Dishin’ That: Will ‘urban chic’ cook Portland’s goose?

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Talk of Portland gentrification is peppered with pros and cons.

Pros come from fat-cat real estate investors, many who don’t remember when it was easy to pick a place to eat in the Old Port. Cons are heard from natives losing their sunrise views of Casco Bay to the insta-condos outside their bedroom windows.

The oil of progress is being whisked with the water of nostalgia, and for most, it’s distasteful.

Akin to the influx of home goods and clothing stores touted as local (yet stealthily headquartered From Away), the rabbit-like creation of restaurants and bars knows no limits. The epidemic leaves us overwhelmed, and the antidote is to simplify and stick with your go-to spots for a while.

Which really is OK.

Unless you’ve hit the lottery jackpot or hate to picnic on the Prom, it’s hard to keep up with the expansion. Even folks who fancy themselves as foodies with a finger on the pulse of all that’s new now feel inferior. The expression, “You just can’t get there from here,” takes on a different meaning.

My approach to choosing uncharted dining territory is having my ear to the hospitality grapevine. As new places pop up, a friend or member of my partially disbanded restaurant creative consulting team will inevitably reach out. Such a phone call took place almost a month ago.

“Hey, I’m sick of the over-staffing nonsense where I work and it has been unseasonably, eerily slow,” a former cohort said. “Last Friday, I left with 9 percent of my sales after tipping out the host and bartender. The staff meal is always some chicken special and I’ve been vegan for over a year. Honestly (heavy sigh), they aren’t going to make it. So, I’m using you as a reference and don’t forget to say how much of a team player I was (he wasn’t) and that I was never late.” (He usually was.)

Telling me he was going to another Italian restaurant, my interest was piqued.

“The new place is a reincarnation,” he said, spilling the name. “It’s in a cool building, the prices are decent and the food is recognizable and well done. Plus, the sections are bigger and the ownership team gets it.”

Jumping ship just in time, my friend’s instincts were spot on. The short-lived, well-promoted restaurant of his former employment shuttered up last week. Saddened but not surprised, I hadn’t heard many good things about it, the most common offense being unreasonably small portions. That, and the acknowledgment that there are just so many places to try.

Along with six other new eateries, that place had been on my summer visiting list. It has since been deleted and replaced with an inner-Washington Avenue pho spot. My youngest daughter, CK, is a pho-natic. Restaurant-overload epidemic or not, I’m confident it won’t stay on my to-dine list for long.

So, where else does the oily side of restaurant gentrification result in grease fires? It isn’t just in the number of grand openings and quiet closings. It certainly isn’t due to a lack of culinary talent or professional service. Instead, the danger in part is trying too hard to be over-the-top urban chic. It makes me retch.

Nobody wants to eat in a dated dining room, but without the right yin and yang of new and old, function and fashion, familiarity and free-style, the atmosphere (vibe, if you will), can ruin it all. My Bubbie (may she rest in peace) used to say, “There’s a tush for every seat,” but who wants to sit on an uncomfortable, fluorescent plastic school-cafeteria chair while eating foie gras torchon? It’s OK once or twice, but how does listening to “Hipster Cocktail Party Radio” on Pandora (Yes, this is a real thing, complete with commercials, happening at a real place in town,) not become passe?

The real question is, how do the ultra-modern gray condos protruding off the south side of historic Munjoy Hill not become tiresome eyesores?

Peas & Qs

Having too many restaurant choices is a colorless indication of privilege that leaves me infinitely grateful. Many of our neighbors cannot be stricken by the “too many restaurants epidemic,” so I’m skipping next week’s hit list visit and donating to a local food bank.

Pho can wait, so consider putting the food bank rotation on your own list.

Natalie Ladd detests restaurant reviews, but always has an opinion. She has spent most of her working life studying the human-nature, behind-the-scenes side of hospitality and is passionate about sharing it. And she still loves Bruce Springsteen. Reach out: nladd@theforecaster.net.

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