“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” -Orson Welles
Oh Portland…how I love you. With your ocean waters, golden summer sun, and crowds of admiring tourists brought here by air, land, and sea. Your winters are a little on the rough side and seem to last forever, but fortunately, you’ve got plenty of food to keep us entertained and add that layer of warmth to our bodies when the sun isn’t doing it for us.
Of course, that food is what we’re here to celebrate. It’s been a busy year for Portland – with many restaurant openings and closings, as usual – but it’s also been a busy year for me going to many newcomers on the scene, and also revisiting some favorites to keep up with what they were doing too. Part of that included significant time blogging for the Bangor Daily News, and of course, recently returning full-time to this, my own personal blog.
This year, I’ve had the opportunity to try more food, eat more special dinners, and meet more people in the restaurant world than I ever have and I’ve been lucky to do it in the greatest food city imaginable. When you’re involved with food in Portland, it’s truly special. So, thanks to all the restaurant owners, chefs and other employees, food media, PR, and everyone who makes Portland eating so great for me all the others who are here looking for a spectacular food and drink experience.
In this article, I’m recognizing the best restaurants I visited from either blog I wrote for, whether or not I’ve reviewed them before. There may be repeat winners as they deserve to be celebrated too. The criteria are overall quality of experience with a focus on food, atmosphere, and service with strong consideration given to value and how well they stand out in their genre. Congrats to everyone and thanks for making 2017 my most delicious year yet.
It should be noted that a lot of the restaurants below are new as of 2017. There are some true standouts that opened over the course of the year and they have earned some good words and recognition. Opening a restaurant is no easy task, especially where there are already many great ones, but it’s even more difficult to make a lasting impression on customers and that’s what many of these have done. Here we go.
Restaurant of the Year – Izakaya Minato, 54 Washington Ave.
Having eaten at so many restaurants this year, some really excellent ones regrettably didn’t make this article at all and many of the ones mentioned below could certainly take this spot. In other words, choosing my favorite restaurant of the year was no simple task. However, taking into account all the criteria above, Izakaya Minato deserves this accolade and then some.
Highlighted by Garlic Edamame, Kimchi Fried Rice, and Japanese Fried Chicken – which my wife deemed a food “you have to eat before you die”, my meal was an absolute barnburner. One after the other, I tried foods that either made me reconsider my thoughts on flavor combinations or simply knocked me upside the head with beautifully concocted, elegant tastes.
When I walked in, I was excited to go to a Japanese restaurant where sushi wasn’t the main focus. On my way out, I was left wanting to go back as soon as possible. Izakaya Minato makes food that is stunning, interesting, and exciting. That, and they hit all the marks for service, atmosphere, and – at $40 for my wife and I combined – are on the list of best values around.
If you want a meal that will knock your socks off, impress friends, or make you feel special, Izakaya Minato is the place to go. It’s difficult to go wrong there. Their JFC is among the best foods in all of Portland, so that alone is worth the visit. But you’d honestly be missing out if you didn’t have a more thourough sampling of their menu. It’s just that damn good.
Honorable Mention – Street and Co., 33 Wharf St.
Street and Co. does non-fried seafood just about as good as anyone anywhere. My Grilled Lobster on Linguine was a masterpiece of the senses. It looked beautiful, smelled of mountains of garlic, and was everything something that sounds that good should be. There was also lots of it on my plate, so there was no chance of me going home hungry. Plus, the scallop meals in front of my tablemates were just as good.
It’s pretty clear why Street and Co. is a perennial favorite in town. Their food is excellent and they’re getting their wares from nearby, enabling them to serve some of the freshest, tastiest sea creatures imaginable. Whether you’re a local or a tourist, there isn’t any good reason not to go there on occasion and treat yourself to an incredible meal you’ll remember for a long time to come.
Best Ethnic Food – Baharat, 91 Anderson St.
Middle Eastern restaurant Baharat made a name for themselves when they were only a food truck (under a different name), but their more accessible brick and mortar store has been exactly what I hoped it would be and then some. From their mezze/apps, to Kebabs of chicken and lamb, and the massive Shawarmageddon – an “everything” sandwich, the food is sometimes simple and occassionally more complex, but always delicious.
In case the food isn’t enough, they are another in a line of new restaurants around Portland that are taking cocktails to another level. What’s even more exciting is that many of these places – like Baharat – aren’t the types of venues in which you might expect that. I recommend a few different libations, but you’re guaranteed to love A Rad Mirage which is made with Lebanese yogurt, honey, and mint. I assure you, like some others there, it’s a drink you’ll want to go back for again and again.
