A Perfect Weekend in Portland

by  ShermansTravel Editorial Staff | Jul 28, 2009
Portland, Maine
Portland, Maine / Sean Pavone / iStock

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By: Norman and Stephanie Vanamee

There are a million ways to vacation in Vacationland, but like a lot of people who make yearly trips to the state of Maine, we had fallen into a rut. Every summer, we embarked from New York City on a 6-hour drive, which landed us in a family beach house where we spent our days untangling nieces and nephews, plunging into the frigid ocean, and debating when to have the big lobster dinner. Not particularly original, but as far as annual getaways go, relaxing and loads of fun.

In recent years, however, we added another element to our routine: a regular pilgrimage to Portland. Maine's largest city is more than a decade into a well-documented culinary boom, and a second wave of upstart chefs is keeping the scene fresh. A sophisticated mix of boutiques incubate adventurous design, some of which have gained a national following. The Portland Museum of Art shows off work by Maine’s adopted sons, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth, and the first Friday of every month finds some 30 galleries hosting wine-and-cheese receptions for an art walk. At night, the bars along Fore Street and the lounges of the Arts District are thick with locals sipping pints of Shipyard to the thrum of live music, letting off a youthful buzz redolent of that other Portland.

Not bad for a city of 64,000.

Our side trips have become so enjoyable that this year we are even contemplating risking the family’s wrath and skipping the beach house altogether in favor of a weekend of eating and shopping our way through Portland.

Destroyed four times (twice by Wampanoag Indians, once by the British, and once by fire), Portland has a long history of reinvention. Through centuries of booms and busts, enterprising locals have made fortunes manufacturing everything from ship masts to glassware and prosthetic limbs. When the bottom dropped out of a market, as it often did, they tried something new (the city seal shows a phoenix rising from the ashes). Over the past few decades, that something new has been tourism, which has thrived and with good reason: Portland has a modern airport with nonstop flights to hubs around the United States, a walkable revamped waterfront called the Old Port, and lovely sand beaches just 8 miles to its south.

Yet a scrappy creative energy still persists here (that belies the lobster kitsch all over), along with the sense of small-town camaraderie that undoubtedly waters the many grassroots endeavors.

View our Portland Slideshow by photographer Robin Blair Riley for glimpses of the Pine Tree state's most sophisticated city.

Where to Eat

Portland’s latest boom began in the mid-’90s when a handful of chefs abandoned familiar Maine menu items (clam chowder, lobster rolls, and steamers) and took a fresh approach to regional cuisine. At the vanguard was Sam Hayward, who converted an Old Port factory building into a cavernous dining room with an open kitchen and began serving simple preparations of seasonal local fare, such as Casco Bay mussels cooked in a wood-burning oven, and turnspit-roasted pork loin. Ubiquitous now but revolutionary at the time in Maine, the minimalist, let-the-ingredients-speak-for-themselves style at Fore Street (288 Fore St., 207-775-2717) received astonishingly good reviews from national publications and suddenly Portland became a culinary destination. Next came Hugo’s (88 Middle St., 207-774-8538), where Rob Evans adopted a more technique-driven approach: A recent menu included Atlantic flounder and Maine shrimp en croute. Then Steve Corry opened 555 (555 Congress St., 207-761-0555), a two-story restaurant with an attached cocktail lounge. The James Beard Foundation named Hayward Best Chef in the Northeast in 2004 – and Evans in 2009. In 2007, Corry was included in Food & Wine’s annual list of Best New Chefs.

Along with accolades, these restaurants have drawn epicureans from all over the Northeast – allowing a second, equally compelling wave of smaller, less-polished restaurants to flourish. Ranging in size from a spot with a few counter seats to a full dining room, these establishments are scattered in odd corners of the city and often reflect the passion of their owners. There’s Lisa Vaccaro and Abby Harmon’s Caiola’s, a snug neighborhood joint on Pine Street, and Paciarino, an Italian spot run by two recent arrivals from Milan. Bresca and Evangeline are two of the best in this category: They each got their start through an adventuresome chef, Krista Kern and Erik Desjarlais, respectively, who met and fell in love while eating at the other’s restaurant.

