History of a Food City, Simultaneous Evolution & A Sense of Place

(The piece below was posted originally in summer of 2012 and I have purposely not updated it because it represents a snapshot of my 2012 musings on the subject it presents. Some of the places that were open when it was written are now closed, and the tropical garden under Milk St. is gone, but I believe the soul of the piece lives on! And the comments are better than the post. MQ)

Portland restaurant history as I barely recall it. Please share your memories & thoughts below.

My friend from Rochester, NY wrapped up a family car-camping trip around Maine with a stay nearby and when we got together for dinner he admitted that he had to throw away a ton of food which he had brought to cook for his family.  “Maine is just a great food state.”  He confided,  “We never expected to eat out everywhere we went.”  This made me feel good because I have never taken our indigenous taste for fresh seafood, and simple, but robust fare for granted.  Yet more so, I’ve always held that Maine’s recent culinary fame (6 Chef’s & 2 Restaurants up for Beard awards just this year) grew from fertile soil.  Chefs, diners, restaurateurs come from all over to live and work here, and perhaps especially to Portland, but it is this place and our culture of food and restaurants that has enriched them as much as they have enriched us.

I find it troubling that people are often comparing Portland to other places.  It seems to some that all great things come from away, so Portland’s awesomeness could not have come from within.  What really makes Portland great is that it did grow and evolve with a sense of place and self-importance; that pride and distinction has kept the bar high for us all.   I felt the need to write about this when I read a blog by someone who was discussing how poor the restaurant landscape must have been in Portland, Maine before Fore Street and Hugo’s rescued us.  He painted a picture of us Portlanders as a bunch of culinary rubes waiting to be conquered by city states.  Or as the writer described Portlanders of the late 80s:  “a lot of people … who had been eating smoked Finnan Haddie for 500 years” and our choices as “limited to either a platter of fried food at the Weathervane, a very special shawl-wrapped and Liz Claiborne-scented evening at DiMillo’s, or another acceptable-but-hardly-inspiring meal at The Village”.

Having been there, I recollect it differently. DiMillo’s, probably the least impressive of the old Italian guard, didn’t quite draw the clientele imagined; it was more of a stogie scented, twilled sweater, corduroy crowd before it was floated dockside.  Aditionally, there was no Weathervane in Portland, perhaps he was thinking of the original Newick’s over on Broadway. Finally, there is nothing wrong with Finnan Haddie, it is quite delicious when well-made and we should be proud of having it in our culinary heritage.

The Old Port was barely a place where diners would dare go until the early 80s.  In the 70′s the waterfront neighborhood was a dirty, dark, working waterfront slum that smelled like fish.  Then, just like many other city neighborhoods that sprung up and became today’s urban restaurant epicenters, cool restaurateurs, retailers and especially artists relying on the concept of “safety in numbers” began to take rents in these previously undesirable neighborhoods.  They did it because they were interested in doing their own unconventional things and they were driven less by profits and more by creativity.  The Old Port was a place they could find cheap rent.  The seed of becoming a world class food city was being planted in those early days.

Long before The Old Port renaissance, Portland had a hopping restaurant scene.  There was a famous French restaurant named Marcel’s.  Several good steak houses like John Martin’s Art Gallery (where Asylum is now) and many restaurants that did all kinds of seafood baked, broiled & fried.  However, In the time before The Old Port boomed, the last great features of Portland’s restaurant landscape were Italian.  I refer to it as the old Italian guard because much like Boston’s North End today, the Italian restaurants dominated.   Only DiMillo’s was actually in the area we call The Old Port, but the city was littered with the likes of Verillo’s, The Sportsman’s Grill, The Roma, The Village Cafe, Maria’s and my old favorite, Giobbi’s.  For their day many of them rivaled the quality of Boston and New York’s middle class Italian restaurants. The bloodlines were every bit as authentic as the food.   Maria’s always, and The Roma often, offered upscale Italian as good as anywhere in the country.  Maria’s still does, but like so many well established restaurants they are thought of more today as a local institution while the newer, hipper places come and go with all of the attention.  In my youth, the Sportsman’s Grill on Congress was my family’s favorite — I think because my father liked steak and my mother loved Italian and The Sportsman’s did both well.  I still remember gnawing on my roast beef sandwich while my brother ate spaghetti and meatballs and we both fought over the little juke-box selectors built into the far end of the booth, which were uber-cool to have in the 70’s.

What is noteworthy is that Italian was not just big in Portland in the 70’s.  Italian was the dominant segment everywhere on the East Coast.  Just like Portland, every city had a wide span of Italian options.   Though smaller and more concentrated, Portland’s variety and quality was on a par with the best restaurant markets in the Northeast — though admittedly not seen as world class like we are now.  It’s easy to look back at the remnants of that day, the recently departed Village Cafe with its classic tomato based arsenal of Italian fare, and belittle their contribution to Portland’s contemporary status.  We should celebrate the Reali family, which owned The Village Cafe, for they inspired generations of cooks, not just by feeding them, but by hiring and training and demonstrating a cultural and historical commitment to food they believed was great.  These people went out into the world and grew with the times, perhaps past the Realis in culinary acumen, but few have hired and trained so many Portland cooks who may have otherwise ended up as bricklayers.  These great behemoth restaurants scattered about the city produced hundreds of cooks and servers and laid the foundations which were the human brick and mortar of today’s restaurant industry.

