The recent glorious days have served as an annual booster shot reminding me why I continue to live in Maine.
Like many, I have willfully forgotten about winters past when my steep driveway (aptly dubbed Mt. Deepwood), saw heavy sledding action. Fears around my youngest daughter diving in the ice and snow in the Boston South Shore Demolition Derby have temporarily melted away. With zero humidity, and daylight present in the wee hours, it’s nothing short of heavenly.
In the restaurant business, this precious time reminds me of the NFL preseason. The games are real. Plays and players are being tested, and fans are in attendance. But still, it’s a warm-up for the official season because in Portland, the hospitality league starts in earnest Fourth of July weekend.
Here’s a scouting report on the best places to see the season unfold, which of course, refers to the many decks, patios and outdoor opportunities in the greater Portland area. It’s been done before, so I’ll name a just few favorites, in no particular order, and move on to the patio operations playbook itself:
• Inside or out, Yosaku on York Street makes my top five eateries list overall. And, as the lush greenery matures, the deck gets more beautiful every year. Between the soft gurgling water sounds and the fresh, classically prepared sushi and sashimi coming out of Tuck’s kitchen, it’s one of my happy places.
• Owned and operated by the city of Portland, the Riverside Grill (at the golf course on Riverside Street), is home to one of Portland’s biggest decks. Recently expanded, panoramic views of the golf course and summer sunsets are a photographer’s dream. Disclaimer: I have been known to pour a Woodbridge Chardonnay there, once or twice.
• Still off the peninsula, and abutting a parking lot, is the chained-off area of picnic tables and randomly scattered plastic chairs at Samuel’s Bar & Grill on Forest Avenue. Overlooking the hustle and bustle of beautiful Morrill’s Corner, the fairly recent addition of a flashing neon sign on the pub across the street adds to the kitschy charm.
• Offering postcard-like scenes of Sunset Marina, as well as the Portland waterfront and skyline, the deck at Saltwater Grill in South Portland is a gem. Put it on your list, if only for the view.
• Back in Portland, at the Casco Bay Bridge end of Commercial Street, is TIQA. Multi-leveled and well designed, the outdoor space has a fire pit and cushy sofas. Being open on three side gives this oasis an advantage over others tucked away behind connected dining rooms.
• Honorable mention: Portland Lobster Co. and The Porthole in Portland, for mayhem and music. The Treehouse on Stevens Avenue, because it really is a magical rooftop treehouse, with fairy lights, and nooks and crannies for hide-away seating.
Now, back to the football league metaphor.
Without a doubt, seasonal outdoor serving presents challenges unrecognizable to the uninitiated. Extra tables and seating requires additional team members, many of whom are newly drafted for the season and are still learning the drills. Combine rookie status with the physical demands of an outdoor dining pace and the potential for poor service increases.
Most outdoor dining areas are the furthest from the kitchen, and the bar. A server who fails to make eye contact with each diner at a table and say, “May I bring you anything else right now?” will find himself running back and forth for extra sour cream, another Cosmo, a side plate, and so on, just for one table. The domino effect of falling behind, even with help from a food runner or busser, is inevitable.
But overcoming these offensive blocks during peak deck time is not impossible.
To my new-to-the-game hospitality brothers and sisters: Take a deep breath when you’re stationed in the deck-end zone. Do your very best because, after all, we wait for this opportunity to be champions all year long.
Forget looking flashy, or being the MVP. Write everything down. Focus on getting the order correct, and place it immediately. Pay attention to the moves of seasoned veterans (do they order food before bringing bread?). Tell your guests to relax and enjoy themselves. Subtly remind them they’re there to unwind. Slowly.
Thanks to those who wrote with lost-and-returned stories. There was a backpack, a purse overflowing with valuables forgotten in the Old Port, and a new Macbook discovered on the Eastern Prom.
Like the 16-year-old Father’s Day hero at my serving job, who turned in an elderly gentleman’s wallet, there are many out there doing “the right thing.”
I’m proud to have you as readers.
Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to email@example.com, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.