Where to Eat Now
Maine's top chefs pick fifty favorite restaurants.
- By: Kathleen Fleury
We all know that Maine is a big state, 33,215 square miles big to be exact. And we all appreciate the range of great food available. The challenge is actually finding it without blowing your wallet on a quest to eat your way across the state. So how do you discover Maine's hidden culinary hotspots? Our solution: go straight to the source. We queried dozens of Maine's acknowledged food experts - the chefs, market owners, specialty food purveyors, food writers, and other culinary icons - with a simple question: Where are you yourself eating now? We received a cornucopia of surprising recommendations, from Fore Street's Sam Hayward's favorite post-hike watering hole to Primo's Melissa Kelly's preferred Pakistani joint. Herewith, a 2008 Maine dining guide, vetted by the people who know food best.
1 Star St., Thomaston, 207-354-1177.
For a little piece of Ireland, stop in at Billy's Tavern, tucked behind the storefronts in downtown Thomaston. "It is a big open area with a bar and seating at counter height and regular tables, plus Celtic music on different days," remarks Caf` Miranda's Kerry Altiero. "In the traditional Irish style, it's a comfortable family place with great beer. It's full of genuine character. It's not a corporate food circus."
On top of serving lots of local food (they list local providers on the back of the menu) and Irish brews, the bar also provides ample entertainment in the form of tabletop foosball, pool, and backgammon, plus a life-size Jenga tower and dartboard.
What to Order: The Philly Cheesesteak sandwich is to-die-for. Using local purveyors when possible, Billy's gets its steak from Curtis Custom Meats in Warren and tops it with cheese, onions, and peppers on a very light roll with a side of addictive fries.
Best Deal: Go for the oyster and Guinness special. A dozen and two pints will cost you just twenty bucks. The oysters are shucked to order and the Guinness on tap is almost as good as the stuff across the pond.
Homegrown Herb & Tea
195 Congress St., Portland, 207-774-3484.
A cute, earthy tearoom on Munjoy Hill, Homegrown is Portland's newest tea-tasting destination. "The place is part apothecary and part herbal teahouse," says Portland Food Map's Anestes Fotiades. "It's an experience to sit at the counter and watch the owner handcraft each cup of tea from all the jars and wooden drawers that contain her palette of herbs and other ingredients. She seems to know most of the people who come in the door by name, and the stream of regulars gives it a homey feel." It's a great place for snacks, too, with homemade baked goods, cucumber sandwiches, paninis, and taquitos jumping on and off the menu on a daily basis.
Best Bet: Go for The Flu Shot, a combination of ginger, garlic, lemon juice, honey, and water. It'll cure whatever ails you.
The Lobster Shack at Two Lights
225 Two Lights Road, Cape Elizabeth, 207-799-1677.
"The view is amazing," say Steve and Michelle Corry, of Five Fifty-Five, speaking of the family-owned lobster joint on Dyer Point. This shack (and it is a shack, grandfathered in 1969 so it'll stay the same for generations to come) attracts many tourists, but it is a local favorite as well, and it's worth braving the crowds if you go in high summer (or try it in early April or October for a quieter experience). "The lobster rolls are great, the fried clams are some of the best, and we like the lobster dinner," the couple attests. Take their advice: skip the fries and the hamburgers and stick to the Maine fare, to be eaten at the casual picnic tables with a mandatory side of fresh ocean air.
Best Dish: The Lobster Roll. Voted the Best in Maine by the Portland Press Herald countless times, it's a must-have meal at this quintessential Maine joint.
Appalachian Trail Caf`
210 Penobscot Ave., Millinocket, 207-723-6720.
If climbing Katahdin (or relaxing in Baxter State Park) is one of your goals for the summer, be sure to stop at this hikers' favorite to fill up on inexpensive diner food. "My family and I treat ourselves to breakfast at the A-T Caf` on our way out of Baxter State Park when heading home from a of week camping," says Fore Street's Sam Hayward. "I had a couple of meals there in January during the days prior to opening day for reservations in the park, and especially when coming in from the cold, the food tasted great. The caf` has changed hands recently, and the new owners have energized the restaurant's menu and service. But the food is still unpretentious and satisfying. And it's filled with locals at lunch time."
