathe.

While the menu changes daily, there are a few staples that are always on and worth ordering. The mussels are the classic dish; sop up the broth with the provided bread from Standard Baking (which is located right below Fore Street). Plus, the pork chop seems to get better with each iteration, and the wine list dives deep into the old world.

919 Congress St., Portland

Overhead view of a platter of barbecue items with a side of sauces on a floral table

A casual barbecue restaurant interior with signage directing customers to order food at the counter and drinks at the bar as it is a self-service establishment.

Located in a former architectural salvage building, Salvage BBQ is a hangar-like space that brings a little bit of the South to Maine. You can order meat by the pound or in meals with names like “cow and pig” or “meat coma.” Sides come in a variety of sizes, too, which makes Salvage perfect for a group. Even your pickiest friends and family will find something to make them very happy. Additionally, the very deep draft list offers some of the freshest and most interesting options in the city.

Salvage hosts quiz nights and local bands, giving the evenings a lively feel in a generally mellow area of the city. The space, even on quieter nights, still feels comfortable and vibrant. You will see everything from birthday parties for one-year-olds in the afternoon to groups of friends gathering to celebrate the end of the week.

54 Washington Ave., Portland

Overhead view of a table set with several Japanese dishes, an elegant soy sauce bottle, chopsticks, and a menu

As if there weren’t enough reasons to visit Washington Avenue (see Cheese Shop and Oxbow above), here is another one. There is a bartender who parks his car close to Minato so he has an excuse to duck in and order the Japanese fried chicken (JFC) before going home. This tiny Japanese hangout serves shared plates, sake, and cocktails. Since opening, it has quickly become a city-wide favorite for dishes like the JFC. When Minato was closed for a break recently, our bartender from above couldn’t go the stretch without his JFC hit and tried recreating the recipe at home.

Other great options include the omakase menu, where the chef picks selections from the menu for you; it is a fun way to experience the whole menu without having to make any decisions, which can be tough with so many great options from which to choose.

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