We traveled along the coast of Maine earlier this month, a trip we had toyed with taking for some time. My husband wanted to go to Acadia National Park. I wanted to eat some lobster rolls and check out some restaurants in Portland and Camden. I hadn’t been to Maine in probably 15 years; my husband had never been. Seemed like it was about time to go. We drove up to Bar Harbor, with an initial stop in Portland, then worked our way back down, through Camden, back to Portland, and to some of the beaches south of Portland on our way back home.
Pre-trip research into where to eat in Portland resulted in a long list of contenders. I could hardly believe how many amazing-sounding places had blossomed in this port town in the 15 or so years since I had been there last. And in addition to this robust food scene, it’s a major beer town, too. I couldn’t help but think of that other Portland, thousands of miles west.
390 Commercial Street
We first stopped in Portland just for an early dinner, intent on making it up to Acadia National Park for the following morning, and knowing we’d be back for a longer stay at the end of our trip. The plan had been to try Eventide Oyster Co. or The Honey Paw, which stand side by side on Middle Street (and are owned by the same team), but the lines for each were prohibitively long. We’d also considered Portland Lobster Co., but it was packed, with a line snaking outside on Commercial Street, amidst throngs of tourists on a busy holiday weekend. Pass.
Driving along Commercial Street, away from the tourist shops and through a part of town that reminds you Portland is still an active commercial port city, we passed the very charming-looking Becky’s Diner. Seemed like our kind of place. I had come across the name on a list of best lobster rolls in the city, so we pulled into the lot, put in our name at the counter, and waited a little bit for a booth. (I have since realized that the diner has been featured in a lot of places: Road Food, Eater, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives…and more.)
Becky’s Diner is bright and friendly, without frills or pretension. It’s been open since 1991, serving dinner since 1993. As we walked to our booth, we passed tables where diners of all ages tucked into dishes ranging from burgers to pancakes to a very tempting twin lobster special.
I got the lobster roll, a portrait of simplicity and tradition: plain cold lobster meat on a toasted bun with a side of drawn butter. We also got some clam cakes and a very satisfying seafood chowder, which was served in a chipped Becky’s Diner mug, thick and creamy and filled with haddock and whole scallops. Heaven.
As we paid, we (or rather, my daughter) couldn’t resist the cookies in the case by the register. Off we went, a bag with a huge cookie shaped like a lobster topped with red frosting in hand.
414 Fore Street
Upon our return to Portland, we had a lot of places we wanted to try. But a limited amount of time—much more limited than we had initially intended—meant we could really only get one great meal, and a lunch at that. We decided on Central Provisions. They don’t take reservations, but we arrived early in the lunch service. We got seated right away at a table for three in the front window, and a line started to form right after us. Phew.
Central Provisions is a warm space with wood tones and brick walls, and a bar that overlooks part of the kitchen. Downstairs is a full bar and more seating. The menu is eclectic: seasonal (heirloom tomatoes and crab), playful (foie gras parfait), classic (bone marrow toast, seared foie gras), wide-ranging (spicy raw beef salad), and homey (cole slaw, cheeseburger). We ordered chop salad (bacon, pickle, iceberg lettuce, and ranch dressing), fried cauliflower (with ras el hanout, chickpeas, feta, and herbs), baja fish sandwich (with avocado aioli, red onion, and lettuce), and a bacon cheeseburger. (Not the most adventurous choices on the menu, but we have to accommodate the tastes of a four year old, after all.)
The cauliflower was the standout. Its flavors—ras el hanout, mint, apple, feta—balanced each other playfully, creating a dish at once earthy and fresh, crisp and creamy. It was a lovely meal from a menu that springs from a team clearly committed to dynamic flavors.
The Holy Donut
7 Exchange Street & 194 Park Avenue
At this Portland donut shop, a veritable culinary tourist attraction, the special ingredient is mashed Maine potatoes. We stopped in at the Exchange Street location on a Saturday morning and took our place in the long line. Holy Donuts has a charming story, growing from one woman making a dozen handmade donuts a day to be sold at Coffee by Design (a community-minded coffee roaster with a quartet of coffee shops as well as a certified B corporation—look it up, it’s very cool) in 2011 to three stores, almost 80 employees, and 2 million donuts a year—still all handmade—in March 2017, and still run by that same woman!
We went a little crazy and got six donuts: pomegranate, Maine apple, dark chocolate sea salt, maple bacon, toasted coconut, and sweet potato ginger glazed. Madness. We dug into the apple and pomegranate. They were moist and denser than most donuts, yet not heavy. They were less sweet than the garden variety as well. They were very good, but we would have struggled to finish two between the three of us, let alone six! So that box of donuts stayed with us for a few days….
To be honest, I’ve always admired donuts for their looks more than the way they taste. They can be so pretty and festive. The donuts here were simply gorgeous.
30 City Center
Not terribly far from the Exchange Street location of Holy Donut is HiFi Donuts, a relative newcomer (they opened in May of 2017) to the Portland donut scene. As a differentiating factor, they feature biere donuts, which are made with beer and sourdough starter, which imparts a floral sourdough taste that tempers the sweetness. In addition to a biere specimen (not pictured), we also tried a HiFi French cruller, a honey dip, and a Simpsons—essentially a honey dip with glorious pink frosting and rainbow sprinkles…I’d classify that one as vibrant and beautiful for sure. That one was for the kid, and she enjoyed it. The cruller was light and custardy and the honey dip was a lovely specimen, though admittedly a pedestrian choice.
Unlike their juggernaut neighbor, they also offer sandwiches. The breakfast menu consists of variations of breakfast sandwiches, like bacon or masala sausage with egg and cheese, and the lunch menu, sandwiches like peri peri fried chicken (an item I saw on quite a few Maine menus…) and eggplant panini.
185 Middle Street
Exceptional coffee in an airy, open, bustling coffee shop. There are probably dozens of wonderful coffee shops in Portland. I went to Bard, loved it, and went back for more.