Living Large in a Small City
How to enjoy Portland without spending a fortune.
Put the words “affordable” and “Portland” in the same sentence, and many Mainers will laugh right in your face. Isn’t this the city where you can’t even park for free? And where a simple turkey sandwich will run you upwards of six bucks? Housing costs are high, and don’t even think about mentioning the taxes. [For the rest of this story, see the September 2008 issue of Down East.]
Still, Portland is chock-full of meals to eat, places to visit, and things to do without breaking the bank. Whether you’re a lifelong resident or a first-time visitor, you’ll appreciate these hidden gems, great bargains, and cheap eats:
Free parking on Mountfort Street. Tired of ponying up two dollars for two hours of street parking in the Old Port, and then getting slapped with a ticket the second your meter expires? Head to the base of Munjoy Hill, near the intersection of Congress Street and Washington Avenue, and look for spots on Mountfort Street, alongside the Eastern Cemetery. Depending on how fast you hoof it from there, you can be in the Old Port in five to ten minutes. City of Portland, 389 Congress St. 207-874-8443. www.portlandmaine.gov
Tu Casa El Salvadoran Restaurant. Located in a converted home on Washington Avenue, Tu Casa is one of Portland’s best-kept secrets. Owner Etlinda Alvarez serves up platanos, pupusas revueltas, tamales Salvadoreños, and other south-of-the-border treats at exceedingly low prices — think dinner for two for twenty dollars (or less if you opt for a simple burrito). The dining room is no-frills, and the dinnerware is disposable, but the food is amazing: simple, modestly spiced, and oh-so-authentic. 70 Washington Ave. 207-828-4971.
Brown Bag lectures at the Portland Library. In need of some egghead street cred? You can do no better than the Brown Bag Lecture Series, which brings renowned authors both national and homegrown — Sue Miller, Richard Ford, Tabitha King, Patrick Quinlan — to Portland. The lectures, which are typically readings followed by a question-and-answer period, rather than an actual lecture, are free, and the library even provides coffee, tea, and cookies. 5 Monument Sq. 207-871-1700. www.portlandlibrary.com
Angela Adams sale items. There’s a reason — beyond mere trendiness — that every vaguely hip woman in town carries an Angela Adams bag: the Munjoy Hill designer throws a fabulous sale. You have to be on Adams’ mailing list to be informed of occasional friends and family sales — or you can just walk into her Congress Street showroom to find great deals on discontinued rugs and bags. 273 Congress St. 800-255-9454. www.angelaadams.com
Jazz at the Square. Formerly the Center for Cultural Exchange, One Longfellow Square has taken over its predecessor’s role as a presenter of events you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in the city. Tuesday nights are a prime example: for just five bucks you can enjoy an evening of live jazz performed by local artists. One Longfellow serves beverages (adult and otherwise), and the acoustics are great. Not a bad way to spend a weeknight. 181 State St. 207-761-1757. www.onelongfellowsquare.com
Brunch at Five Fifty-Five. Chef-owner Steve Corry has been lauded by foodies nationwide — and rightly so. While you wouldn’t want to head to Five Fifty-Five for dinner on a budget, you can sample Corry’s wares for a song on a Sunday morning. The Five Fifty-Five scramble, for example, recently featured a cauliflower-parmesan custard, wine-braised leeks, truffle essence, and a buttermilk crêpe — all for $11.95. Resist the servers’ attempts to lure you with a cheese course or some desserts (difficult: we know), and you’ll walk out with some cash left over. 555 Congress St. 207-761-0555. fivefifty-five.com
Sailing lessons with Sail Maine. If a summer of gazing at the sailboats tacking across Casco Bay has stoked your urge to go to sea, it’s not too late. Sail Maine, a nonprofit organization, offers adult sailing lessons through the end of September. Sign up for a full week of intensive classes, or take one class a week for five weeks. Either way, you’ll learn all the basics — how to rig up a small keelboat, sail away from a mooring, tack upwind, land at a dock under sail, and de-rig. The $375 price tag even includes a man-overboard drill — essential if you’re to sail again. 58 Fore St. 207-650-7878. www.sailmaine.org
Lunch at Yosaku. A sophisticated lunch option that won’t break the bank, Yosaku’s “lunch box” includes miso soup, salad, two daily specials (think shrimp dumplings or chicken with a spicy scallion sauce), and a sushi roll — all for nine dollars. The whole shebang is presented in a bento box (save for the soup, which, of course, comes in a bowl). Enjoy it all on the outdoor deck, where there’s just enough room between tables to accommodate business deals and juicy personal gossip alike. 1 Danforth St. 207-780-0880.
