Maine’s largest city rests on a peninsula that juts out into island-dotted Casco Bay. Biting winds and snow predominate in winter, but Portland summer is a wonderland. Runners flood Back Cove Trail and people explore nearby lighthouses and dive into a prominent part of New England history, which is rooted in the stories of Native American people like Penobscot Nation, and starting in 1623, became intertwined with English colonialists, which Naval Captain Christopher Levett led. Portland’s culinary scene has evolved considerably from New England traditions and now incorporates more global flavors. Learn about 10 places to eat and drink coffee and beer in Portland, plus three bonus picks in nearby Biddeford and Cape Elizabeth, based on my trip there from September 17-20, 2019.
Numbers on the map correspond to listings below and appear in alphabetical order instead of order of preference.
8. Palace Diner
Greg Mitchell and Chad Conley worked side-by-side at Harborside’s Four Season Farm before revitalizing Maine’s oldest diner together in 2013, taking over an old red rail car on a Biddeford side street that dates to 1927. The shiny red car features a frequently packed counter and a bafflingly outdated motto – Ladies Invited – but the food isn’t old fashioned in the least. Every dish my wife and I tried felt fresh, including a “deluxe” breakfast sandwich featuring thick-cut bacon, soft egg, jalapeño, mayo, and cheddar on an oversized sized English muffin, served with crusty griddled Palace potatoes. Corned beef hash features briny beef chunks served with eggs and toast. Whether it’s for the main course or dessert, by all means order French toast, a custardy Big Sky Bakery challah slab plated with a pool of molten butter and savory flair.
MUST ORDER: Corned Beef Hash, Deluxe Sandwich, French Toast
Coffee brought Vien Dobui and wife Jessica Sheahan to Portland, where they co-founded Tandem Coffee Roasters. Now the couple applies their flavor-forward approach to Phở Công Tử Bột, a modern Vietnamese restaurant that matches the intensity of the food Dobui grew up enjoying in San Jose’s Little Saigon. The couple’s airy Vietnamese cafe dates to 2017 and includes an L-shaped wood bar overlooking an open kitchen, pink and grey walls, and roll-up garage doors. This Vietnamese food definitely packs punch, and not just by Portland standards. Gà Nước Miếng, aka “mouthwatering chicken,” is a fiery preparation featuring chilled slices dressed with sesame chile oil, chiles, fish sauce, crushed peanuts, brown sauce, and “pickled stuff.” If anything, Gỏi Bò, their “daily special” for Tuesday & Wednesday, brings even more funk. This rosy flank steak and bitter radicchio salad comes dressed with chunky fermented shrimp and pineapple sauce, onions, shiso, chiles, and fried garlic. Bún Chả, a Hanoi classic, is plenty satisfying in their hands, as cold vermicelli noodles host luscious caramel pork patties, sliced pork butt, peanuts, scallion oil, and umami-rich nuoc mam for dipping. Considering the couple’s background, it makes sense they developed a knockout coffee dessert: kem flan. This creamy Saigon-style dome hosts coffee ice with burnt flavor really comes through, tempering sticky Vietnamese caramel’s sweetness.
MUST ORDER: Bún Chả, Gà Nước Miếng, Gỏi Bò, Kem Flan
10. Rose Foods
Palace Diner co-founder Chad Conley has run this Portland deli since summer 2016. The fashionable glass-fronted spot houses an overhead letter board menu, bagel bins, and retail store. “Golden” bagels are the canvas for Conley’s artful deli fare, and they deliver a pleasant chew. These bagels eat well with a simple spread, and also shine in sandwiches with salted and smoked fish. Fisherman’s Feast for Two comes with two bagels. I suggest choosing “everything” and “special” mustard and caraway. Mix and match with cream cheese, tomato, cucumber, onion, capers, dill, and five kinds of fish: silky nova, well-spiced “pastrami” nova, rose lox, fat-rich sable, and a generous scoop of flaky whitefish salad. Not much could make this a better breakfast experience, except for possibly salmon caviar; add this bursting, briny accompaniment to your order.
MUST ORDER: Fisherman’s Feast, Salmon Caviar
11. Speckled Ax
Matt Bolinder has specialized in wood-roasted espresso in Portland since 2012. Local wood provides the heat source for his vintage Italian Petroncini roaster, instead of gas, which doesn’t impart a smoky flavor, but does make the roasting process more difficult. Apparently the result is worth extra effort for Bolinder. I enjoyed my visit to their brown-walled downtown café that houses bench and banquette seating, a framed wood ax drawing, and pressed tin ceiling. A custom two-group Synesso espresso machine and pourover bar fuel most beverages. My hospitable barista Caroline prepared Honduras Ornilla pourover that basically followed through on their promise for “lemon, melon, caramel,” and delivered fashionable hot chocolate with restrained sweetness.
MUST ORDER: Honduras Ornilla, Hot Chocolate
Tandem started as an East Bayside coffee roastery and café in 2012. Co-founders Kathleen Pratt and husband Will expanded focus to baking, opening a bakery in 2014 with talented baker Briana Holt in a former West End service station. A big outdoor patio with shaded wooden picnic tables and flower beds in stainless steel bathtub planters front a delectable pastry counter, coffee bar, and dining room with assorted seating options and colorful block wallpaper. The sticky bun has become a signature Tandem baked good and delivers the perfect texture, crusty outside, with judicious glaze and a soft center. Seasonal cornmeal strawberry pie was also a hit, with a coarse coat and sweet fruit. Cookies are also noteworthy. I found Tandem’s malted ice coffee with barley malt syrup and milk too sweet, but appreciate their more basic cold brew.
MUST ORDER: Cornmeal Strawberry Pie, Sticky Bun
Biddeford is on the rise, and Jon Phillips and Briana Campbell helped to fill the city’s specialty coffee void by opening Time & Tide across from the revamped mill just before Thanksgiving in 2018. The stylish space features an original wood floor, pressed tin ceiling, tables with pastel pink chairs, pink, red and blue streaks on the south wall, and paintings that depict places like Paris and Montauk. Time & Tide roasts their own beans, to good effect. I particularly enjoyed a pistachio iced latte made using Commodore espresso, milk, and pistachio cream served over ice, inspired by Phillips’s coffee consulting trip to Saudi Arabia.
MUST ORDER: Pistachio Iced Latte