Best Breakfast: The Millinocket Special: home fries piled high and smothered with grilled onions and cheddar cheese, topped off with two eggs served with toast and a homemade English muffin.
The Lodge: Offering a complete range of hiker services, including mail drop, shuttles, maps, Internet, and other hiking essentials, the A.T. lodge is a convenient pit stop for thru-hikers or a good base camp.
23 Hammond St., Bangor, 207-945-5979.
"If you find yourself in the Bangor area," advises Primo's Melissa Kelly, "Bahaar, a Pakistani restaurant, is great. The owners and staff are nice people, and you can request the level of heat on a one-to-ten scale." Just because you might not be familiar with the Pakistani palate, don't let that restrain you from visiting. If you like Indian food, chances are you're going to love Pakistani. Try the vindaloo, chunks of chicken and potatoes in a fresh cream sauce seasoned with cayenne and garlic, or sample an authentic biryani, a typical Pakistani dish made with your choice of beef, lamb, chicken, shrimp, vegetables, or a mix, and flavored with garlic, ginger, mint, and garam masala.
Big Gathering Grub: Order a whole roasted lamb leg, chicken, or turkey, marinated in a special spice blend and served with rice and vegetables to fill the bellies of up to eight people.
Chef's Favorite: Chef Melissa Kelly recommends the cardamom tea or else try one of their Pakistani shakes, called lassi, that come in banana, mango, and strawberry.
Food Factory Miyake
129 Spring St., Portland, 207-871-9170.
"This little chef-owned sushi restaurant is a hidden gem in Portland," says Hugo's chef Rob Evans, who also notes the importance of chef Masa Miyake's Japanese and French training. And while you might not suspect greatness from this tiny stand-alone building on Spring Street, Samantha and Don Lindgren, of Rabelais Books, attest that "it's the best sushi in Portland right now, by far." But you don't go here for trendy, you go here for tuna. There are some fabulous cooked items to complement the raw, such as the shrimp shumai and miso soup, but the dish to order is the Omikase, or chef's special, which changes every night. And get this, the chef harvests his own quahog clams (called aoyagi in Japanese) at Old Orchard Beach, and serves them on the half shell with Japanese yuzu salt.
BYOB: That's right, stop at your local liquor store and pick up a bottle of sake and tote it along. Bringing your own is one way to keep your costs down.
Most Exotic Thing on the Menu: Local uni, or sea urchin, when available.
158 Pickett Street Caf`
158 Benjamin Pickett St., South Portland, 207-799-0668.
Want to rub elbows with many of Portland's famous foodies? Then head over the Casco Bay Bridge to the crowded 158 Pickett Street Caf`, for chef sightings and the best bagels in town (if not the state). Open for breakfast and lunch daily, this tiny establishment is the it spot "for the hip and hip-at-heart," according to Portland Food Map's Anestes Fotiades. Rob Evans says it's one of his favorite brunch places. And Erik Desjarlais and Krista Kern gush about the bacon, egg, and cheese on a salt bagel. "Oh my God, they are delicious," raves the culinary couple. ("Coffee and an apple juice box, too," they add.) Lunch is sought-after as well, from the vegetarian friendly Tofu Sloppy Joe to the 158 Grilled Cheese with house-smoked cheddar, shaved apples, and red onion.
Raison d'etre: The Bagels. Buy one. Buy many. And don't leave off the herbalizer or chili-and-garlic cream cheese.
Seasonal Perks: Patrons vie for seats next to the wood stove in winter, but in the warmer months there are plenty of Adirondack chairs to be had in the backyard.
80 Seawall Rd., Southwest Harbor, 207-244-5221.
Caliente cuisine hasn't necessarily been our state's strong point, but the folks behind XYZ have managed to change that reputation in an unlikely location: Southwest Harbor on Mount Desert Island. "It is far from Americanized Mexican," declares Caiola's Abby Harmon. "Everything is made from scratch. I guess you can describe it as rustic countryside Mexican cuisine. The Chille Rellenos Con Queso are crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside, because it is baked rather than deep fried so you can actually taste all the ingredients, the chilies especially. Our friends who lived in Mexico and travel all over the states loved this place. They said it was the most authentic Mexican eatery they have experienced, and we agree."