Yoga at Open Heart Space. Portland is blessed with an abundance of studios catering to every breed of yogini. One of the most welcoming — not to mention cheapest — is Open Heart Space, run by Kara Seymour in the former Adams Elementary School on Munjoy Hill. Students arrange their mats in a circle, and classes are often accompanied by live music — a perfect fit for Seymour’s playful but assured teaching. Drop-in classes are just ten dollars (twelve dollars for seventy-five-minute classes), and Seymour offers a wide array of scholarships and discounts. 48 Moody St. 207-233-0966. www.openheartspace.net
Friday night at the museums. Whether you’re looking to catch up on your art or you just really want to play with a pretend ATM, on Friday nights you can do it for free. The Portland Museum of Art offers free admission from 5 to 9 p.m. every Friday night. The galleries can get a bit crowded as a result, but it’s still well worth a visit. Right next door, the Children’s Museum of Maine — home to that fake ATM and a host of other entertainments for the short set — is free from 5 to 8 p.m. on
the first Friday of every month. 7 Congress Sq. 207-775-6148. www.portlandmuseum.org. 142 Free St. 207-828-1234. www.childrensmuseumofme.org
Riverside Municipal Golf Course. You don’t have to travel to one of the state’s swanky resorts to get a good round of golf. The most you’ll pay for eighteen holes at Portland’s municipal course is thirty-six dollars; fees for city residents are even lower. Ditch the cart and walk the course’s rolling hills to make the outing even more affordable. 1158 Riverside St. 207-797-3524. www.ci.portland.me.us/riverside/riverside.asp
Sunday morning music at the North Star Café. Hands down the best coffee shop slash music venue in Portland, the North Star is a fantastic spot to hunker down with your laptop and a cup of joe — from fairly traded beans, of course. Owners Anna Maria Tocci and Kim Anderson book an array of acoustic musicians, with performances for reasonable prices (five to fifteen dollars) nearly every night of the week. Even better are the frequent free shows, including mid-day gigs on Sunday that draw Munjoy Hill denizens, hipsters with kids, and music lovers of all ages. 225 Congress St. 207-699-2994. www.northstarmusiccafe.com
L.L. Bean outlet. Save a trip to Freeport and stop in at L.L. Bean’s Congress Street factory store, where you can find great deals on discontinued items and slight irregulars. Recent finds include drastically reduced winter boots (go figure), way-cool kids’ desk-and-chair sets, and some rather nice bedding. If you’re not fussy about your initials, you can always pick up a well-priced tote or backpack that boasts someone else’s monogram. 542 Congress St. 207-772-5100.
Walking the Prom. Whether you’re looking to stretch your legs, exercise the pooch, or ogle fancy houses, head to one of Portland’s stately promenades. The Eastern Prom, atop Munjoy Hill, overlooks Casco Bay, Mackworth Island, and the wide-open spaces of East End Beach. Across town, the Western Prom provides views of the Fore River and Portland’s intriguing working waterfront. Both spots are great for people- and scenery-watching — not to mention a serious case of house envy.
Barbecue at Norm’s East End Grill. There are few better ways to shake off a bad day at the office than heading to Norm’s East End Grill for some baby back ribs and a cold pint of whichever Geary’s is in season. If your companion is a carnivore as well, consider sharing the sampler, which offers a variety of meats slathered in Norm’s special sauce, along with a bowl of beans and a slab of cornbread, for just $17.95. 47 Middle St. 207-253-1700.
Marden’s. Even non-shoppers will find something interesting at the Portland Marden’s, one of the few remaining quirks in a shopping plaza that’s recently been overhauled in the style of Anywhere, USA. Browse the clothing racks in search of the odd designer item, or scour the aisles for that perfect little doodad you didn’t know you needed. Even better: eavesdrop on your fellow shoppers, many of whom are likely to be Marden’s regulars. 1100 Brighton Ave. 207-780-9668. www.mardenssurplus.com
Living in Deering Center. If the peninsula’s not your thing but you’re still looking for reasonably affordable digs, check out Deering Center. Known for its lovely Victorians and graceful street trees, the cozy neighborhood surrounding Stevens Avenue is also home to a number of double- and triple-deckers with decent rent rates. You’ll also save some dough by leaving your car behind and walking to excellent local businesses ranging from Rosemont Market to Roy’s Shoe Shop to Pat’s Meat Market. www.mainehomes.com
Ferry to Peaks Island. For just $7.75 ($3.85 for kids), you can hop a Casco Bay Lines ferry for the twenty-minute jaunt to Peaks. Check out the houses for sale and rent on the community bulletin boards and daydream about the romance of island life (omitting, of course, thoughts of waiting for the ferry when it’s five below, or seeing the same twenty faces all winter long). Eat your picnic lunch on the rocks looking out at the open ocean, then walk it off with a stroll around the island’s perimeter. 56 Commercial St. 207-774-7871. www.cascobaylines.com
Bargains, Coupons, & Barter
If “affordable” isn’t cheap enough, here are ways to save even more money while having fun.
Portland Time Bank. Not just for reconstructed hippies, the Time Bank is a membership organization where services are exchanged for Time Dollars. With this homegrown unit of currency, one hour of work — whether that’s raking leaves, preparing a tax return, babysitting, or offering graphic design services — equals one Time Dollar. No cash changes hands. Organizers tout its community-building benefits in addition to its wallet friendliness. 62 Elm St. 207-874-9868. www.mainetimebanks.org
Portland Dine Around Club. Joining this “club” simply means forking over $29.95 to receive the PDA’s membership card, which provides access to discounts at restaurants and other attractions across Maine. Participating Portland restaurants include the Café at Pat’s Meat Market, Dogfish Bar & Grille, Gritty McDuff’s, and Twenty Milk Street. You can also save on tickets to the Portland Pirates, Portland Stage Company, and the Wadsworth-Longfellow House. 207-775-4711. www.dineportland.com
The Sunrise Guide. Part guide to a sustainable lifestyle and part coupon book, the Sunrise Guide offers five thousand dollars worth of coupons from like-minded companies and service providers in southern Maine. Portland businesses include the fabulous second-hand clothing store Material Objects, as well as the Happy Yogi Boutique, Rosemont Market and Bakery, and O’Naturals. 207-221-3450. www.thesunriseguide.com
Maine Public Broadcasting Member Card. Joining MPBN means guilt-free listening or watching during pledge breaks — plus this little-known discount card, which offers deals at businesses statewide. Portland participants include Aurora Provisions, the Children’s Museum of Maine, Mims Brasserie, and Portland Ballet Company. 800-884-1717. www.mpbn.net
- By: Michaela Cavallaro