Simultaneous evolution is a natural history term that refers to the fact that isolated populations will tend to evolve in similar ways as they confront similar environmental factors over time.  Everything that came after the Italian guard is a product of an evolution which was happening here in Portland during the 70’s & 80’s and simultaneously in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and all the major American restaurant markets.  It just took more time for Portland to be noticed because it is little and has always had a provincial nature.  Our chefs and restaurateurs were cut of the same cloth, enjoyed a base of well trained and eager labor, and were inspired by the same culinary revolution as those in other cities.

Somewhere between the fall of the Italian guard and the rise of the modern restaurant scene, The Old Port really started to take off.  This was significant because the rents were still cheap so it led to both diversity, because creative people with no money could open restaurants, and consolidation, so diners could get in and out of restaurants and bars; if a popular place was full there was always something new to try next door.  The parking issues followed.  Those bohemian artists who first dared to venture into The Old Port began in the 70’s.  They were followed by the retailers and restaurateurs.  It wasn’t long before developers and landlords like Dick McGoldrick, Joe Soley, & Pritam Singh (a former employer of mine) capitalized on the rebirth of this cool place.  It was real estate money and marketing built on the backs of a great infrastructure and a few daring entrepreneurs that spawned what is today the thriving pool of food and libation (and natural fibers) that we call The Old Port.

At first The Old Port was more of a club place.  There were some mediocre restaurants like The Seaman’s Club and The Port Hole, but mostly there were loud, dark bars like The Old Port Tavern and Moose Alley Saloon, essentially meat markets.  Two places really started to change all that.  First was the funky and insanely popular casual establishment — okay, it was a bar back then — called Three Dollar Dewey’s; their motto became “Portland’s Best Copied By The Rest”, not entirely true, but true enough.  Dewey’s, then on the corner of Union and Fore made it fun to travel into The Old Port; they became an anchor for everything around them.  It was a place for adults and younger people, bohemians and business people, straight people and gay people.  It started a trend of non-threatening adult drinking places.  Back in the day your choices for food were popcorn and chili, usually both, but at least they were both good — no one really went there for the food anyway.  I give Dewey’s this important credit because it really helped establish the Old Port as a safe place to drink and to just hang out, which really helped the restaurant scene develop.  Dewey’s set a new standard which most of the existing bars adopted and the later ones would adhere to or fail: that standard was to be clean, fun, safe, and good at what you do.  Few of the newer places became an anchor like Dewey’s until Gritty’s opened almost ten years later.

The other place was definitely a restaurant and definitely cutting edge.  It was hatched from an egg on Congress Street.  The Good Egg Cafe that is, which was a trendsetter in its own right.  The Good Egg had an awesome, creative-yet-simple breakfast in what was at the time a funky alternative atmosphere.  One of The Good Egg owners, the late Jim Ledue, with a couple of partners, opened a place called Alberta’s on Pleasant Street.  I knew Jim, and many people who worked for him at Alberta’s, including my wife.  The food there could have been in any artsy city neighborhood in America, but it was in Portland.  It was an energetic fusion of French, modern, Cajun, and the early stages of locavore.   It was serious food unpretentiously presented with menus that changed on a whim.  Alberta’s may not have been the first or the best eclectic modern restaurant in the early 80′s Portland scene, but it was the most popular; its success inspired other people to be original and propelled Jim forward through more incarnations of the Alberta’s concept, and then to several other concept restaurants.  In fact, as the rent and reputation of The Old Port grew into the late 80’s and early 90′s Jim turned his attention to downtown and drew a whole lot of needed attention back to Congress Street.

Regardless of whom we have to thank, Portland’s restaurant scene was thriving in the 80′s.  Hu Shang opened its doors in 1979 and introduced Portland, and northern New England, to Szechuan food.  Hu Shang was not a chop suey joint.  Hu Shang was full on interpretative culinary extravaganza that everyone in Portland seemed to love.  They opened three restaurants and if you Google Hu Shang Portland, Maine you can see its reputation has lasted long past the inspiring and evocative cuisine.  It was too bad for Portland diners that the brothers who ran it got their butts sued off for harassment and tax evasion.  I think they were deported.  (Incidentally there is a living relic of Hu Shang on the corner of Milk and Exchange Street.  If you look down into grate in the Milk St. sidewalk you can see the tropical garden Hu Shang grew in the heat duct outside the basement bar window — the heat duct has allowed it to survive the Maine winters.)

There was F. Parker Reidy’s, where Sonny’s is now, which had the most tender and delicious top sirloins.  Their crew of waiters looked like they had just walked out on their barbershop quartet.  There was the Blue Moon Cafe on Fore Street doing small plates and inventive light fare with Jazz on the Patio.  I have never found an Afghan restaurant like the one that used to be on Exchange Street.   The West Side Cafe did everything so well but especially brunch.  (Aaron Park from the West Side now owns Henry & Marty in Brunswick, recommend!)  Truly awesome Vietnamese could be had at Saigon Thin Than on Congress, where a waiter once helped me perfect my chop stick technique for the typically thin cellophane noodles of that cuisine.  The Baker’s Table was well regarded for its upscale and wholesome approach to hearty meat and seafood.   Carbur’s offered like three million sandwiches, all freshly hand made, and almost as many great appetizers.  Horsefeathers replaced Marcel’s, offering creative casual lunch and dinner and music in the evenings.  The Oyster Club, where I was once a kitchen manager, challenged Jay’s Oyster Bar for the title of Portland’s best raw bar and failed.  The Brattle Street had classic meets modern French which was absolutely some of the best food I’ve eaten ever.  Rafael’s had modern Mediterranean foods, handmade pastas, and daily culinary surprises.   Another of my favorites was Cafe Always, which would make you think you had wandered into a SoHo bistro.  Next door to Café Always was Luna D’oro, a wonderful little Italian date restaurant with checkered table cloths, wax laden Chianti bottle candles, and Saltimbocca to die for; it helped that there were hundreds of wines in their book.  Hi Bombay is still on Center and Pleasant and its food has hardly changed; why should it after surviving three decades?  The Madd Apple Cafe is still around too, under new ownership and still well regarded.  Of course there was and still is Maria’s, which has always held its own among the best restaurants in New England.  I can’t forget The Great Lost Bear, which was doing pretty much what it is today, less the micro-brews, but back then it was a cutting edge blend of casual family style and pub. There were dozens more of these great restaurants and choices for all of us pent up Finnan Haddie eaters.

