It’s no secret that Maine has been discovered by the editors of just about every conceivable tourist and lifestyle magazine. The Pine Tree State has been recognized as a top place to raise a family, to retire, and of course, to vacation.
(Forbes thinks we come up short when it comes to those pesky years between childhood and retirement, but never mind that.)
These accolades notwithstanding, it used to be that only a few of Portland’s restaurants were considered among the very best in New England. But now dozens of Portland’s burgeoning bistros, bars, breweries, distilleries, fermentories, diners, tapas dens, dumpling houses, kitchens, enotecas, and cucinas are turning up on list after “best- of” list.
By and large the recognition is good, of course, but I am becoming convinced that Portland may have jumped the shark. This month, Bon Appetit, a leading arbiter and trend-spotter of good food and fine dining, proclaimed that our Portland had “become the new Portland.” In other words, we had achieved Portlandia status.
There is, apparently, no higher status in Cocktail and Foodie World than being comparable to the Real Portland, the West Coast apex of hipsterdom.
When I first heard the news, though, I rolled my eyes and laughed. I still see Portland as a charming, slightly scruffy city with a working waterfront just a short walk from its most stunning homes. I think of a handful of outstanding, unpretentious restaurants and neighborhood bars where you can get a good table and have an audible conversation. I think of a manageable city where on-street parking is available.
But I am forced to admit that something really has changed in Portland. The tide has turned, and for proof one need look no further than those new restaurants and cocktail bars that have opened in recent months. Bon Appetit listed a few of them, but my own investigation has revealed several more.
A few of these newly established trouble spots have appeared in the Old Port, but nowadays you have to leave the beaten path to observe the leading edge.
In fact, it was underneath a railroad trestle on St. John Street that I found one of Portland’s newest restaurants, “Shank and Wattle,” and spoke to owner Demi Monde. Monde had recently decided to open a place in Portland after operating a successful pop-up lemonade stand in Brooklyn.
“I’ve found in Portland and Portlanders a delightful willingness to suspend belief,” Monde said with a shy smile from underneath her blaze orange wool cap. “Before arriving here, I’d never cooked anything more elaborate than ramen, but thanks to Portland’s great spirit of acceptance, I’m able to serve TV dinners and charge $29.95 for them.”
Monde’s experience has been so positive that she persuaded several of her friends from Boston to establish new “concept” restaurants here, as well.
“The thinking behind Carcass,” said owner Trey Feau, a recent transplant from Somerville, “is to repurpose the trimmings and leavings that other establishments choose not to serve or no longer need. We feature a tasting menu that offers small plates of bones, gristle and other items of lesser interest. We also offer a prix fixe menu of six small and largely indigestible portions. At $35 it’s a steal.”
Since it was getting late in the day, the time was right to consider one of the city’s newest specialty cocktail bars. On Level 4 of the Chestnut Street Garage, behind the third pillar on the left, I discovered Beach and Mohn, described by bartender Whey Hoppie as “an urban speakeasy.”
“People can come here at any time of the day or night and buy the same beers my dad used to drink. You know, Pabst, Bud, Miller, that kind of thing. Of course, we have to charge a bit more for it,” he said, “since our menu is written in chalk on the wall behind me. Plus, the Pringles are kinda pricey.”
I don’t know precisely when Portland’s transformation began, but there’s no indication that the pace of change is going to slow anytime soon. We are awash in flannel shirts and horn-rimmed glasses.
We face a stark choice, people. We can accept these changes as a rosemary-infused, sage-lipped, rose-hipped artisanal sign of the apocalypse, or we can look in the mirror and remind ourselves of who we once were, and can be again.
Let us once more belly up to a real bar. Let us strive for the kind of authenticity that existed before authenticity became something you had to strive for.
Resurgam, Portland, resurgam, before it is too late.
Perry B. Newman lives in South Portland, works in Boston, and is a former columnist for The Forecaster.