48 Hours In...Portland
October 2010 | By Melissa Coleman | Photographs by Cara Slifka | Illustration by Jennifer Judd-McGee
48 hours, and more, of our favorite places to browse, eat, listen, drink, shop, play, and stay
In lieu of Oktoberfest, and nearly as popular, Portland Greendrinks hosts its monthly schmoozefest on Tuesday, October 12, 5:30 p.m.–8:00 p.m., at a location TBD. Check Portlandgreendrinks.com for details. The coda is simple: all are welcome, there’s no agenda, and BYOV (vessel). See you there.
When it comes to Portland, my own stomping ground, there’s a tendency to want to feature it all. And why not? Our lovely port city is oft-voted one of the top ten most livable cities, and touted for its award-winning restaurants, great art and music scene, and ruggedly gorgeous waterfront. So to narrow the selection, I’m sticking to downtown Portland and recommendations from Maine and Maine Home+Design staff and other locals, with my own favorites tossed in. The result may still be too ambitious for a weekend, but you certainly won’t get bored.
First Friday, from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. (yes, on the first Friday of every month), is when people come out of the brickwork to paint the town for Portland’s arts community. Most galleries and many businesses welcome the public with variations on the art and wine-and-cheese theme. If you don’t like crowds, just come back any other time and do the tour in relative peace. I start with the Portland Museum of Art, perched at the apex of Congress and High streets. Its illuminated, I. M. Pei–designed arches welcome you for free on Fridays, and there’s a new photography exhibition this October. From there head to the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies to see what the talented radio, writing, and photography students have on display. (Sadly, the Addison Woolley Gallery no longer occupies the space on Market Street , but be sure to check out their new location on Washington Avenue.) Next hit SPACE Gallery, which in October hosts an art show that transforms the gallery into a living room. The innovative arts organization also shows films, hosts live music, and offers any number of other reasons to pack yourself into this funky, well-loved meeting place. Then stroll on down the brick sidewalk to the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, the alma mater of many Maine artists. Next stops are Whitney Art Works and the Maine Historical Society Museum, then on to the Portland Public Library to check out its beautifully redesigned building, a work of art itself, that features light-filled, word-inscribed windows overlooking the street and the new Lewis Gallery and Rines Auditorium below.
After the library, cross Monument Square to yuck it up at Longfellow Books, one of the best independent bookstores in Maine. After that it’s time to follow Free Street down to the Old Port and check out Aucocisco Galleries on Exchange Street and Greenhut Galleries on Middle. Be sure to stop by the offices of Maine and Maine Home+Design on Market Street (located upstairs from Furniturea) to view art by magazine contributors and chat about the highlights of the evening before ending the night at any of the great restaurants and bars spread out below.
What can I possibly say about Portland’s food scene that hasn’t already been said? The New York Times calls it “one of the best places to eat in the Northeast.” Bon Appetit dubbed the city “America’s foodiest town.” (See Joe Ricchio's excellent recommendations here, as well.)
Since it’s hard to go wrong with the food, my dinner favorites tend to be places where it is fun to hang out, such as Norm’s Bar and Grill on Congress and Middle streets for hearty fare, Flatbread for wood-fired pizza, El Rayo for Mexican served up at outdoor picnic tables, Nosh for bacon tempura, Bar Lola for tapas, the bar at the Corner Room for antipasti, and Sonny’s for ceviche. Though I’m not vegetarian or Greek, the Green Elephant (mmm, those tempura mushrooms) and Emilitsa (one word: baklava) are definitely worth a go, and don’t miss Grace for the deliciously sacrilegious experience of dining in a renovated Gothic Revival church. You can't take communion, but you can order the Holier Than Thou cocktail or, better yet, the Redemption. This is not to say I don’t appreciate the celebrated dining to be had at Five Fifty-Five (yes, gourmet mac and cheese with truffle and lobster), Fore Street (Sam Hayward started this whole foodie thing, after all), or Bresca and Evangeline.
We may not have Trader Joe’s (yet), but we’ve got Whole Foods. Even better, Portland has a wide range of gourmet and specialty markets. There’s Aurora Provisions in the West End, and Rosemont Market on Munjoy Hill in the East End. Try Harbor Fish Market for lobster and local fruits of the sea, and Browne Trading Company for caviar and other exotics. International flavor abounds, especially at the Italian market, Micucci's, and Mitpheap Asian Market with hard-to-find pan-Asian ingredients. Maine Mead Works is reviving medieval honey wine, and the well-loved Standard Baking Co. is everyone’s favorite place to pick up a loaf of artisan bread, while Vervacious has dips and condiments to put on it. Food nerds can sign up with Maine Foodie Culinary Tours for a guided walking and eating tour, or head to Rabelais Books to chat with Samantha and Don about this year’s best culinary reads.
While you may not wake up hungry after all that, breakfast and brunch favorites include the Maine classic, Becky’s Diner, which opens at 4:00 a.m. for eggs any style, and the more traditional Bintliff’s American Café for “brunch everyday.” Coffee shops abound, the favorites being Bard, with the cute barista who always says, “Here you go, luv,” Arabica, with cozy tables in the back for “working” on that laptop, and Coffee by Design, with multiple locations to grab a cup on the go. Tea is very hip in Portland, and Homegrown Herb & Tea will brew you just about any herbal remedy or tea you can imagine. Then, of course, there’s Soakology Foot Sanctuary and Teahouse for both a hot cuppa and a hot tubba.