Margarita Maine-ia: Wash down some of the house-made chorizo in the queso fundido with a classic margarita. "They use fresh-squeezed lime juice instead of sour mix in their margaritas and you can tell," says Harmon. "The drinks had a nice, clean, fresh taste to them."
72 Commercial St., Portland, 207-772-8777.
For some of the best pizza in Portland, foodies and families alike head to Flatbread right on the water for a relaxing and satisfying meal. "The pizza dough is delicious and the toppings are very creative and family friendly," notes Rosemont Market's John Naylor. "They also spend a lot of time sourcing local foods, including goat cheese, salad mixes, and other organic refreshments." Flatbread's essential ingredients include: organic tomatoes, free-range chicken, nitrate-free pepperoni, and sausage made on the premises. The proof is in the pizza. And in the summertime you can enjoy these square slices of goodness from the waterfront deck and watch the comings and goings of Portland harbor.
Most Popular Pie: The Coevolution: kalamata olives, fresh rosemary, red onions, oven roasted red peppers, goat cheese, mozzarella, garlic, cheese, and herbs.
491 Rte. 1, Freeport, 207-865-6005.
This restaurant may look like every other strip-mall eatery in the state, but chefs like Jeff Landry of Eve's have discovered that this particular hole-in-the-wall located across from the Super 8 motel on Route 1 is worth making a separate trip - especially around dinnertime. Most popular for take-out (the atmosphere doesn't add to the food), Thai Garden is a local, no-frills favorite. Chef Jeff Landry admits, "once a week I make the drive . . . it's very unassuming and the food is always fantastic." You can sit down for a six-course feast (try the curries with a whole fish or a filet) or call ahead and curl up with Drunken Noodles on the couch at home.
Top Thai Taste: "I always order the fresh spring rolls with shrimp, nam sod with chicken, any of the curries, and their pad Thai is very good," remarks Landry.
Back Bay Grill
65 Portland St., Portland, 207-772-8833.
"A Portland favorite," according to Steve and Michelle Corry, this trusted eatery near Deering Oaks has been offering a traditional menu for more than a decade. Steve and Michelle Corry attest that it has the trifecta: "Very elegant food, service, and atmosphere. Plus an amazing wine list!" For a more casual experience, enjoy a house cocktail like the Maytag Blue martini (with a blue cheese stuffed olive) with complimentary curried or truffled popcorn in its lounge area.
Most Talked about Dishes: Reviewers and regulars alike rave about anything that comes from the sea - salmon, cod, crab cakes, and other tidbits with a salty provenance.
424 Walnut Hill Rd., North Yarmouth, 207-829-4640.
"To get a true feel of a small town in Maine, go to Stones," urges Eve's chef Jeff Landry. Tucked into the corner where Route 115 and Route 9 merge in North Yarmouth, Stones is a local gem. And no need to change out of your pajamas. This extra casual mom and pop joint serves up all the classic breakfast food (70 percent of their business is breakfast) and they also serve classic diner fare for lunch as well. Be sure to check out their daily specials, as chef-owners Chris Cole and Caite Maynard like to whip up dishes on a whim.
Best Breakfast: Go with Stones' meaty homemade corned beef hash or the meat-lovers omelet. Is meat not your morning favorite? Stick to the baked goods made fresh every morning, like the banana-walnut upside down cake or the cinnamon rolls.
Saturday at Stones: On the second Saturday of every month, the owners put together an upscale dinner. Appetizer favorites include hot Vidalia dip, served with their homemade Tuscan bread, and bacon-wrapped pickled watermelon rind.
