Keeping Track of Norm's
In some ways Norm’s on Congress Street in Portland is the perfect hangout to find highly seasoned fare from an eclectic bar menu. Whether it’s grilled lamb and feta with onions and tomatoes served over greens or big burgers, nicely charred and gutsy, the flavors inspire and are easy to take.
The restaurant is always packed with die-hard patrons who keep coming back for more, ordering off a menu that hasn’t changed in years. About the only difference is this Norm’s moved from its old space across the street a few years ago, leaving behind Norm’s Downtown Lounge in its wake—a bastion for 20-somethings en mass wolfing down burgers, tapas, and beers.
Both places create an archetypical stage for the perpetual poseur who cram into the Naugahyde booths like thrones in a row.
I revisited Norm’s recently because I had heard from a friend who’s a regular there that the eponymous Norm was no longer the owner, having split with his partner but retaining the Downtown Lounge across the street. With the alleged change came new items on the menu and a wall full of blackboard postings of essentially new specials.
As it turned out, Norm’s without Norm is the same Norm’s. Why change a formula that works even if it’s getting a bit stale?
The wait staff is young, energetic and sassy, maybe amusing if it suits you. If they can keep their attention spans in check long enough to serve a meal from start to finish then you’re in good hands.
I went there with a friend and we sat at the bar since all the tables were taken. Neither of us was that hungry so we ordered mostly main courses. I chose the fried chicken and my friend had the fried calamari salad.
Before I decided on my entrée I pondered whether I should have Norm’s burger as the hallmark of a bar and grill’s mettle. I asked our waiter/bartender for his opinion.
He about launched into near soliloquy mode on the merits of each until his eyes did a roundabout before looking me straight in the eye to say, “Go for the chicken.”
We ordered cocktails and a warm roasted eggplant dip to start. It took so long to get the dip I wondered if Midnight had come and gone.
The kitchen was always a bit slow, and I like to believe that everything is prepared to order. Even so, this is an annoying trait that hasn’t improved any.
Suffice it to say we were relieved to see our main courses arrive. My fried chicken dinner was enormous. There were so many pieces of chicken on the plate I lost count of the parts thereof. Mainers don’t generally complain about large portions but this was overkill. With it came a mound of mashed potatoes, heavy with garlic but creamy, and a giant buttermilk biscuit. Had I been on a low-carb regimen, I would have needed an elixir. As it was the chicken was tasty, though too batter-encrusted for my taste, and dry. This was hardly the classic rendition of fried chicken fresh out of bubbling lard in an essential black cast iron southern skillet The mashed potatoes were thick and unctuous with too much garlic. The biscuit, which I have a heavy hand with when I make them at home, was perfect.
My friend’s fried calamari salad with feta, olives and diced vegetables over greens were as good as it’s always been. The kitchen is consistent, but why shouldn’t they be with a stable menu format.
There are a few other places in town like the Dogfish Café that serve forth similar food and vibes. But Norm’s, even in its newer digs, has the vintage look of a long-standing establishment, one that was good enough in fact to be depicted in a painting (shown here) by local artist Tom Connolly whose realist style captured Norm’s perfectly.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at email@example.com.