Central Provision’s Fore Street dining room.Photo Credit : Courtesy of Central Provisions
When it comes to dining in Portland, the most basic questions—where to start and where/when to stop—are the hardest, particularly if you’re in for just a weekend and have maybe six meals to ration out. And let’s not mince words: Portland is the best food town in New England, thanks to a lucky combination of local sourcing from land and sea, a sophisticated, food-obsessed populace, reasonable rents (relative to, say, downtown Boston), and a proud and scrappy community of chefs following in the footsteps of Sam Hayward and Rob Evans, who first planted their foodie flags here twenty-ish years ago with Fore Street and Hugo’s, respectively. Small but mighty, Portland’s relative geographic isolation has allowed it to develop its own flavor, independent of the faddish winds swirling through larger cities. Chefs seem freer to take risks and, dare we say, cook from the heart. The list of worthy eateries is long, but we start with a two-year-old restaurant that has already established itself as a can’t-miss destination.
BEST PORTLAND RESTAURANTS
Central Provisions, a mostly small plates concept, is an always-packed restaurant/bar in a 19th-century former storehouse in the Old Port neighborhood. Chef/Owner Chris Gould spent seven years at Uni Sashimi Bar in Boston before heading home to Maine, and his deft hand with raw fish shines in the form of yellowfin crudo garnished with radish, sesame seeds, and a mustard-soy vinaigrette ($16). Another signature, “Bread and Butter,” is seemingly overpriced at $7 until you realize that the butter is local and seasonally flavored (with squash or hazelnuts or nasturtiums) and topped with an egg sabayon (made with yolks, beer, and gelatin), which meld together into a buttery-oozy sauce that may leave you licking the plate.
Larger plates, like short rib “pie” served with Yorkshire pudding ($22) will appease any misers unused to sharing, but our best advice is to order a few plates at a time, retain a menu on the table, and keep going until you can’t eat another bite. Also, don’t arrive too hungry. Central Provisions doesn’t accept reservations and waits can be long. The bar downstairs is a terrific place to pass the time, serving the same menu as the dining room, along with some excellent cocktails, a mostly European wine list and mainly local brews. Seats are few, but you’ll be standing in good company.414 Fore St., Portland. 207-805-1085; central-provisions.com
MORE OF THE BEST PORTLAND RESTAURANTS
The flagship of Masa Miyake’s mini-empire (including the noodle-centered Pai-Men Miyake, a farm, and a catering operation) not only offers some of the best sushi in New England, but also some of the most affordable. A ten-piece omakase (chef’s choice) nigiri tasting is $38. A four-course tasting menu is $55 and includes gems like lobster with garlic oil and snapper with cilantro, truffle oil, and oba (a mint-like herb). miyakerestaurants.com
Eventide Oyster Co.
Lobster shack classics (the rolls, the stews, chowders) are all given a creative spin with Asian and Middle Eastern accents at this nationally acclaimed seafood haven. Sample Maine’s growing roster of oyster varieties from the heaving raw bar, and don’t miss the lobster stew with coconut and green curry. Small plates from $7. eventideoysterco.com
Portland’s go-to place for a sit-down breakfast, this West End eatery brings Southern soul to Down East. From buttermilk waffles to biscuits and gravy, to surprisingly great bagels. Breakfast entrees from $5.hotsuppa.com
Potato donuts are not native to Maine—the first printed recipes appeared during the Great Depression as a way to substitute cheap spuds for pricier flour—but they became a staple food in Maine potato country. All twenty-odd flavors at this Portland icon use Maine-grown potatoes in the dough, producing a dunker so light and moist, you’ll wonder why anyone makes donuts without them. Price: $2.50 each; $13 per half-dozen. theholydonut.com
Stephen Lanzalotta’s thick Sicilian pizzas are made with an oil-enriched crust so tender and lofty, you may never go back to thin-crust Neapolitan-style pies again. $6 per slice. slabportland.com
Here you’ll find excellent renditions of Panini, salads, charcuterie, soup, and milkshakes, but you’re really there for the Belgian-style frites that are fried in the flavorful fat that give the restaurant its name. Fries: from $5.50. duckfat.com
Where are your picks for the best Portland restaurants?