14 Maine St., Mill 3 Fort Andross, Brunswick, 207-725-5222.
Fort Andross, whose Androscoggin River location has been home to everything from a trading post for fur trappers to a pre-Revolutionary War fort to a bustling textile mill, now houses the Frontier Caf`, Cinema, and Gallery. Intended to be a cultural crossroads of sorts, this performance space offers diverse entertainment (think anything from live concerts to opera on the big screen) and has garnered the attention of many Maine chefs. "The rooms are expansive," remarks Fore Street's Sam Hayward, "wood-and-brick, with high ceilings, interesting art everywhere, and a cinema room perfect for conferences and meetings." And the food has made its mark, too. "For lunch, Frontier has great soups and sandwiches and some really lovely market plates with selections of cheeses, spreads, charcuterie, and bread," raves Bar Lola's Stella Hernandez.
Best Lunch Loot: The Market Plate. There are four variations: Italian, French, Middle Eastern, and Cheese. "My menu favorites are a selection of Market Plates - huge compositions of vegetables, good crusty breads, cheeses, olives, legumes, and/or condiments and the like, served on square planks, big enough for two," says Hayward.
Best Seat in the House: Relax in the lounging area in the corner overlooking the Androscoggin River and the bridge to Topsham. It's ideal for a cup of tea or a glass of the Fleur Petite Sirah or the Crios Malbec and some snacking.
The Maine Diner
2265 Post Rd., Wells, 207-646-4441.
Steve and Michelle Corry, of Five Fifty-Five, discovered this Maine favorite when they used to work at the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport. "There was always a long wait to be seated," they recall, "but well worth it! Now when Steve's parents come to visit us in Portland they still insist we take them to the Maine Diner." This York County culinary holdout serves iconic diner food with a distinctly New England twist. Whether you go for their house specialty, Lobster Pie, the Clam-O-Rama (clam chowder, fried clams, and clam cakes), or the Eddie Andelman, homemade macaroni and cheese served with two quarter-pound Grilled Pearl Kountry Klub franks (this dish is named after Boston's first sports radio personality), you are guaranteed not to leave hungry.
Sweet Showstopper: Don't miss the authentic New England Indian pudding: corn meal, molasses, light cream, butter, brown sugar, ginger, and cinnamon. They serve it warm, topped with vanilla ice cream.
36 Wharf St., Portland, 207-347-6154.
A veteran of the Old Port dining scene, Cinque Terre's recent renovation ensures its appeal with swank-seeking diners and, of course, remains a favorite for lovers of authentic Italian food. "In my mind, there is no one doing it better than Lee Skawinski. . . . His attention to the details and love of food truly show in his dishes," declares Jeff Landry of Eve's. You can share the love when you sample some of Skawinski's stellar entrees (venison, rabbit, quail), succulent pastas, creative starters, and a great wine list. "If you want a heavy red sauce over a large mound of pasta, stay home," advises Landry. "If you want a very Italian experience, it's Cinque Terre."
Sweet Tooth: Skawinski isn't the only talented chef at work here. Pastry chef Emily Delois whips up beautiful and delicious desserts that are the perfect nightcap to an evening of Italian indulgence. Enjoy it with an inexpensive glass of the Pieropan Recioto di Soave dessert wine.
A Baker's Dozen
Here are a few of the most recommended bakeries in Maine, besides Standard Baking Co. (207-773-2112) - which was almost unanimous:
Food historian Sandy Oliver admires Borealis Bread (Rte. 1 in Waldoboro and Wells, 207-641-8800) owner Jim Amaral's mission to bake with Maine grown flours.
Ted LaFage and the team of chefs at Chase's Daily like the treats at Lebanese Cuisine (34 Temple St., Waterville, 207-873-7813) in Waterville.
Melissa Kelly praises the Rockland duo of Atlantic Bakery (351 Main St., Rockland, 207-596-0505) and Rock City Books and Coffee (328 Main St., Rockland, 207-594-4123).
Aurora Provision's Leslie Oster remarks that Stephen Lanzolatta at Micucci Grocery Co. (45 India St., Portland, 207-775-1854) "brings tears to my eyes with his Luna bread and riccarelli (not even surpassed in Florence)."