Then in ’88 or ’89, I don’t exactly recall, Street and Company opened and we thought we had gone to fish heaven.  It was great to have a restaurant that focused on fish and not just Maine fish, great fish.  The Pepper Club moved in for those who wanted to go solely vegetarian.  Hugo’s came about then also, before its recent James Beard-recognized proprietor — who took it to a whole new level and has now moved on — but in that day Hugo’s was just as dedicated to great food and an intentionally creative menu.  Chef Jon St. Laurent opened Uncle Billy’s BBQ in over the bridge in Knightville, where I proudly tended to the cooker and the beans.  Last but not least, there was Gritty’s which came around that time also, and changed the nature of Maine beer forever by bringing us face to face with the brewing process.

These days many people my age will complain about the commercialization of the Old Port and the fact that its rents rival Boston’s in cost.  I’d say that is another part of the simultaneous evolution as it has played out in once blighted then trendy neighborhoods in other food cities.  Still, there are plenty of good rents to be had in greater Portland and restaurateurs manage to find them and make them work all the time.

My friends who were there may remember the details differently.  Lord knows if you were there with me it’s a wonder we can remember anything.   What I do know for sure is that Portland, Maine has a long tradition of great restaurants and the superb reputation it has recently acquired is due to its rich culinary history and the wonderful diners who have always come to Portland, from nearby, from up North, and from away to enjoy everything from Lobster and Clams to Tiramisu.   Portland is a great food city because its cooks, servers, chefs, restaurateurs, and diners have made it that way.  The Romas were just as important as The Village Cafes.  The Great Lost Bears are just as important as the Fore Streets.  In the recipe for a food city, no ingredient is more important than the other.

It is exciting and fascinating to see what has happened in all American food cities since the 70′s and it is culturally significant to us all, even if we are not servers, cooks and restaurateurs.  What today’s generation views as cutting edge cuisine, tomorrow’s will dismiss as Finnan Haddie.  This type of criticism, good or bad, comes when we dare to be the judge of others; be it restaurants, chefs, cities, cultures, or generations, we make these things small enough to fit inside our own minds and by doing so we loose some of the beauty and complexity which surrounds the ideas we are trying to master.  I am thankful to the city and the people who made Portland what it is today, and those new and old who do it daily.   It is important to me, and hopefully to my colleagues in Maine, to see Portland’s culinary evolution, by extension Maine’s culinary evolution, as indigenous and equal in value to what was happening in all the other great food cities.  Cooks, servers and restaurateurs, even writers from away have added to our long culinary heritage, but they have joined a process of simultaneous evolution.

Finnan Haddie



  1. Boones had a great breakfast and Sail Loft & Angies were the last of the old, old port IMHO — Good read/memories.

  2. Epicuranoid · · Reply

    We have to give the OPT a nod for being, maybe, one of the last survivor’s of those days — still the essential Old Port meat market 🙂

  3. Such a great blog post – there was an important link between the (relative) success of Horsefeathers, F. Parker Reidy’s and Carbur’s – the opening of the Cumberland County Civic Center in 1976-77. I was ten years old at the time and a trip to see the Maine Mariners or Neil Sedaka with the parents meant dinner at restaurants that had menus the size of magazines. Good times.

  4. Epicuranoid · · Reply

    Interesting, CCCC was clearly a big boost to that area. Thanks, and an honor to have you stop by El_Merv.

  5. Well done indeed! As a daily participant of this scene in the 70’s and the 80’s, for employment, entertainment, dining and drinking, I find your piece well nuanced and far more complete than I could have conjured. While we were not culinary masters by todays standards, the entrepreneurial spirit, energy and commitment were pretty exciting.

  6. Epicuranoid · · Reply

    Thanks Larry. I think you nailed it. There was always an energy and excitement that HERE was a place you wanted to be, and that great things were happening all around.

  7. Thanks! What an excellent article – it makes me proud to have been a part of Portland’s culinary history.

  8. Epicuranoid · · Reply

    Hi Kate, you should be. Thanks!

  9. john c. quigg · · Reply

    Wonderfully done,richly informative and memory tapping.

  10. Such a great piece. Thank you! Did I miss a mention of the very early, wonderful, ahead-of-the-curve, Portland vegetarian restaurant called The Hollow Reed? That was a very special place. Would probably be enormously successful today. A few other early Portland culinary stars are mentioned in Portland Monthly’s 25th anniversary article from 2011, http://bit.ly/OWzoXk

    1. I have been trying to find the Hollow Reed’s recipe for their veggie burgers for years. Any ideas as to how I could find it?

