There is a strange problem in Portland. As an outsider I have heard talk of how Portland is a burgeoning food city. Until moving here I had thought the same. There are murmurs that there is some kind of group think at the least and at worst a conspiracy afoot in the Maine food scene. I have been to my fair share of restaurants here, some of the supposed best restaurants in all of Maine. Personally, I’m not blown away. Not even close.
Champagne restaurants with ‘Highlife’ food
I’m going to call out Five Fifty-Five because it’s a great example of this. A quick list of gripes: salty hosts, ‘retirement home’ decor, overpriced “just okay” food, clunky menu. We walked in – admittedly – early to our reservation to an empty waiting area and told to wait. An understandable circumstance as it was still early in the night and unorganized. An older (see: wealthy) couple walked in behind us soon after, were seated quickly, and without a word to me and my wife. The two hostesses bumbled on the computer some more and we were finally seated in a nearly empty restaurant. I’m not tied up in decor, but if you wish to portray an image and your attempt falls on its face, it must be said. Five Fifty-Five’s decor is sparse, save for awkwardly placed bottles of ‘Dom’ and oddly placed lighting. The menu is printed and put together on a small obnoxious clipboard. A cute idea if done properly, but seeking out any information besides the first page is a trail of wits and patience. I’m not sure what to say about the food but that it was simply alright. For the money, it was atrocious; under-salted soups without dimension, seemingly unseasoned cuts of beef, tired-and-overdressed platters, and laughingly tiny desserts.
Real food is just that
I will contrast with my favorite place in Portland: The Porthole. It’s about attitude, ultimately. The food is fresh as humanly possible, the specials are interesting and familiar (ie: Cinnamon roll french toast, dressed up ‘fish’ omelets). Not just this, but they are good, real good. They aren’t a greasy spoon (Miss Portland, Becky’s) or pretentious wanna-be foodies (Hot Suppa). The former has its place and are good at times as well as serve a wider audience. The dishes at the Porthole are clean and simple – greasy when they need to be, perfect pancakes, correctly made eggs, but there isn’t fuss. Nothing is overdone – heck the bathrooms don’t even have doors. They have a hulking chalkboard with an ever-changing array of specials, which are always stellar.
Another favorite is Portland Lobster Company – simple name, straight forward food, and only open while the season is. My last example of ‘right’ food is a place that exemplifies ‘real food’ mantra, but carries a theme while doing so is the tiny Mike’s Deli. Great meat, fresh veggies, an overwhelming menu, really nice staff – a theme done right.
Overhyped, pretty great food
Something else that happens here is anyone that ‘does it right’ and is one of chosen ones gets thrust so far into the spotlight their names are like lore and you’d think it would be hushed around campfires. These restaurants include Duckfat, Ottos, and Fore Street.
These likely exist in other cities, but Portland is the only city I’ve seen where talk and fixation finds it self caught in a feedback loop of mediocrity. Great food should be celebrated not a collection of buzz words.