(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.