In a narrow, one-story Old Port building, Bresca (111 Middle St., 207-772-1004) has 20 seats, including four stools at a bar. The chef and owner Krista (now) Desjarlais works with a sous chef in a closet-size kitchen with just six burners, a Salamander broiler, and no walk-in fridge. Meals in the small dining room are intensely, sometimes awkwardly, intimate. Everybody hears everyone’s order. Service gets backed up. But right when things begin to feel tight, one of Krista’s brilliant, Mediterranean-themed dishes appears – say, braised black kale and pancetta topped with a trembling soft-boiled egg – and a gratified hush falls on the room.

“Portlanders are really supportive,” says Krista, who has worked at top kitchens in New York, Las Vegas, and Paris. “I always knew I wanted to open my own place. And I knew that this city had the kind of community that would support what I wanted to do.”

Her husband, Erik, was 26 when he descended on the Portland dining scene with a flurry of French technique and big ideas. In 2003, he opened his first restaurant, Bandol, which offered an ambitious, don’t-ask-for-any-substitutions menu heavy on organ meats. It won him rave reviews and a small devoted following, but not much commercial success. “The city wasn’t ready for the prix-fixe menu,” says Erik, who kept the place going for three years. After closing Bandol, he spent a year regrouping (and falling for Krista, whom he first met when she looked at his space as a possible location for Bresca) and then opened Evangeline (190 State St., 207/791-2800), a 38-seat bistro facing Longfellow Square. Here Erik focuses more on winning over customers than his own agenda. The result is a carefully measured push and pull. The menu includes crowd pleasers, such as chicken breast wrapped in bacon, but also left-fielders like flash-fried glass eels and crispy sweetbreads. “There weren’t a lot of brains being served in Portland when I started,” he says. “But people tried it, and now it’s our most popular dish.”         

On Monday nights, Krista joins him at Evangeline where the pair prepares a three-course menu for $25. “Even though we run our own restaurants, we’re good in the kitchen together,” she says. “We can cook a whole night without having to say a word.”

Where to Shop

Portland has also nurtured a thriving art and design scene, which manifests itself in smart boutiques and a healthy (and hip) crafts culture. An early pioneer on the design side was Angela Adams, whose flagship, Angela Adams (273 Congress St., 207-774-3523), is located at the base of Munjoy Hill in Portland’s East End. Adams sprang onto the international design scene several years ago with her hand-tufted wool rugs, whose modern patterns in vivid hues pay homage to Maine’s natural beauty. Nationwide, home design stores such as Design Within Reach carry the rugs (with names like Seaglass and Islands), but the Portland shop is the only place to find her furniture, handbags, and housewares.

A relative newcomer to the city, Black Parrot (131 Middle St.; 207-221-6991) offers a finely curated selection of women’s clothing as well as a meticulously thought-out collection of design items, including Marimekko fabrics and Hans Wegner chairs. Opened in January 2008 in a former book depository, this store appears more Brooklyn than Maine: A vintage folding bicycle is parked in the middle of the room, and cult labels like Rachel Comey, Rag & Bone, and Lover fill the racks. Black Parrot’s unique perspective on fashion is welcome in a town where Crocs are standard issue. “I love being able to sell someone a dress I know they won’t see on anyone else,” says store manager Kate Smith. Don’t miss the scarves, bright beach towels, and totes.

And while some local boutiques find success by importing revered brands, Rogues Gallery (41 Wharf St.; 207-553-1999) has become one. Located on Wharf Street in the Old Port district, the fairly new shop is the tiny outpost of a much larger men’s clothing brand launched in 2003 by Alex Carleton, a former L.L. Bean and Ralph Lauren designer. Known mostly for his line of vintage-style T-shirts printed with images of shipwrecks and the like, Carleton has cultivated a worldwide following. The shop is stuffed with ephemera inspired by his obsession with Maine and maritime history: nautical ropes, taxidermic trophies, and key chains made of bone.

Ferdinand (243 Congress St.; 207-761-2151) takes a more low-key approach to DIY crafts, showcasing the work of local and national letterpress and silk-screen artists, along with a lively mix of vintage women’s clothing and jewelry. Diane Toepfer, a graphic artist, opened the store eight years ago after relocating from California and stumbling across the vacant storefront. The contrast between her former city of Oakland and Portland came as a shock.

“It’s easy to live here, make friends, and get around,” Toepfer says. “All the quality of life issues that make being productive and creative easy are a breeze.” And beneath the lifestyle lies a foundation of fellowship and creativity that extends in all directions to restaurants, art, and lately, music. “The musicians and visual artists cross-pollinate and support one another,” she says. “I appreciate that so much.”