Scratch Baking Co. (416 Preble St., South Portland, 207-799-0668) and Two Fat Cats (47 India St., Portland, 207-347-5144) are also local favorites.
Fresh Off the Boat
Stuck in the car on the long trek to Bar Harbor? Here are some seafood stops you don't want to miss:
White or red steamed mussels, Italian style, at Traditions in Saco.
Winterpoint oysters at the raw bar at the Old Port Sea Grill in Portland.
Fried clams or the haddock sandwich at the Dry Dock in Portland.
Steamers (and BYOB) at Miller's Lobster Company in Spruce Head.
Spicy bouillabaisse at Dip Net in Port Clyde.
While Maine is full of fresh, great-tasting food, sometimes all you want is a beefy burger.
Here are some suggestions for a juicy one:
Fat Boy's in Brunswick: Grab a burger and a milkshake and watch the P-3 Subhunters fly at the Brunswick Naval Air Station (at least for a couple more years) across the street - all from the comfort of your own car.
Harmon's in Falmouth: They keep it simple here, only burgers, dogs, and fries, with ketchup, mustard, or onions.
Scott's Place in Camden: A local favorite for the fast food and perhaps its proximity to the Maine shopping mecca of Reny's.
Take advantage of Maine's freshest products and check out these local stands and markets on your next trip - or make a special excursion just for these farm-stand treats:
School House Farm in Warren: apple cider doughnuts.
York Hill Farm in New Sharon: goat cheese.
Maxwell's Farm in Cape Elizabeth: fresh-picked (or do it yourself) strawberries.
Beth's Farm Stand in Warren: fresh grape juice.
The Portland Farmer's Market: anything green (or yellow, orange, and purple).
Maine's premier restaurants are the perfect place to slip in for a drink and a quick bite. Here are some of our celebrity chefs' favorite combinations:
A glass of white wine, a plate of mussels, and Standard bread for dipping at Fore Street.
A Sazerac or a Jack Rose at Local 188 (John Myers is revered as one of the best bartenders in Maine).
A glass of red wine and the grilled Caesar salad at Five Fifty-Five.
A glass of the homemade limoncello and scallops at Street & Co.
A pint and a plate of nachos at Foreside Tavern. A martini and anything to eat at Hugo's.
The Sushi Wars
Clearly there is a battle afoot in Portland for the title of best sushi.
Fish expert Rod Mitchell favors Benkay (2 India St., 207-773-5555), which he claims has "great, clean sushi meticulously done in the old Tokyo tradition without all the wasabi and ginger that can offset the brightness and true flavors of the fish."
John Naylor prefers Yosaku's (1 Danforth St., 207-780-0880). "The bento boxes make for fun eating and the assortment of great raw fish dishes, as well as cooked, make for a great dining experience." Plus they have outdoor seating with a Japanese garden and fountain.
Other Eateries Worthy of Note
The Pizza Joint (448 Forest Ave., Portland, 207-797-3192). Fianc`e chefs Erik Desjarlais of Evangeline and Krista Kern of Bresca say they sometimes splurge for the twenty-inch sausage, peppers, and onions pie. Or the Nightmare, a sandwich with four meats and fourcheeses. "They are kind of an investment up front, but both can feed you for a week."
Boynton McKay (30 Main St., Camden, 207-236-2465). "This was a local drug store for decades, and some of the shelving and soda bar are intact," describes Fore Street's Sam Hayward. "It's just a storefront serving breakfast and lunch, but the coffees are excellent. The best reason to go early is to get a couple of what I believe are the best doughnuts in Maine. Cake-style, big and meaty, no glazes or glop on them or in them. Eat them still warm and slightly crisp."
The Cheese Iron (200 Rte. 1, Scarborough, 207-883-4057). As Stella Hernandez notes, "In addition to the wonderful selection of cheeses, they have beautiful panini, a great wine selection, and enormous cookies. It's a great place to stock up for a picnic on the Eastern Prom."
Thai Villa (207 Pleasant St., Brunswick, 207-725-5959). Chef Michael Gagne's favorites: "I do five star heat on the pad Thai with both chicken and shrimp and insist on fresh cilantro sprinkled. They also have great dumplings and Larb salad."