Honorable Mention – Lazzari, 618 Congress St.
It’s probably safe to say that pizza has transcended ethnicity to a large extent, but one of the things that makes Lazzari so great is that they make a serious – and incredibly sucessful – attempt to keep the Italian food theme throughout the rest of their menu. From the incredible Panzanella I had in July to the Italian street food known as Suppli, they throw a wrench into the traditional pizzaria and take it to a different, well-thought-out place.
I can’t stop talking about Lazzari before I mention their drinks too. They have some of the best drinks in town and if you haven’t sampled them, it’s probably time to do that. I haven’t had a cocktail there yet that I didn’t find absolutely stunning. They’re original, preposterously delicious, and the perfect compliment to the simple, yet exquisite pizza.
Best New Restaurant – Little Giant, 211 Danforth St.
Little Giant certainly got my attention this year. The beautiful eatery, opened as Andrew and Briana Volk’s follow-up to their very popular Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, is a change of pace in that it focuses on full service meals, rather than only drinks and snack. While LG has their own thing going on, they continue on a Volk tradition of artfully created foods and drink with bold flavors served in a relaxing atmosphere.
As my most reviewed restaurant this year, I can say that multiple visits in a short period of time are not only okay, but encouraged. Graze on the amazing cheese ball, biscuits, and a small oyster taco while drinking creations with names like Knife Fight and Born To Run. Then move on to the house burger, skirt steak, or a very potent mushroom pasta. Whatever you eat or drink, you simply can’t go wrong.
Honorable Mention – Blyth & Burrows, 26 Exchange St.
There aren’t many places with a theme and atmosphere as cool as Blythe & Burrows, but add to that to the secret door leading to a totally different bar downstairs and you’ve got the makings of a place that can potentially amuse patrons for hours. They only serve small plates, so don’t go looking for an entree, but you can be sure that the food and drinks deliver and ordering enough plates to fill you up and call it dinner seems totally appropriate.
My first post-opening day visit just recently made me a total believer in what they’re doing. All the food was high-quality and the drinks hit the mark too. My wife thought the Poke Bao was one of the best things she’d eaten all year and my Korean Short Rib Bao also was very pleasing. If you’re an oyster lover, they’ve got a great selection of those too, including a charbroiled option if you like those babies cooked.
Best Upscale Restaurant – Emilitsa, 547 Congress St.
What can be said about Emilitsa that hasn’t already been said by Portland as a whole? If you want upscale food and drink, it’s hard to find a better place to go. From the first bite to the last, and every single one in between, they serve Greek cuisine that is absolutely magical. They also put an exclamation point on customer service and have every last detail down to a science. I particularly appreciate the offer to take jackets immediately upon being led to your table.
Like many restaurants in Portland, Emilitsa’s menu changes frequently based on the season and to keep it interesting, but regardless of what else they’ve got available, I highly recommend the spreads to start. Frankly, anything you order after that is all but guaranteed to be an absolute winner. I think if you go, you’ll wholeheartedly agree.
Honorable Mention – Bolster, Snow, and Co., 747 Congress St.
Bolster Snow invited me to check them out shortly after they opened and I feel lucky they did. With only about a month under their belt, they came through in a big way. Starting with a top notch drink – Honey Buck – and moving on to apps and snacks, our meal got off to a really great start and continued right through the completion of our entree. It was unfortunate that we didn’t have room left for dessert, because an “eclair” with cranberry was right up my alley.
The restaurant serves weekend brunch and is open for dinner Wed-Sun in the winter. They receive a fair amount of nightly traffic for drinks and rightly so, because their libations are proper and the lounge areas very inviting. However, their food makes staying for a full meal after a cocktail or two a very reasonable proposition. They’re just getting started, but I think Bolster Snow is going to be making Portlanders happy for a long time to come.
Best Eats on the Cheap – Cong Tu Bot, 57 Washington Ave.
Despite what many are saying about the Portland food scene, there are still a number of eateries that are both tasty and inexpensive. Vietnamese eatery Cong Tu Bot is one of those. With their small menu of often spicy food and their “throw a restaurant into an empty garage” appearance, they have created a little eatery that reminds me of the big city. It’s sparsely appointed restaurants like that – the interior is nice enough, though plain – that I often associate with having top notch food.