    2. Anonymous · · Reply

      Ideas as to how I could get the Hollow Reed recipe for veggie burger?

      1. Genie Boone · ·

        Portland Magazine stated that Boones Restaurant had a reputation that was “not justified”. Perhaps the last 30 years could have been so but my grandfather opened the restaurant in 1898 and it became “Famous Boones Reataurant”. My father took it over after my grandfathers death and it was a restarant ahead of it’s time. Celebrities and many others traveled from the west coast just to sample the food. Marilyn Monroe and Clark Cable were among the patrons. My grandfather was the head chef at the Poland Spring House in the 1890’s and brought his expertise to Portland. So to say that Boone’s was not justified in their reputation is not exactly true. My farther sold the name with the restaurant and it was never the same. In it’s day it was the one place to eat. The recipes are still used by me and many friends. Perhaps not the type of food for today’s generation but mouth watering and delicious for people of my era.

      2. Perhaps it’s easy for Portland Magazine to make such sweeping statements. Boone’s was not only important for the past which you recall, but also as one of those foundation restaurants that today’s restaurants are built upon. Just think of how many people learned their trade and earned their living at Boone’s over the years, think of how many thousands, millions of guests were impacted by that restaurant, your outrage is justified.

    3. Luci Kent · · Reply

      Any idea who the female chef/cook was at The Hollow Reed? She made my husband’s favorite grain burger and I have been looking for her and her recipe for years.

  11. Sounds like I’d better give Finnan Haddie another try!

    1. Epicuranoid · · Reply

      Malcolm, you are adding many good things to our food culture! I am honored you stopped by.

  12. Hu Shang was the best chinese restaurant north of NYC. The current chinese restaurants should not even be using the word Szechuan in their menus. Great article. I miss Brattle Street AND Sporty’s.

  13. Epicuranoid · · Reply

    Thanks for all the comments. I have a twitter follower who recalls a diner on commercial street that was (apparently) a victim of working waterfront zoning changes. They, nor I can recall it’s name. Anyone?

  14. Blabbety-Blah- Pre-the Old Port’s now- full of itself grandeur ……The Good Egg Cafe, Sally’s Kitchen, Tito’s Burritos (during the GK days)…and- in its day- Walter’s- who gladly knew its way around Mediterranean Pasta… till Katahdin showed up in and bitch slapped everyone with their Blue Plate Special….then Dana S. took over the hood, it and it was said and done 🙂

  15. Anonymous · · Reply

    Thank you thank you thank you!!! What a great article. It brought me to tears. My parents owned and operated the Afghan Restaurant on Exchange St. If you remember a little hell raiser running around the restaurant, that was me. We moved to Northern Virginia outside D.C. where we are today, but I terribly miss the city that provided me with an amazing childhood.

    1. Thanks for the great trip down memory lane. I worked at Deli One in 1984, Maria’s and was fired for being terrible, and finally 34 Exchange street which was a gem. I also remember Cafe Domus who employed my first girlfriend when I arrived as a young man..Thanks Johanna! And finally, wasn’t there a restaurant off congress street that had earned a Best Restaurant award in either Restauranteur or Food or some magazine? Anyone else remember? BTW, The Port Hole was a dive, but no fresher all you can eat White Fish on Thursdays for 3 bucks. I survived on that in college. You may not remember, bu Raoul’s Roadside Attraction had the best nacho supreme plate I ever ate. Just my take. Sure miss 3 Dollar Dewey’s and the Talking Heads playing all the time!

      1. I think that might have been Alberta’s Forest Ave, as one commenter noted. Raoul’s in it’s original incarnation was so cool and an awesome place to catch the Red Light Revue on a regular basis, or one of the many huge national acts they pulled in. I remember seeing Albert Collins there. What an intimate, crazy, and extraordinary venue it was! AND the food was damn good considering it was mostly a club. Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Anonymous · · Reply

    I think u r forgetting 34 Exchange Street.. one of the first upscale restaurants in the area.. it is now a clothing store, but in the 80s it was the place to go for fabulous food and drink… one of the first buildings in the area to be revitalized..

    1. And before it was 34 Exchange, it was The Gaslight, which drew folks from all over for a fancy dress-up and delicious dinner.

    2. I remember 34 Exchange Street.. That was very fine dining.. I ate there while working as a dishwasher on my climb to become a chef.. I saved my money and splurged.. it was an experience that I’ll never forget.. Like eating at the Four Seasons in NYC.. Some people can afford to eat there all the time, others, only once in a lifetime… 34 was one of those places.

  17. Sam’s Harbor Lunch – he moved it to Morrill’s Corner but it didn’t do the same kind of business. I think in 1989 or 1990, he and his (at the time) brother in law – opened Sully’s which was the best little bar on that side of town. After some interesting changes, it is still open as Samuel’s Bar & Grill – still owned by Sam Minervino.

  18. Thanks for this truly wonderful piece! While we love the current foodie scene in Portland, my family and I often reminisce about the great Portland restaurants of our youth. The Good Egg, the Magic Muffin, and for a brief but glorious time, Abraham’s Bagels were our breakfast spots. My brother was a waiter for years at HuShang, and I remember many a great meal there. We still have no Chinese food in Portland today that can compare. The Roma and Hugo’s were for birthday meals, while Carbur’s and DeMillo’s were where we took visiting relatives. I loved the old Dewey’s on a rainy Saturday afternoon. My husband and I had our first date as poor college students at two long-gone establishments: Woodford’s (where we ate home fries followed by homemade chocolate cream pie) and Squire Morgan’s for beer. And I will never forget the afternoon we skipped our classes at USM to splurge on lunch at the Baker’s Table in the Old Port. When I’m missing my favorite haunts from those days, I eat brunch at Artemisia. It reminds me of all the best things about old places like the Good Egg–unpretentious but excellent food served in a warm atmosphere by great people.

