The biggest reason to head north in the winter is to ski, but what about for all those folks who want to avoid the mayhem of the slopes? Although the specific produce and fish on your plate might be seasonal, the food scene in Portland, Maine, is certainly a year-round draw.
A New England inn always fits the bill during the colder months, and the Danforth Inn is a smart choice as it’s also well located for your culinary adventures. Built in 1823, the Danforth is positioned on the edge of Portland’s burgeoning West End and a short walk to the bustling Old Port. A brick exterior, crown moulding and fireplaces in every room add touches of grandeur to the property, which underwent major renovations in 2010. The West End Suite, one of nine available accommodations, includes a sitting room with a private patio, a piano and a curved velvet couch.
The first floor, with a grass-covered chandelier hanging in the lobby and a giant Buddha head in front of the fireplace, provides a hint that your food-and-drink experience here will stray far from the fusty New England feel you might expect from an older inn. The Tempo Dulu restaurant, helmed by Michael MacDonnell, offers southeast Asian fare such as tamarind-glazed foie gras as well as a lobster tasting menu and a separate chef’s tasting menu.
You can find the same southeast Asian influence in the hotel’s Opium lounge. A small plates menu features delights such as pork-belly dumplings, curried duck arancini and moo ping pork skewers. Redesigned in May, with wallpapered ceilings, plush velvet furniture and a beefed-up beverage program, the chic lounge draws a mix of locals and guests from the inn. Under the guidance of bar manager Alexa Doyer, the cocktail menu shows off a playful side with 20 drinks, including a snow cone that features two scoops of sorbet, sake, yuzu, pineapple, ginger and a salmon caviar topping. Also a must-try is the Jakarta—made with a Chinese spice blend, rye, amaro, sweet vermouth, bitters and absinthe—which is poured tableside and delivered with a puff of smoke atop it.
Step outside the Danforth to continue a food crawl through Portland, where you’ll want to mix in a few of the classic favorite spots along with some buzzy newcomers. Traverse the red-brick sidewalks of the West End and pop into Chaval, a brasserie that opened this summer. Sample items from the seasonal menu such as the fall-off-the-bone lamb ribs or the savory cassoulet, and choose a local beer from standout city breweries such as Bissell Brothers or Oxbow. A few blocks away sits Little Giant, which also opened this summer next to a market owned by the same husband-and-wife duo. The kitchen, led by Rian Wyllie (formerly of Deep Ellum and Lone Star), offers an impressive brunch menu including a savory johnnycake that’s topped with a fried egg, blueberry maple syrup and a habanero-cheddarwurst that oozes cheese as you cut into it.
You could easily spend a full day wandering through the Old Port area and its adjoining streets while exploring the food favorites that have helped raise Portland’s profile in the past decade. Stop at standby Holy Donut to try out the dark chocolate glaze with sea salt or the sweet potato ginger glaze, made with Maine taters. For lunch, you can opt for a one-two casual approach. Put in your name at the revered Duckfat before the mob descends. Once inside, chow down on the poutine with Belgian fries cooked in duck fat, and top it with a sunny-side-up egg and some duck confit. And don’t forget to wash it all down with one of the seven milkshakes available, including a shake that uses coffee from local roaster Tandem. But don’t fill up: A couple of blocks away is the original Eventide Oyster Co., located in more charming confines than its Fenway sibling. Go straight for the brown butter lobster roll and double up on the soft, delicate buns by ordering a buttermilk fried chicken sandwich topped with pickled watermelon, ranch dressing and cole slaw.
After a day of indulgence, you might need a little time to unwind, though don’t take too long. Arrive at Central Provisions about 10 minutes before it opens for weekend dinner at 5 pm. If you’re there at 5:05, the dining room will already be filled—and as there’s an entire menu of mouthwatering options to explore, the customers likely aren’t leaving anytime soon. Enjoy some veggies such as the fried cauliflower with ras el hanout, chickpeas, feta and herbs and the smoked carrots topped with cinnamon, goat cheese and pistachio. And be sure to look at the daily specials list, where you might find some fresh Maine uni crudo available.
With so much of a local focus on the food, it’s heartening to see that ethos cross over to boutiques in the city. Blanche + Mimi and k Colette both sell housewares and other oh-so-cute gifts. Ramblers Way offers sustainable clothing, with some of the products crafted on the ground floor of the two-story store. Stop into the Portland Art Gallery to browse some work by local artists or head into Zane for stylish women’s tops or denim. You could have good reason to make a purchase: After a weekend full of eating and drinking in Portland, you really might need some new jeans. ◆
Central Provisions, central-provisions.com; Chaval, chavalmaine.com; The Danforth Inn, danforthinn.com; Duckfat, duckfat.com; Eventide Oyster Co., eventideoysterco.com; The Holy Donut, theholydonut.com; Little Giant, littlegiantmaine.com
- – The brewery scene in Portland includes Bissell Brothers, which starts selling cans at 11 am on Saturdays before its taproom opens at noon.
– The Portland Museum of Art includes a number of pieces from Winslow Homer, a Maine resident for more than two decades, and it also leads tours of his artist studio in Scarborough.