Portland, Maine, is known for its lobster and lighthouses – and it should be – but it has more than that to offer. The Forest City boasts an enviable hyper-local restaurant and bar scene that far outpaces what should be expected given the small population. Best of all, nearly the entirety of this gastronomic overload is packed into a walkable downtown district. Residents are acutely aware of all the city has to offer, but they manage to tell you about it in a way that’s both genuine and unpretentious – much like the city itself.
Time your trip right and you can go from the runway to enjoying a Bissell Brothers offering in the onsite taproom in under 30 minutes. That is how everything works in Portland – everywhere you want to go is just down the road, and the tourists left the traffic at home.
Bissell Brothers is situated on the edge of the Fore River just outside of downtown Portland. The feel of the brewery matches the industrial surroundings with brick, large windows, exposed ducts and concrete floors. Though the brewery is young (founded in 2013), it has the largest tap room in Maine, and you will need every square inch if you want to try their stellar double IPA Swish on release day. Don’t worry about the winding line around the building, though, just bypass the crowd and politely squeeze your way to the draft only line where the wait is nonexistent.
Swish is just as advertised; “the double IPA we’ve dreamt about” is bright orange, hazy and boasts a strong citrus aroma. All the right notes have been coaxed out of the mosaic, citra, simcoe and apollo hop bill. The flavors carry through the soft creamy body that comes courtesy of the flaked wheat complimenting golden promise malt.
No wonder hopeful traders on the bed of a truck outside are displaying cans of the most desirable offerings from The Alchemist, Treehouse, and Trillium. You can get what you want with a can of Swish.
Stick around and try the flagship Substance Ale, and then break up the lupulin overload with a few freshly shucked Maine oysters from the cart outside. It’s tempting to dive in for several full pours, but stick to halves – there's plenty more beer ahead of you.
You’re a tourist, so embrace it. Book a lobster boat tour of the Casco Bay, and be sure your route includes an afternoon view of the Portland Head Light. Find a company that encourages beer on board, and before your head to the dock, stop by one of the nearby bottle shops and pick up something for the ride. The view from the water up the rocky cliffs with the sun shining behind the lighthouse is quintessential Maine and absolutely breathtaking.
Pick the captain’s brain about the Bay and the Portland lobster industry, odds are he will have a myriad of knowledge to offer. Maine depends on the over $1 billion lobstering injects in the state’s economy, and Mainers are passionate about the craft. If you pay attention, you’ll gain a new respect for what it takes to bring those delicious crustaceans back to port.
Eventide Oyster Co.
Brown. Butter. Lobster roll. You have to get a lobster roll, and this is the one to get. The two-time James Beard award finalist chef/owners of Eventide Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley show restraint keeping the roll small so the richness doesn’t overwhelm you.
Lobster rolls do not typically excite me; I find the combination of a generic roll stuffed with overly mayonnaised and under seasoned lobster at $20+ dismaying. But this is not your tourist trap lobster roll. Fresh local lobster with a brown butter lemon vinaigrette in a housemade steamed bun at $14 is exciting.
Pair your decadent appetizer and accompanying meal of choice with whatever is on tap from local-to-Portland but Belgian-inspired Allagash. If you are lucky, it’ll be the Bourbon Barrel Aged Tripel Curieux. The rich flavors of vanilla, coconut and of course bourbon, are reinforced on the palate by a strong barley backbone and traditional Belgian phenolic/fruity characteristics. It is a complex beer that compliments Eventide’s deep dive into Maine’s culinary bounty.
Novare Res Bier Cafe
Cap the night at the best beer bar in town. Novare boasts a strong rotating draught list to go with a ridiculous bottle list that features vintages up to 10 years old “From the Vault” (the building originally housed a bank). While the bar supports plenty of local options and has a Belgian slant, the owner’s self proclaimed goal is to serve the best beers that are legally available in Maine. I think they accomplish it.
The venue itself just feels like a beer cellar. The nondescript entrance opens into a basement-like main room with low ceilings and brick pillars separating European beechwood tables inviting serious and casual beer drinkers alike. There is something for any palate at Novare, and the staff is knowledgable about every offering, which is amazing given the staggering number of options.
A large exposed rock summit provides a panoramic look at the surrounding beauty that is particularly colorful in the month of October.”
Start the day off right at Hot Suppa. Be prepared to wait a few minutes, but know it will be worth it. Depending on how early you start the day, or, rather, how late you ended the night, you can opt for more traditional breakfast fare or move right into lunch.
For the calorie conscious patron, Hot Suppa offers a fruit plate with organic granola and yogurt, and for the, ahem, less conscious such as myself, go right to the corned beef egg sandwich. Spicy brown mustard and pickled red onion brighten up this breakfast reuben smothered in gruyere. Start with an espresso, then move to coffee or consider the concise draft list showcasing a brew from all of the local staples.
Head North: Bradbury Mountain State Park + Maine Beer Company
Head north on Route 1 towards Bradbury Mountain State Park. The scenery on the way is worth the trip, but the real view is accessed by a short hike on the Northern Loop Trail in the park. A large exposed rock summit provides a panoramic look at the surrounding beauty that is particularly colorful in the month of October. Let the hike be the destination, not the summit. Enjoy the fresh air and slow down, soak up the quirks of the land that are unique to Maine.
Now go drink some beer. Maine Beer Company is in Freeport on the way back to Portland on Route 1. The tight tap room has a clean, modern but homey feel.
Maine Beer brews some stunningly succinct hoppy ales, and the staff is glad to walk you through each of the carefully crafted beers available that day. While Lunch and Dinner get most of the recognition, be sure to try their take on a stout. Mean Old Tom is smooth and true to style with a ton of flavor packed into a 6.5% alcohol by volume stout.
If you are hungry, try the brick oven pizza from the setup outside. They will bring your order into the tap room, and the traditional pairing of pizza and beer is turned up quite a bit with the artisanal pie and dialed in brews.
Maine Beer Company produces great beer, but it is their commitment to “Do What’s Right” that is most uniquely Maine. The brewery turns out perfectly executed beer while using energy from solar panels to offset 100% of their electricity consumption. They also donate 1% of gross sales (yes sales, not profits) to various environmental causes. This is a responsibly produced product that consumers can feel good about buying.
Maybe that makes Maine Beer Company beers taste that much better.
Little Tap House + Downtown Portland
Make your way back downtown and take a walk. Portland’s downtown has an interesting store on every corner, check a few out. In particular, consider Longfellow Books to provide your reading material for the flight home. When you are ready for dinner head to the Little Tap House.
The brick exterior gives way to a warm interior with wide board wood floors, barrels supporting bar tables, and a dark stained wooden bar. The tap list will offer plenty of opportunities to try out any of Maine’s offerings you’ve missed – an Oxbow Saision or Foundation Epiphany are excellent choices. Peruse the menu and select something hearty. You need to build a base upon which to build your last night in town.
Wander the blocks of downtown and duck in anywhere that calls you. The bar underneath the Portland Harbor Hotel gives off a Manhattan vibe. Vena’s Fizz House can provide a break in form if you want to step up to the stronger stuff. Thirsty Pig on Exchange St. highlights lesser known Maine breweries in a more eclectic dive. Embrace the city and make new friends – just don’t tell them you’re going home tomorrow.