  19. Genie Boone · · Reply

    Let’s not forget the one of the first restaurants in the Old Port, Boone’s Restaurant, opening in 1898 and attracting many famous celebrities such as Betty Davis, Jane Russell and Rock Hudson. It was considered one of the best in it’s day and attracted people from all over New England.

  20. I lived in the Old Port on Commercial Street in 1977. Loved it! The Hollow Reed was a favorite since it was right around the corner from where I lived. There was also a place on Exchange – I think the name was ‘The Gaslight’, but not really sure. Was a wonderful place to live for a college student!

    1. Luci Kent · · Reply

      Do you remember the chef/cook’s name at The Hollow Reed? Still trying to find her recipe for grain burgers.

      1. I hope someone can post the secret of that burger!!!

  21. Hi. Fantastic article. Brings me back to my 20’s when I was in the OP daily in these restaurants. I live in NC now and visit Maine every year and feel that the OP just doesn’t have the feel it used too. Year after year it keep slipping. Such a shame. It seems like it just can’t make up its mind what it wants to be anymore. I grew up there and agree with your viewpoint on Dewey’s making it the safe an anchor on the corner. I met my husband in the OP at The Moon on cold winter night of all places. We spent many years eating at all of these restaurants sure do miss them. Great article !!

    1. Anonymous · · Reply

      Lisa, Come back to Portland. Venture beyond the Old Port. Portland has certainly changed but the food is still great. If you want the feel for the old “Old Port” venture up to the west end or the Munjoy Hill. Both have great restaurants which are more neighborhood and artsy and less upscale which the Old Port has become.

  22. Anonymous · · Reply

    No foodie I, but I’ve dined or shared a libation at many of these establishments. Two of my favorites were bloody Mary’s downstairs at the Bag on Sunday mornings(my kinda brunch), replaced by Ruby’s with the best burgers ever. The writer nailed it!

    1. Patricia George · · Reply

      I loved the Bag and eventually waitresses there in my early ‘20s in 1977. When did it become Ruby’s.

      They made the best French Onion soup, to which to this day I compare all others and rarely does it meet that standard or better.

  23. Mainah3 · · Reply

    How about the Gaslight, which became 34 Exchange or The Red Snapper?

  24. Anonymous · · Reply

    Very nice. Reminds me of my visits in the late 80’s. Gritty’s was magnificent for me, as well as Hugo’s and a couple of places I can’t recall the names of. Thanks for a nice article.

  25. Anonymous · · Reply

    Wonderful article. So many good memories attached to your piece. I am now an active duty Army Chaplain stationed in CO but wife and i met at the Village Cafe in the late 80’s. We were heart broken to hear of its closing because it was always one of the first places we took the kids to eat when returning home to Maine

  26. Epicuranoid · · Reply

    Wow! I am really loving the comments and grateful for them. I kept returning to this piece for a couple of years actually because I just didn’t feel it was ready, but I’m glad I finally let go if it. The common thread to me seems to be the good energy and good times that the Portland restaurant scene has embedded in our history and culture.

    I’ll never forget the burgers at Ruby’s. I did love The Afghan restaurant, I wonder if that reader’s folks still operate a restaurant somewhere? There are so many places that I didn’t recall, like the Red Snapper and 34 Exchange, until reading these comments. Boone’s and the Port Hole, for me, represented the quintessential local restaurants — I always felt a little like an outsider on those docks.

    I agree that Dana Street ushered in a new error. Someone else, I hope, will write that story. The nineties marked a national evolution with food, restaurants and foodies. Portland kept pace. In the early 90’s I lived in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA for about four years, both great food cities. I was happy to see the continuing evolution in Maine when I returned.

  27. Scott Hanson · · Reply

    Thank you for this excellent piece that provides important historical context for Portland’s current status as a foodie town. I also remember most of the resturants named in your piece and by the previous commentors. As you’ve so clearly shown, the seeds of today’s restaurant scene were planted long ago.

    For those who have not seen it, Gary W. Libby’s 2006 essay, “Historical Notes on Chinese Restaurants in Portland, Maine” is brilliantly researched and written. Beginning in the 19th century, it is a detailed history of Portland’s Chinese restaurants, up through the Hu Shang era. It can be found at:

    1. gary w. libby · · Reply

      Scott Thanks for the nice compliment.

      1. Gary that is a fantastic piece, amazing history. Thanks for sharing it Scott!

      2. Scott Hanson · ·

        My pleasure, it is truely a great piece. I happened to read it several years ago at the same time I was researching early 20th century electric signs in downtown Portland. Having your piece in my mind helped me to realize that the Chop Suey sign on the Empire looked familiar, which led to the discovery that Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting Chop Suey was painted in Portland. The 1924 tax photo clearly shows specific elements that appear in the painting like lamps on the tables in front of the windows. Hopper is known to have staying in downtown Portland in the early- and mid-1920’s. His Two Lights paintings were done at that time. I shared this research with Patricia Junker, Curator of American Art at the Seattle Art Museum, where the painting was then on display in an exhibit. Ms. Junker wrote the catalog for the exhibit, which featured Chop Suey on the cover. She agreed entirely with my conclusion about the location of the painting (which has always been considered a New York painting) and regretted that the catalog was already printed with the New York attribution. It is now recognized as a Portland painting. If you’re not familiar with the painting it can be seen here: http://www.seattleartmuseum.org/exhibit/interactives/hoppersWomen/hop.asp

        Thanks for your help with the discovery.