Where to Sleep

For all its sophisticated eateries and stores, Portland has accommodations that tend toward nice-but-sterile chains or homey bed-and-breakfasts. In 2003, a bit of glamour got added to the mix when Portland Harbor Hotel (www.portlandharborhotel.com) opened on the edge of the Old Port’s main drag of shops, bars, and cafés. The hotel’s Mediterranean-inspired restaurant Eve’s at the Garden recently hired a new chef, Earl Morse, formerly of the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport and a world champion ice carver. Its laid-back lounge is popular with locals and the 101 cheerful yellow rooms offer elegant dark wood furniture and chocolate lobsters left on the pillows at turndown. To avoid street noise, request a room facing the garden. The hotel recently added a new wing containing six suites equipped with Jacuzzi tubs, gas fireplaces, and mammoth flat-screen televisions. A stay in the apartment-like suites is a smart splurge, providing pleasant seclusion.

For a more homespun experience, visitors can try the Percy Inn (www.percyinn.com), a bed-and-breakfast in the city’s residential West End neighborhood. The brick town house was built in the 1830s by moonlighting shipwrights – evident in its steep, narrow staircase and elaborate finish work. Owner Dale Northrup spent years writing travel guides before translating his experience into running a supremely practical B&B. The floors creak and the bathrooms are small, but the rooms, each named after a famous poet, are restful with a stately, Federal feel.

Also in the West End neighborhood but on the opposite end of the decor spectrum is The Pomegranate Inn (www.pomegranateinn.com). Housed in an 1884 Italianate mansion, it is crammed with a mash-up of antiques and contemporary art. The result is tastefully wacky, like the home of an endearing art-geek friend. To spread out, reserve room No. 8, which has a separate sitting room and a fireplace. In the afternoon, guests can enjoy tea in the garden, and in the morning, wake up to a breakfast such as coconut ricotta waffles with a glass of, yes, pomegranate juice.

Side Trip to Camden

In their search for a perfect location to open a country inn, Raymond Brunyanski and Oscar Verest, two handsome transplants from the Netherlands, considered a small town in Vermont (too expensive), Ogunquit, Maine (too wild!), then stumbled on Camden, a picturesque village 90 minutes north of Portland by car. They bought an old inn overlooking the harbor and Penobscot Bay and embarked on an epic makeover. Out went rocking chairs and plaid slipcovers, and in came eggplant-hued carpeting, Italian wallpaper, Asian art, hand-stitched linens (matching the wallpaper) and multi-nozzled European steam shower systems for the new Camden Harbour Inn (800-236-4266, www.camdenharbourinn.com).

Long a retreat for well-traveled Bostonians and New Yorkers, Camden remains loyal to an aesthetic that could be described as mid-century robber baron. Refined wood clapboard homes abound. Gin and tonics flow freely. Brunyanski and Verest had some nervous moments in spring 2007 around opening time, unsure about how the pink pants crowd would take to their exquisite but modern jewelbox. Instead of turning up their noses, Camden’s old guard began to visit the inn’s restaurant and recommend the rooms to out-of-town friends. In droves. “At first everyone thought the design would appeal only to a young clientele,” says Raymond. “But the opposite has turned out to be true. Young people want country inns to look like their grandmother’s living room, but older guests want something new.”

Two factors helped their cause. First, each of the 18 guest rooms is a model of smart layout and excellent craftsmanship. Second, the pair splurged on their restaurant Natalie’s and hired an amazingly versatile chef. Lawrence Klang does with equal aplomb the deeply nuanced (lobster with cannellini beans and squid ink) and the brilliantly simple (Boston bibb with Parmesan and hazelnuts). This marriage of distinctive food and design makes for an uncommon experience. Or, as they say in Maine: finestkind.

Making it Happen

Getting There Continental, Delta, JetBlue, and US Airways offer nonstop flights to Portland International Jetport (PWM). www.portlandjetport.org

Cost Calendar In Maine, temperatures and prices rise and fall in tandem. Rates are highest in summer; shoulder season begins in late October; and costs dip in winter and early spring.

Around Portland Drive approximately 10 miles south on Route 77 to visit sandy Crescent, Higgins, or Scarborough beaches. Also nearby is the famous Lobster Shack at Two Lights.

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