Down East 2013 ©
On a midweek night after a long, lousy day at work, it's a relief to slide into a seat at the bar at Norm's East End Grill in Portland. Bartender and part owner Kevin Charles has a pint of Geary's Autumn Ale, brewed a few miles away on the Westbrook line, in front of you in a flash. If it's baseball season, the Sox are on the small TV in the corner with the sound off, and Kevin's got a running commentary on the game going nonstop. The stereo plays a steady, upbeat mix of eighties and nineties-era alternative rock, often from CDs Kevin has made himself.
A few minutes later, a plate of crisp, hot, sweet potato fries covered in a sticky glaze of honey mustard sauce arrives on the bar. The runner brings side plates, but you ignore them - and the silverware - and eat the fries straight from the serving dish. By now, your shoulders have relaxed from their position up by your ears and the growling in your stomach has started to subside. Then the steak salad arrives: a vast portion of lettuce, red onion, cucumber, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, and steak tips, cooked perfectly medium-rare. It's dressed in a sweet, sharp vinaigrette that owner Norm Jabar insists is made only with olive oil, red-wine vinegar, dried herbs, salt, and pepper.
After a few bites, you're ready to make eye contact with your neighbor, maybe have a little banter about the way the Sox pulled out of the inning just in time. You recognize a guy a few seats down - doesn't he own Java Net, the coffeehouse on Exchange Street? And over there, in the booth underneath the Raging Bull poster, isn't that the well-to-do West End couple you see walking their dog on the Western Promenade? Across from them, at a table in the middle of the room, is a young couple obviously on a date; come to think of it, doesn't the guy work at Videoport, the video place on Middle Street?
The atmosphere in the room is convivial, as befits a place with red-and-white-checked vinyl tablecloths, deep reddish-orange walls, and a scuffed wide-pine floor. Silverware and Norm's special barbecue sauce sit in round trays on the tables, along with several copies of the straightforward menu. It's all in keeping with owner Norm Jabar's philosophy, which he describes as "simple - that's it. Keep it simple, and do the best you can."
At this point, Jabar's best is pretty darn good. With various partners, he owns three restaurants that are revered by Portlanders for excellent food at reasonable prices in a comfortable, fun environment. Norm's East End Grill, on Middle Street near the base of Munjoy Hill, specializes in barbecue; the highlight of a menu with many strong points is the fifteen-dollar sampler platter overflowing with sausage, chicken, steak tips, spareribs, and baby back ribs, all smothered in Norm's barbecue sauce, a dark, rich concoction that channels flavors from south of the Mason-Dixon line. About a mile to the west, Norm's Bar & Grill, a few doors down from the State Theater on Congress Street, has the same deeply colored walls and cozy booths, but with black-and-white checked flooring that gives it a diner feel. The food is a bit diner-inspired, too - if your average diner now offers a heated eggplant dip appetizer with grilled flatbread, or expertly grilled lamb kabobs with roasted onions. And, finally, across Congress Street, in a quirky narrow space with Jabar's trademark red-orange walls, is the Downtown Lounge, where the menu is just for drinks; the food - only twelve items on a recent visit, including pork skewers in a Thai peanut sauce and a hearty beef, pork, and sausage chili - is described on blackboards above the booths. The Downtown Lounge is modeled after places Jabar remembers from his Boston days. "Portland really needed an American bar/gin mill-type place," he says. "Boston is full of old-man bars that had awesome food - the quote-unquote holes-in-the-wall that didn't have $5,000 sconces, but had really great food."
Jabar, a Maine native who grew up in what he describes as a poor family that moved around a lot, started working in restaurants twenty-five years ago, when he was fifteen. Those dish-washing gigs whetted his appetite for the business, and he eventually made his way to Boston, where he spent twelve years working in "fancy-schmancy" places that he eventually tired of. When he came back to Portland in the mid-nineties, his idea was to take the techniques he'd learned in classic French cooking and apply them to burgers and steaks. "I wanted to do something casual, with stuff I like to eat," he says as we sit in the front window at the East End Grill. "When I used to come up here, there were so many really good restaurants, but no middle-of-the-road places, like the ones in Boston where you could get a Budweiser and steak tips for ten bucks - places where you don't have to drop the rent check on dinner."
Nearly ten years later, both Norm's locations and the Downtown Lounge are firmly ensconced in that niche, and without a lot of competition. Jabar is a down-to-earth New England guy, and his restaurants clearly reflect his personality, from the black-and-white photos of the Ramones and old Red Sox teams on the walls to the man's-man movie posters - The Usual Suspects, Trainspotting, Reservoir Dogs - displayed around the restaurants. He's proud of the fact that he didn't use consultants to come up with the concept and design, instead relying on his own taste. As a result, his restaurants attract their share of Portland-area hipsters, but they're by no means exclusive. That, too, is by design: "We've got an eclectic customer base," Jabar explains. "We've got rich, poor, lawyers, doctors, gay, straight, punk-rock kids, heavy-metal kids - everybody. I've got the best damn customers in Portland."
Indeed, while Jabar mentions that his restaurants get a fair number of visitors from out of state, even they tend to become regulars, returning year after year for some ribs or the seriously delicious onion rings. Otherwise, Norm's, as all three restaurants are known, is a haven for locals. When the cruise ships have docked and the streets are full of tourists, there's often still a table available at Norm's. If not, the gregarious staff will be happy to put your name on the list and pour you something from the short, reasonably priced wine list - after all, Jabar says, "You're not going to get a $7 sandwich and a $50 bottle of wine" - or mix you a dangerously tasty margarita served in a pint glass.
As for the food, it's difficult to describe how incredibly satisfying the steak salad at the East End Grill can be, the crunchy lettuce contrasting with the rich, juicy meat, the tang of the feta cheese balanced by the cool cucumbers. If you want a similar salad done with lamb rather than beef, though, you'll have to visit Norm's Bar & Grill on Congress Street; while the approach to food - fresh, high-quality ingredients treated simply and well - is identical at all three Norm's locations, the menus differ just enough to keep things interesting. For Jabar, it's a business decision: "I don't want to compete with myself," he says. "If you want a plate of ribs, you gotta come down here," to Middle Street.
Dessert is essentially an afterthought at Norm's; the meal portions are enormous, and everything tastes so good that it's hard to stop eating if there's still food left on your plate. So, rather than ordering dessert, keep plugging away at those garlic mashed potatoes or take another handful of sweet potato fries. Order that second pint, and keep your eye on the game. At Norm's, you never know what might happen next.
Norm's East End Grill is located at 47 Middle Street, Portland. 207-253-1700. Norm's Bar & Grill is at 617 Congress Street, Portland. 207-828-9944. The Downtown Lounge is across the street from the Bar & Grill at 606 Congress Street, Portland. 207-773-1363. Reservations not accepted