  28. Epicuranoid · · Reply

    I’m posting a very cool restaurant timeline here http://www.portlandfoodmap.com/blognframe.html?/news/2010/04/19/portlands-living-food-history/

    From the good folks over at Portland Food Map http://www.portlandfoodmap.com

  29. Enjoyed the article, but I noticed “The Vineyard” wasn’t mentioned (where Bresca is now)…a wonderful wine bar (good variety of wines -by the glass! owned by Jaap Helder (he had started at the Hollow Reed and then he went on to The Pepper Club–correct me Jaap if I have these facts wrong and you end up seeing this !) Dennis Gilbert was the chef…..also, altho not a dinner spot, when it began “The Deli 1” made bagels– I believe they were about the first ones in Portland until Mr. Bagel…it was open late so you had a place to go for food after clubs…..the whole restaurant world in Portland is exciting, then as it was opening up, and now with so much to choose from, but those early ones are well worth noting, and how everythingevolved…..

  30. Ray Ouellette · · Reply

    I worked in and was gladdened to see that someone remembers the Hollow Reed;our 1st veggie restaurant that was know for Fresh Fish dinners.

    1. Oh, do I remember the Hollow Reed !! The Pina Coladas !! Don’t suppose that you could ever come up with a recipe duplicating the “Soybean Casserole” – I still think about it….

      1. Anonymous · ·

        How about the recipe for the Hollow Reed veggie burger?

    2. Anonymous · · Reply

      Any chance of getting the hollow Reed recipe for veggie burgers?

      1. Lisa Fuller Porter · ·

        I worked for Frank at the Hollow Reed for two years. 1975 and 1976. It was the best. I left the Hollow Reed to work for Richard at the Old Port Tavern (big mistake). But I was young. When I had had enough of The Old Port Tavern I went back to the Hollow Reed and it changed drastically. Frank had turned it into a 3 story expensive pick up club. Huge disco ball, platinum painted walls with mirrors. I lasted a month and that was it. When Vicki Kelly and another female chef left the food went down hill. In its wonderful hay day The Hollow Reed was a top notch lovely restaurant to enjoy at anytime of the week. Loved the Sunday brunches.

  31. I found several former places of employment amongst your list. In chronological order: Hu Shang (2 of the 3 locations), Carbur’s, Alberta’s (both locations) and The Good Egg both at breakfast and including its short time as a gourmet pizza place. I also worked at Montana Burger for a short time simultaneous with my Carbur’s employment.

    Alberta’s was, to my mind, such a big deal. In 1987, they completely revamped the menu at the Forest Ave location. This garnered enough attention to get reviewed in the Boston Globe’s calendar section; no small feat.

    1. Epicuranoid · · Reply

      Hey Steve! I just followed you on Twitter. I remember you man, you worked with my wife at Alberta’s, and didn’t you make a guest appearance or two over at Uncle Billy’s? Thanks for stopping by!

  32. The PepperClub is still there with owners Mary Ledue Paine and Eddie Fitzpatrick. The PepperClub was good over 20 years ago and is even better now. Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten free, Beef, Chicken, Pork and local Fish. You will just about die eating the amazing desserts. Mary was at the Original GoodEgg and now has the GoodEgg breakfast Tuesday thru Sunday. If you are missing the GoodEgg you won’t be missing it anymore.. Still in it’s original location with the big Black and White squares on the outside.. Check it out breakfast or dinner, you will have a wonderful experience…

    1. Epicuranoid · · Reply

      My favorite Good Egg breakfast was smoked salmon & scrambled eggs with cream cheese, I don’t recall if it was a menu item or a special, just recall it was a deliciously perfect blend of proteins!

  33. Epicuranoid · · Reply

    I regret not knowing the Hollow Reed, Deli 1 is another story, along with the Dry Dock, Amigos, Wits End (original on Free St.) & DeNan’s … I can can only remember going into these places, not coming out 🙂

    1. K.E.C. · · Reply

      A lot of people would sort of “amble” into Deli 1 at midnight or after….but we did make sure they got back out —or at least when I was there thru 1978….after that….?

    2. In the mid to late ’70’s, the Hollow Reed was one of the anchors that drew people to the reawakening Old Port. The restaurant started out tiny, a small bar area/waiting area in one room and a small dining room. Phoebe Snow tunes in the background and fresh, healthy, great tasting food on the tables. Who can forget the House Specialty sandwhich? Vicky Jahn was the chef at that time.

      Business was so good, the restaurant expanded twice, along the way began to serve seafood and then chicken. Vicky left to start the Baker’s Table with Nick Burnett. Another great restaurant in it’s time. Bouillabaisse and Port Bakehouse bread and desserts. Fantastic.

      Port Bakehouse should be on portlandfoodmap.com. Best bakery in Portland at the time.

  34. Glad to see The Vineyard mentioned in the comments. Also don’t forget the great food and wines at the Back Bay Grill, started in the 80’s and still around today.

    1. I once interviewed with (original?) owner-chef Steve Quattrucci at the Back Bay Grill, didn’t get the job, but always enjoyed the food.