Portland is small and filled with foodies always looking for the next big thing, so it’s not likely Cong Tu Bot will be the place only you know about and get to introduce to everyone for the first time. That’s good though, because they deserve to be more than that. My only warning is to take them seriously when they say their food is spicy, because unlike many others in this area, they actually mean it.
Honorable Mention – Big Fin Poke, 855 Main St, Westbrook, ME 04092 (with a second location in South Portland)
Big Fin Poke isn’t the type of place I normally review. The counter service and create-your-own style food doesn’t always offer quite the excitement of table service with the chef’s best creations. However, they introduced Maine to poke – Hawaiian style sushi – this year, and in doing so, have made a name for themselves, because not only is it inexpensive and really good, it turns out it’s quite fun to order.
Whether you decide on one of the house creations or start yours from scratch, you can be sure that Big Fin has sometthing to satisfy whatever your tastes are at the moment. Start with a rice bowl, a wrap, or a salad and then add raw fish, cooked beef and chicken, and even tofu. Then pile on any number of interesting additions. It’s even better than it sounds and if their new, second location in SoPo is any indication, a lot of locals agree.
Best Appetizer – 33 Elmwood, 33 Elmwood Ave, Westbrook, ME 04092
What makes 33 Elmwood in Westbrook so fun is that they have games, but what a first-time visitor might not expect is that they also have solid food and drinks. When I went with a group nearly a year ago now and shortly after they opened, their bowling alleys weren’t ready, but the rest of the place was in full swing. We had a meal and then played some bocce.
But the very good reason why 33 Elmwood makes this list is because of their Fried Deviled Eggs. Made with sriracha, dijon, and chive, the chicken seed was crunchy, tangy, and delicious. As someone who loves deviled eggs in pretty much any form, this preparation took a favorite of mine culinary delight to a whole new level. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they have lots of other great food too.
Honorable Mention – Liquid Riot, 250 Commercial St.
Have you ever had the Duck “Nachos” at Liquid Riot? Well, neither had I until I finally got there this year and I can’t believe what I was missing. Made from what might seem like a strange combination of ingredients – house potato chips, duck confit, apple butter, blue cheese fondue – the dish was amazing with lots of brilliant flavors wrapped into one insanely delicious package.
Like all the eateries on this list, Liquid Riot offers lots of good options for tasty sustenance, but the duck nachos are an absolute “must have”. I suppose any item with the word “nacho” in it is worth a shot, however these are a little out of the box which makes them special and more than worthy of a try. Of course, the specialty there is the booze made in house, and that all just so happens to go perfectly with nachos of any kind.
Best Place to Grab a Drink/Beer/Wine and Chill Out – Mash Tun, 29 Wharf St.
Mash Tun is quickly becoming one of my very favorite spots in Portland and with good reason. They take no frills greatness to a whole new level. With an excellent beer list and a tiny menu on which everything is both really basic and utterly awesome, Mash Tun makes not only a good place to hang out and drink beer on a whim, but also a pretty excellent location to sooth that growling stomach.
If their beer and food doesn’t convince you to visit, their prices are a drop in the bucket too, so you’ll leave feeling like you made a good decision for your family’s long term financial heath. I can’t get enough of Mash Tun and I feel like they might be the perfect place to take up residence every year during the cold weather until they save me enough money to buy an actual winter home in the tropics.
Honorable Mention – BRGR Bar, 11 Brown St.
I went to BRGR Bar alone the first week they were opened while my wife was traveling. I ate plenty, but I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that it would also be a great place to just sit for a while and enjoy some suds. Sure, the fact that burger is in the name of the joint will likely drive you to order some sort of food, but there seemed to be plenty of people who were content just having a beer or adult milkshake while I was there.
I’ve suggested to a fair number of friends that they go and if I’m taking their word for it, BRGR Bar is impressing everyone who walks in the door. For those who don’t love beef, fear not because there are lots of different options including poultry, fish, and both vegetarian and vegan options. Plus, with fries, tots, apps, and salads, you’ve got a wide range of non-burger choices. I recommend trying the Vietnamese fries, but where you go from there is anybody’s guess.
There are best of the best restaurants I visited in Portland in 2017. I wish I could have recognized more, since the margin of victory in almost every category was nearly negligible this year. Regardless, Portland restaurants continue to be the best in the game. Look forward to lots more food talk this coming year and maybe some new and exciting things from me too. I think 2018 is going to be incredible. See you then!
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