Nestled along the shoreline of southern Maine amongst the small coastal northeastern towns is one of our favorite food destinations in the United States. When we lived in New York City, Portland was an escape from the city’s congestion and high prices. Little did we know that those were the good old days and that this seaside town would be discovered. Today we don’t bat an eye at a $30+ Lobster Roll, and the days of $12 lobster rolls are a precious memory of the past. Ultimately, if it weren’t fantastic, I wouldn’t be paying those kinds of prices, nor would I be recommending that you plan a trip entirely around food. Granted, there is plenty to see and do, but the fare is the highlight of any trip to Portland.
The Lobster Roll Round-Up
Let’s face the hard truth first. You go to Maine, you have a lobster roll, and you consider your trip to Maine a success. But there is more to the lobster roll than you see on the surface. There is a huge rivalry of sorts amongst lobster roll aficionados: Maine vs. Connecticut. It comes down to cold vs. warm and mayonnaise vs. butter, respectively. Wondering where I stand? Would you ever admit to loving one of your children more than the other? No. I’m equal opportunity, mayo, and butter.
If you’re coming here and expecting cold lobster tossed in mayonnaise on a buttered roll, you might be surprised with what you get. See, Eventide does things differently. Cold lobster salad? Nope. The lobster is lightly warmed. Mayonnaise? Wrong again. Think warm lobster claw and knuckle pieces tossed in a decadent brown butter vinaigrette. Buttered New England hot dog bun? By now, you know that’s not the case. A spongy steamed bao bun. It’s so distinct and so delicious that Eventide has gone as far as to trademark its lobster roll. It’s that good. Pro-tip, the wait at Eventide is often 2+ hours, so place an order online and eat them on the picnic tables on the grassy area half a block away.
If you’re looking for a classic Lobster Roll, Bite into Maine is our top option. If you’re also looking for a lobster roll with a twist, Bite into Maine is also our top option. My favorite is the “Picnic Style.” It has a lightly dressed, finely chopped coleslaw and is sprinkled with celery salt. Typically, I’m not a coleslaw person, but it works here for whatever reason. John goes for the wasabi lobster roll. It’s light on the wasabi but adds a touch of heat that offsets the cool mayonnaise. Oh, and did we mention that there is a kettle of clarified butter that they drizzle on top of your lobster roll when you retrieve your order? Not for the light at heart. Bite into Maine has a few locations: Allagash Brewery and Portland Head Lighthouse are their food truck locations, and their Scarborough location menu is more extensive.
Beyond the Lobster
When you tire of lobster, you know there are good (in fact, stellar) options that aren’t seafood-focused. We always like to try the new restaurants in the area, but these are the tried and true restaurants that we always make our way to.
Southeast Asian fare is brought to you by the same restaurant group that runs Eventide Oyster Bar. Often times we will opt to dine here when we cannot fathom waiting for hours at Eventide. Typically the wait is not very long. Honey Paw shouldn’t be missed if you’re looking for bold flavors. Khao Soi is highly recommended, especially if you’re here on a cool Autumn evening. Braised lamb and thick egg noodles come nested in a curry-laced coconut milk broth. Wings come crispy, sweet, and savory…and addictive! Leave room for dessert. Their rotating soft serve and cake options are worth stopping for even if you aren’t having a meal.
I’m making a bold statement – these are the best bagels in the U.S. Scratch Baking only offers a few flavors of bagels: sea salt, sesame, poppy seed, and everything. They are best early in the morning when the bagels maintain their airy interiors and chewy exteriors. Sea salt and poppy seed are true winners here and don’t pass on the whipped cream cheese either. Toasting is not necessary if you’re eating them fresh. Be prepared to get there early, or place an order online to reserve your bagels if you like sleeping in. Scratch Baking is only a short drive from the Portland Head Lighthouse, so if you can resist not tearing into your bagel, you will be rewarded with a fantastic bagel with a view. They also have a large selection of baked goods, all of which have been delightful.
Get the raw beef salad. Don’t question it, and you can thank us later. Like most Portland restaurants, you’ll want to make a reservation or be prepared to wait. Dimly lit and incredibly inviting, try to budget enough time to sit at the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail. Central Provisions is an ideal choice for group dining since many dishes are meant for sharing, and you’ll get to sample more of the menu with a group of 4 or 6. Their menu is ever-changing based on seasonality and intentionally balanced across proteins, vegetables, and seafood options. Great cocktails and a thoughtful wine list will likely keep you lingering past your meal.
Eventide Oyster Co. (Listed Twice for a Reason)
You’ll notice that Eventide is on the list twice and not by mistake. While they make insanely delectable brown butter vinaigrette lobster rolls, sticking around and sampling their extensive oyster offering would behoove you. Cocktail sauce and Mignonette are offered as standard accouterments, but their kimchi ice and pickled red onion ice is an enlightening approach to the oyster experience. If, after two lobster rolls and a dozen oysters, you don’t think you can have another bite, think again. The Maine lobster stew is worth undoing your pants’ top button. Not traditional in any sense, the Eventide lobster stew is a green curry stew with large and small pieces of lobster, sweet potatoes, and coconut milk. Mind-blowingly good.
The Beer Guide
When you need a break from the vast culinary landscape that is Portland, you’ll be overjoyed to know that Portland has one of the most breweries per capita in the United States. While there are too may good breweries to visit in one stay (although John has!), we have narrowed our recommendations to those that are most inviting, social, and have food.
In addition to having great beer, wood-fired pizzas, and a beautiful indoor and outdoor space, Maine Beer Company is a downright upstanding company. They are committed to treating their employees right (they pay 100% of their health insurance and provide ample time off), and they pledge a portion of their proceeds to environmental organizations. Their facility has a ridiculous amount of solar that will get any Leisure Travel Van owner thinking about how they can add more panels to their roof. While this brewery isn’t in Portland per say, it is in Freeport, which is about a 20-minute drive away. There is plenty to do in the area to make the drive worthwhile, such as outlets and the very popular L.L. Bean.
Bright and airy and filled with intensely colored murals, your mood will be instantly lifted when you walk into Bissell Brothers. It’s a fun space to have a meal, a quick beer, or linger and get some work done. Their beer offering tends to be heavy on the IPA, but there are generally various styles available on tap. Bissell Brothers frequently have can releases, where you can purchase one or two beers that are small batch produced. Food options are fairly standard pub fare, but they have plenty of vegetarian-friendly options as well.
One of our favorite autumnal breweries to visit, Allagash is a great place to spend an afternoon. They have a vast outdoor space with games and food, which makes it popular amongst families and tourists. Probably a safer bet for people who like beer for recreation as they generally have lighter beers but no less variety. Their beer is distributed nationally, but this brewery feels local and homey.
You’ll be sure to find us in Portland in the fall when the air is crisp, some of the crowds have thinned, and the leaves are putting on a spectacular show. Let us know if you have any favorite places to check out next time we’re there. Even better, if you plan to be there in the fall, let us know, and maybe we can even have a lobster roll and beer meet and greet!