  35. isabella · · Reply

    So glad my dad James Ledue was mentioned in this article! He really was one of the great restaurant owners of Portland.

    1. Epicuranoid · · Reply

      He was a good man with vision who made people’s lives better with his work, and his staff always liked and respected him.

    2. Your Dad (Jimmy) has a jerk to work for (in a good/demanding way), but an absolute sweetheart of a guy outside of work.

      He gave me my first big break in the Portland cooking scene at Albertas back in the day. I was very sorry to just hear he’d passed away. Jimmy made a mark on the local market that will never be forgotten.


  36. In 1984, on a Saturday, we took over the entire Roma restaurant for a luncheon to celebrate the Bar Mitzvahs of my two sons, Marco Miller and Sequoia Miller. We had our family and all their friends and for music an old black man named George who used to ride around town on his bicycle put two or three musicians together and played the greatest! The kids danced while waiters carried around the food for guests to choose their selections. Grilled salmon and asparagus I remember. We stayed till 5 pm whenwe had to leave for the dinner crowd. Thanks for this article.

    1. What a wonderful day that must have been.

    2. Anonymous · · Reply

      Was The Roma still run by the Marinos at that date?

      1. I think they sold it in the early ’90s.

  37. Jay York · · Reply

    This has been such a blast reading and remembering on a rainy Sunday morning. Thank you! 35 years ago I would have been cooking brunch at Deli One for 60+ people about this time. Of course the dishwasher and I had probably just got stoned. Many evenings I worked there the featured musician would also be washing dishes between sets. Didn’t see any mention of George’s Delicatessen or Cafe Domus.

    1. K.E.C. · · Reply

      We were working there at the same time Jay……and, yes, Cafe’ Domus !!

  38. Awesome post. Very helpful. Thanks for the info.

  39. Started at Marcel,s in 1977, have been in the restaurant/wine trade since. Worked for Annthony Sr. (did you make some scratch?) at Maria’s on Cumberland, last job was at John Martin’s Art Gallery with Peter Martin. One of the best jons I ever had (great crew).Spent quality time at F.Parker Reidy’s, J’s Oyster, Office Pub, The Cellar Disco, Seaman’s Club, the Loft and shopped at a big Italian market up munjoy hill. Great times

  40. I might be beating a dead horse, but thank you for postnig this!

  41. Anonymous · · Reply

    I loved Raffles book store/cafe on Congress; also Bella Bella; and when I first moved to Portland in the early 90s there was a place that had great chowder and cream pies called the Low Tide — I think that space is now part of Street and Company. Thanks for reminding me of The Good Egg and The West Side — both a short walk from my first Portland apartment on Pine St.

  42. Thanks for posting this excellent article. I lived in Portland for several years during the mid-1980s, and during this time managed to work as a cook and/or waiter in many restaurants, good and bad, some of which you and your commenters have mentioned (Deli One, Seaman’s Club, Horsefeathers) and some of which have been wisely omitted (Denny’s and the Ramada and Holiday Inns). Loved Raffles, the Great Lost Bear, the Good Egg, Three Dollar Deweys (great chili). And attended a few family gatherings at the Sportsman’s Grill with Irish-American inlaws who (unlike me) were Portland born and bred. Portland was also where I first experienced Thai food, though I can’t remember where. It was a great time and place to be young. How vividly I recall the punks that used to gather at the Deli One and hang out in front of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the crappy bands that used to play at Geno’s. (I was in one of them). Just reading your piece makes me so nostalgic it hurts!

    1. Nice! Thanks for sharing!

  43. Anonymous · · Reply

    Great post, but I think you’re deluding yourself that the Italian food in the 70s was as good as any other on the east coast. Patently untrue. Sorry. Now if we could only get some good Chinese food in Portland, local foodie life would be complete.

    1. I said the variety & quality was on a par with other food cities of it’s day; per capita variety and quality were on a par with Boston’s North End & New York’s Little Italy, Portland was a city of less than 40k, so for it’s size, I’ll stick to my guns…. not a delusion, just a grandiose comparison 😀 Thanks for stopping by!

  44. Hollow Reed…..I loved the Kefir drink they made. It was also entertaining watching the long haired cook through the little window between the dining and kitchen area. Hollow Reed was a great place to go after spending a little cash at the Wax Museum!

  45. Michelle · · Reply

    Great article. Having spent A LOT of time in Portland, Old Port area in the mid to late 80’s, it was a trip down memory lane seeing the names of all these establishments where I hung out. The other day I was telling friends that I still mourn the loss of Carbur’s, the food, the atmosphere, one of the most relaxing places. I’ve often fantasized about getting my hands on an old Carbur’s restaurant menu and reopening the place!

  46. r. brown · · Reply

    Great to “re-visit” some of these places through your article and thanks for sticking up for Boone’s. Portland Magazine’s dissing of Boone’s showed poor taste. Taking a shot at something like Boone’s which greatly contributed to the fabric of Portland in more ways than its menu is like speaking ill of the dead, you just don’t do that…

    1. Genie Boone · · Reply

      Thanks for sticking up for Boones Restaurant. It was truley an early element of the beginning of the Old Port. Boones was one of the founding fathers of tht area in the Old Port. Much history was made with early business’ such as that. Early editions of “Who’s Who in Maine” will reveal many of todays business’ started very early in the 1900’s. They were the building blocks of today’s Portland.