Good bets for lunch include Local Sprouts Café, an organic food cooperative and community-supported kitchen, and the Public Market House in Monument Square offers ample upstairs seating and several quick options including the incredible soups at Kamasouptra. Try Paciarino for fresh Italian pastas handmade by a couple from Milan. And, of course, Duck Fat is everyone’s favorite excuse to eat fries, since frying potatoes in duck fat means they’re not bad for you, really.
Why not support our local economy with a Saturday shopping excursion? My retail-savvy friends say to start on the east end of Congress at the hipster’s paradise, Eli Phant, which is chock full of handmade home goods, bags, and accessories. Next stop is Angela Adams for gorgeous rugs and home furnishings by the celebrated North Haven designer. Adams has recently partnered with Sea Bags, the company that makes an array of gorgeous totes from recycled sails. Head back to the Arts District and check out Addo Novo, where one magazine staffer admits to spending an inordinate amount of time fantasizing about owning one of the sofas.
Double back to the center of town on Free Street, and stop in at Portmanteau for handbags, Find for vintage clothing, Papier Gourmet for lovely cards, and Judy Pascal for home antiques. Take a sweep along Commercial Street to check out Chantal for hip, unique designer duds; Bull Moose, the town’s musical and cultural hub; and Furniturea, for contemporary, locally designed and painted furniture. On nearby Exchange Street, you can drool over the 7 For All Mankind jeans and Prairie Underground cover-ups at Bliss. Recommendations for Commercial Street on the waterfront include McKenzie Tribe for men’s wear and Nicola’s Homes for home goods, including a new bedding line that Nicola designed for Garnet Hill. The colorful rugs and furnishings at Company C are worth a gander before ending your shopping spree with the inimitable clothing and accessories of fashion designer and installation artist Meredith Alex at Madhouse Studio.
For a relatively small metropolis of only 64,000 residents, Portland’s music scene is surprisingly big city. The three-story Port City Music Hall is the state-of-the-art centerpiece. This October brings Soulive (October 8 and 9) and Citizen Cope (October 18), among others. There’s also Venue Music Bar & Bistro, newly expanded from Freeport to Forest Avenue for lunch, dinner, happy hour, and shows by Tao Seeger (grandson of Pete) and New Riders of the Purple Sage. One Longfellow Square also hosts all manner of musicians, such as the Kingston Trio (October 24). And, wait, it gets even better: this fall the old State Theatre has been renovated to offer eighty shows a year, the first being My Morning Jacket on October 15, followed by Kansas (yes, of “Dust in the Wind”) on October 23, and Guster (October 27). Merrill Auditorium, Portland’s 1,900-seat concert hall will bring the Indigo Girls (October 30) and Bill Cosby (October 16).
Many bars feature live music, notably Bubba’s Sulky Lounge, which is worth going to just to say you did, as is Oasis (aka Owasted), and the Porthole on the wharf. Try local brewpubs Sebago Brewing Company and Gritty McDuff’s, Margarita’s for a tequila-inspired evening, and Brian Boru for the cool hanging-out-drinking thing.
How better to spend Sunday than sweating off all that eating and drinking? Outside magazine’s inclusion of Portland as one of its dream towns highlights our wide range of outdoor activities, from surfing, sailing, and kayaking to mountain biking, hiking, and fly fishing—all within a half-hour from a downtown also packed with places to play.
Everyone’s favorite social walk or jog is along the Back Bay or Eastern Prom, now hitched by the newly completed Bayside Trail. The Bay Club fitness center at One City Center offers day passes and exercise classes. There’s the Maine Rock Gym, for indoor climbing all year long. And yoga studios abound, including the popular heated options of Portland Power Yoga and Maine Bikram Yoga, my personal favorite. We wouldn’t be a truly bohemian town without the Portland Ultimate Frisbee League, but the PortSports Kickball League has been kicking Ultimate’s butt of late (much easier and less running). Cyclists will feel right at home on the Saturday Morning Ride leaving from Cycle Mania at 7:30 a.m. and Gorham Bike & Ski at 8 a.m. for a fast 30-mile lap around Cape Elizabeth.
If you prefer to watch other people sweat, check out the women’s Maine Roller Derby at Portland Expo on October 9. The Portland Pirates, of the American Hockey League, start up the season in October at the Civic Center, and the NBA Development League Maine Red Claws' first basketball game is November 19 at the Expo.
Easy access to Portland from Boston and New York City means a variety of places to park your suitcase. Downtown Portland’s stalwart independents include the 12-story Eastland Park Hotel, with panoramic views from the Top of the East, the hotel’s rooftop lounge. The Portland Harbor Hotel is the only AAA four-diamond hotel in town, and it feels suitably luxurious. The Portland Regency, once a neoclassical armory building, is the only downtown hotel with full day spa and fitness center, and its Armory Lounge is one magazine staffer’s favorite spot for a nightcap. Smaller bed-and-breakfasts include the Danforth, an 1800s brick mansion with nine newly appointed rooms, and its sister gem, the Pomegranate Inn, which offers eight whimsical rooms and amazing art. All of the above will run you more than $100 a night, but try the Inn at St. John for a less expensive option.
People from across Maine and beyond come to Portland to be pampered at Akari’s salon, spa, boutique, and bistro located in a three-story “urban sanctuary” on Middle Street. More than twenty years ago, owner Alan Labos suspected that beneath that stoic Yankee demeanor, Mainers just might want a little pampering. And he was right.