Basil Provisions (137 Main St., Cumberland, 207-829-3799). According to Stephanie Brown of the Seagrass Bistro, "Without a doubt they make the best tomato soup I have ever had." They have salads, sandwiches, and pizza, too, plus lots of other tasty treats.
The Mediterranean Grill (10 School St., Freeport, 207-865-1688). "Step up to the bar, order a Guinness or a Cold River martini, extra dirty, and tell Kemal, the owner, that Jeff sent you. Then proceed to enjoy a melt-in-your-mouth gyro meat or pastitio or a Shepherd salad. You can't go wrong."
Black Dinah Chocolatiers (1 Moore's Harbor Rd., Isle au Haut, 207-335-5010). This small island caf` serves coffee, tea, pastries, and, of course, chocolate. "Everything tastes better under the spell of a Maine island," admits Sam Hayward, "but I'm not kidding around - these chocolates are wonderful . . . made with real ingredients, many of them
Palace Diner (18 Franklin St., Biddeford). This is Maine's oldest diner, built by the Pollard Diner Company of Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1926. "No booths, just a well-worn counter, friendly waitresses, and lots of locals," attest Stone Turtle Baking School owners Michael and Sandy Jubinsky.
The Good Table (527 Ocean House Rd., Cape Elizabeth, 207-799-4663). According to Steve and Michelle Corry "they have a wonderful staff and the most delicious hot cinnamon buns fresh from the oven."
El Camino (15 Cushing St., Brunswick, 207-725-8228). "Tucked into an out-of-the-way corner of Brunswick, but only a block or so off Route 1, it's a lively, kitschy Mexican cantina using lots of local, seasonal foods," describes Fore Street's Sam Hayward. "My wife and I are regulars, and that says a lot. She's even pickier than I am."
Erik Desjarlais and Krista Kern vote for a night in: "Eating a roast chicken with our fingers at home, straight out of the roasting pan, with bread and a good wine." For Chef Michael Gagne, the same: "The most romantic meals I prepare are at home. We joke, `Mikey's Grille,' usually with my Love helping. With a glass of wine, catching up on the day, simple saut`s or roasts, salad and freshly cooked biscuits, it is always relaxing and rewarding."
"The best vegetarian experiences in Portland are always found at non-vegetarian restaurants. I am always pleasantly surprised when I ask for a `chef's choice' vegetarian entr`e at Hugo's, Caiola's, or Bresca."
-Leslie Oster, Aurora Provisions
"Locavore - we both disagree with the concept. Just because it is local doesn't mean it is good. . . . I'm not going to support anything local that is inferior, and believe me, there are a lot of inferior local products out there.
We consider the Earth as local."
- Erik Desjarlais and Krista Kern
Caf` Miranda, 15 Oak St.,
SeaGrass Bistro, 30 Forest Falls, Yarmouth, 207-846-3885.
Steve and Michelle Corry
Five Fifty-Five, 555 Congress St., Portland, 207-761-0555.
Evangeline, 190 State St.,
Hugo's, 88 Middle St.,
Robinhood Free Meetinghouse,
210 Robinhood Rd.,
Caiola's, 58 Pine St.,
Fore Street, 288 Fore St.,
Bar Lola, 100 Congress St.,
Primo, 2 South Main St.,
Bresca, 111 Middle St.,
Ted LaFage (and team),
Chase's Daily, 96 Main St.,
Eve's at the Garden at Portland Harbor Hotel, 468 Fore St.,
Samantha and Don Lindgren Rabelais Books
86 Middle St.,
Browne Trading Company,
260 Commercial St.,
Rosemont Market, 559 Brighton Ave., Portland, 207-774-8129.
Leslie Oster * (Please note that Marika Green is the owner of Aurora Provisions. Leslie Oster is the manager.)
Aurora Provisions, 64 Pine St., Portland, 207-871-9060.
Michael and Sandy Jubinsky
Stone Turtle Baking School, 173 Howitt Rd., Lyman, 207-324-7558.
- By: Kathleen Fleury