Maine is known for being a place where you can indulge in the fantasy of lobster for every meal. And sure, incredible lobster rolls abound but Portland is also a cultural destination in its own right. We have close proximity to both hikes and gorgeous beaches, the best bus stops in the US, and the potential to run into more moose than people. The best part, though? There’s so much to eat, lobster or otherwise, as you explore Maine’s most populated city.
So whether you’re here to visit a lighthouse in your very best flannel, enjoy all of Maine’s state parks, or want to just branch out from your go-to places around town, our guide has all the restaurants and hot spots to check out—along with a couple hotel recommendations.
THE HOT & NEW RESTAURANTS
Walking around downtown Portland, you’ll likely experience two things: lots of lobster paraphernalia and the incredible smell of fried chicken coming from Crispy Gai. Step inside the rosy-lit dining room or park yourself at their outdoor counter and enjoy a spread of punchy Thai dishes like papaya salad, noodle dishes, and fried chicken in many forms. They’ve got wings with lots of choices of seasoning, extra crispy thighs and drums, and a crispy waterfall chicken that’s served tossed in mint and toasted rice powder. The shareable plates and laid-back service make this a great place for a fun dinner with friends or a late evening snack to wrap the night up.
Housed in what was once a historic men’s department store in downtown Portland, Leeward is a pasta-centric restaurant where, like a good suit, everything is tailor-made. Almost the entire menu is made and baked in-house, whether that's the focaccia and crackers, fresh pappardelle that’s filled with slowly braised beef cheeks, or the well-balanced desserts. The dining room is spacious and warm, making it the perfect place for a special occasion.
There are almost as many breweries in Portland as there are Subarus, and once you’ve spent the afternoon drinking beer at a few of them, head to Izakaya Minato to recharge with some Japanese food. This menu at this spot on Washington Ave. covers a lot of ground, with 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 everyone should get their own uni spoon, which comes with sea urchin and a raw quail egg and might be the best single bite in town.
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.
WHEN YOU WANT SEAFOOD
When you’re in Portland, there are two things you have to do: theorize about Stephen King’s childhood 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 the bluefin tuna tartare comes doused in n ước chấm . 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.
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, 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.
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, all three of their locations will be slammed (check out their trailer located at the Allagash Brewery), and each roll will cost you just under $30. But if you’re truly on a quest for the most Maine experience possible, making the 15-minute drive to this location—a 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.
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 Indian pudding, frozen custard, and a butterscotch sundae. 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.
FANCY DINNER RESTAURANTS
Twenty 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 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.
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 oyster escabeche, 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.
This brasserie in the West End serves Spanish and French-inspired dinners made with seasonal ingredients like Maine halibut and pan con (local) tomate in the summer or homemade eggnog and farm-raised meat in the winter. Reserve one of their private greenhouses out back where service is provided by walkie-talkie for a more secluded experience.
WHERE TO GRAB A CASUAL MEAL
Công Tử Bột is right across from Izakaya Minato, on a street with a lot of other excellent dining options. But this place stands out because it has one of the most exciting Vietnamese menus we’ve seen in a while, plus you could come here for every meal and not get bored. Stop by for bánh tiêu stuffed with Chinese sausage and eggs in the morning, brothy phở gà after 3pm, or a guava cocktail if you need a break from the breweries. We’ve even dropped by in the morning to pick up thick slices of pandan cake and other pastries for a long drive out of town. There’s a cute little patio out front, but this place works best for a takeout situation when you want something low-stress.
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.
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.
Onggi is a specialty fermentation shop and food counter in an airy space in East Bayside. Come for a great, but quick lunch or midafternoon pick-me-up via one of their brown sugar iced coffees and fermentation-forward snacks like gimbap or kimchi hand pies. With a friendly and knowledgeable staff who are keen to talk about all things fermentation, it’s also just an interesting store to just pop in for a shopping trip to browse ceramic fermentation crocks, specialty kombuchas, and starters of all kinds to take back home with you.
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 bánh mì 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 in front of you.
BREAKFAST & BRUNCH SPOTS
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 pickup 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.
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 at lunch. Or do your own thing as the restaurant has a long list of vegan and gluten-free sides, all of which can be enjoyed under their covered and heated patio for chilly Maine mornings.
Walking up to the Rose Foods window is like stepping up to an elaborate Wes Anderson film set. But don’t let all the window dressing distract you—the housemade bagels and deli classics like pastrami on rye, whitefish salad, and the chopped liver are truly excellent. Stop here to refuel before a woodsy hike (it’s conveniently located just off the highway) or before a photo-op with the perfectly preserved sixteen-foot-tall boot at the L.L. Bean flagship store.
A bakery housed in a historic storefront at the top of Munjoy Hill, Belleville focuses on laminated pastry and thick slabs of margherita, pepperoni, and vegetarian pizzas. We like to grab a coffee and one of their flaky cardamom buns or croissants and head a few blocks up to the Eastern promenade overlooking the ocean. Or, you can soak up the sunlight in their bright cafe that’s across the street from a lighthouse.
Norimoto Bakery, in the quiet Deering Center neighborhood just off the main peninsula, sells “European pastries with Japanese sensibility,” which in practice means you’ll see miso caramel millionaire’s bars, red bean-filled baked goods, and more twists on all kinds of sweet things. Their fresh and warm onigiri rice balls make for a perfect breakfast or light lunch, especially if you need something to snack on.
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.
photo credit: Portland Harbor Hotel
Portland Harbor Hotel
The Portland Harbor Hotel is aptly named seeing as it’s situated just a block away from the city’s working waterfront. This could be reason enough to book a stay here, but this nautical boutique hotel also provides an array of choices from larger suites to ADA-compliant rooms where none of the 101 rooms are the same. Besides their spa and outdoor fire pit, you’ll be super close to the cobblestone streets of downtown and close by the area’s many restaurants, gift shops, and bars.
During the Prohibition era (fun fact: the Father of Prohibition, Neil Dow, was from Portland), a “blind tiger” was slang for an illegal spot where you could find a stiff drink. Now, the Blind Tiger is a boutique hotel occupying a Federal-style mansion house and former speakeasy. Located a little further away from downtown and in a residential neighborhood, this is the perfect place for a quieter stay but one that is still easily accessible to the city’s main spots. The hotel boasts fireplaces in almost every room, suites, and immaculately designed interiors but also many of the building's original features —like the rooftop cupola that offers panoramic views of the skyline and harbor, or the hidden billiards room in the basement.
photo credit: The Westin Portland Harborview
The Westin Portland Harborview
Originally opened in the early 1900s as the Eastland Park Hotel, The Westin Harborview has been restored to remain a quintessential part of Portland’s history. On all sides of the building, you’ll find a beautiful view of the area, from Mount Washington to the Atlantic Ocean, and the hotel’s central location is close to many shops, restaurants, and places like the State Theatre, Congress Square Park, and the Portland Museum of Art. If you’re staying somewhere else, still head to their top-floor lounge for a drink or dinner with a panoramic backdrop of Portland and Casco Bay.