  47. Just reread this wonderful article…loving the comments…brought to mind a place that was very popular late nights: on lower ( ? ) Exchange St. – Mr. T’s. Does anyone recall the great steak sandwiches they made ? Not sure if they were sooo good because we were somewhat drunk or stoned, but I remember them as amazing. Near St. Joseph the Provider.

  48. Did you know that David Feinstein (owner of the West Side Cafe) was also the owner of the original Blue Moon?
    Great article!! Nice walk down memory lane……

    1. I knew David was the owner of The Blue Moon, I also recall one of their early rising star chef’s — whom I met later in another city 😉 But I didn’t know he had a connection to The West Side! Thanks for stopping by!

  49. Coming to this article late in the game, but a great write up. The good Mr. Evans from the GLB just sent it to me.

    These were great days to be a cook in Portland. Quite the walk down memory lane.

    Great site as well, I’ll be in touch.

  50. so many rich memories of Portland’s restaurant past. Does anyone remember Ruby Begonia”s??? I think it was on the corner of Exchange and Middle? They had a rooftop patio and in summer Begonia plants all over. I loved it and was sad when it closed.

  51. I am so glad I randomly came across this article – SPOT ON

    1. Thanks for stopping by Joe & thanks for doing your part to add vitality and interest to the ongoing process!

  52. Sportsman’s Grill remains my favorite Italian restaurant of all time…my parents took us there nearly every Friday night when we were kids. I have lived in California since 1982, but whenever I visit Portland, I invariably find myself driving by what is now an empty lot and reminiscing about many a wonderful time…

    1. Luci Kent · · Reply

      Still looking for the recipe for the grain burger at The Hollow Reed. Anybody know?

    2. loved the Sportsman’s Grill.. That was Authentic Maine.. Not the New York Times version of Maine…

  53. I cooked at a few different places while living in Portland, Maine back in the 80’s… The Good Egg, Alberta’s (both on Pleasant Street and on Forest Ave) I can still picture in my mind the day Jim fired me- best experience of my life- he told me it wasn’t my cooking that got me fired, it was throwing out that pate’ (you know, the one that had turned bluish)… oh.. that pate’… then on to the Sonesta where I did baked stuffed lobsters until I turned the color of a baked stuffed lobster.. (I didn’t eat lobster for years after that) trains still rolled down Commercial Street and Manny was still alive. Raouls Roadside Attraction and watching the freights, finely twisted on local weeds and bloody mary’s… hmmm..

  54. Mr. Nostalgia · · Reply

    Let’s not forget a quaint little eatery called The Ratskeller located on the corner of market and exchange. Man oh man the black forest cake was to DIE for!!! I oh so miss the early 80’s back home.

  55. Andrew Schneider · · Reply

    worked at 34 exchange when it first opened, the two guys who opened it taught me alot, used to go to a big italian market on munjoy hill, it was great

  56. ted taylor · · Reply

    let us all not forget, Elvis was supposed to be preform at the Center in 1977 the week he died, and the center had a tribute of music in lieu of refunding our money, the sportsman lounge was great place

  57. Stephen Barnes · · Reply

    Wow, what a walk down memory lane! Thanks.
    Seeing the couple of paragraphs about Dewey’s and Good Egg, and Gritty’s makes me giggle, as Gritty’s was literally born out of those two places.
    In Oct ’87, I was working nights at Dewey’s (back when John Philbrick was night manager and Manny and crew were the lifeblood of the place behind the bar!). Richard Pfeffer was an old friend from our hometown in Connecticut, and we were hanging out at Dewey’s one night. He was pretty frustrated with the recent stock market crash (he was a stock broker) and wondered aloud how cool it would be to own a place like Dewey’s. Having seen the books, I knew it could lucrative and after way too many beers, we agreed to meet the next morning for hangover breakfast at the Good Egg. Pfeff mentioned a buddy who had just started a brew pub in Hawaii and was killing it. We agreed we should give it a go. How hard could it be? We were a couple of mid 20’s kids who figured conquering the beer world was possible!!
    The article points out the ‘safety’ component of Dewey’s and that was truly something we also felt and wanted to model ourselves after – big open tables where you had to talk to your neighbors! Over a beer made in the basement.
    We eventually brought Erik and Ed aboard as founding partners, and Erik and I moved on after a few years to other pursuits. So stoked to see the continued success for Ed and Richard.
    Thanks for the memories and special thanks to Dewey’s for being our inspiration and to the Good Egg for helping clear our heads that foggy morning. And without Dave Geary, and his magnanimous guidance, none of it would have been possible.
    Keep smiling!

  58. Sam DePaolo · · Reply

    One of the very best Italian restaurants in Portland was DePaolo’s, it was around in the early 60’s on Middle St. It was the only white table cloth restaurant in Portland at the time. It was ahead of it’s time, Does anybody remember it?

  59. Can’t forget The Deli One- (aka known as Scooters for a few later years before it became a Chinese Restaurant~it was an institution on upper Exchange Street! Had a blast working there as a waitress for 7 years in the 80s with wonderful co-workers. Open from 6:30 in the a.m. till after midnight~Great food, great music, fun atmosphere, Copper top tables and bar…Their own unique recipes~Spinach Vinaigrette,Sausage and Spinach Pie, Georgian Chocolate Peanut Butter Layer Cake…I could go on….yum!

  60. Shot in the dark here, eight years later, but does anyone have any info on Montana burger stand? What was up with that iguana??

Leave a Reply to Michael Kirk Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: