Portland’s culinary reputation continues to grow nationwide. Several of the following restaurants have received prestigious awards for their excellent and delicious meals. It’s worth the trip to the Port City to try one — or all — of the venues we rated the best Portland, Maine, restaurants. We promise you won’t be disappointed with the meals created by the phenomenal chefs at these venues.
Eventide Oyster Co. & Hugo’s
With Eventide Oyster Co., we have a restaurant that serves intelligent, just-imaginative-enough, and tasty interpretations of classic New England seafood like lobster rolls, chowder, and fried fish. The idea is so simple and winning that you have to wonder why anyone didn’t think of it before, or at least didn’t execute it so well. But all the better for the team at Eventide, which has been welcoming hungry crowds since it opened in 2012 and won a “People’s Choice Best Chefs” award from Food & Wine magazine the following year. Don’t miss the rolls and buns—filled with lobster or fried oysters or fried chicken—and of course, you must start with some raw bar and the chowder. The kitchen has a light hand with both fried fish and crudo, so even the daintiest eaters can dine happily, though the biscuits are worth busting any diet.
Meanwhile, this trio has also relaunched Hugo’s next door, where they all worked for the legendary Rob Evans before buying the place from him, also in 2012. There, they have maintained the restaurant’s high standards and cutting-edge reputation, serving exquisite Maine-sourced ingredients prepared with Japanese and French accents. For example: local lobster is poached with Maine-grown ginger and served with foraged lobster mushrooms in a broth enriched with Maine kombu seaweed. Everything exotic and hyper-local, all on a plate. And the dining room, recently refurbished, boasts an open kitchen which you can view from comfortable custom-made leather booths and tables made from 160-year-old reclaimed red birch.
Eventide Oyster Co.. 86 Middle St. 207-774-8538
Hugo’s. 88 Middle St. 207-774-8538
Rob Evans is having a good time. After years of training that had him bouncing around the country, Rob has planted deep roots in Maine, the place that inspired his style of seasonally-influenced cooking, and where he launched his award-winning fine-dining restaurant, Hugo’s in 2000. In 2012, he sold the place to employees Arlin Smith, Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor, who now operate both Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co, but he continues to run the wildly popular Duckfat, a more casual café across the street from Hugo’s, where his staff makes superlative panini, salads, charcuterie, and milkshakes, plus the signature Belgian-style frites that are fried in the flavorful fat that give the restaurant its name. Rob has always been inspired by New England’s changing seasons, and for his next act, he and partner Nancy Pugh have started a farm in nearby Limington. Rob takes seriously his “responsibility to support the local guys,” using indigenous foods and recycling 90 percent of the waste that Duckfat produces. “It’s all part of being in the place you are,” he says. “If people travel to Portland, I want them to have a Portland experience — not to try to re-create something from the Napa Valley or Paris or Miami. This is Maine.”
Duckfat. 43 Middle St. 207-774-8080
Cinque Terre & Vignola
Chef Lee Skawinski and his partner, Dan Kary, are so committed to local foods that they farm most of the produce on their menus themselves. “We support as many local guys as we can, from rabbits to chickens to lamb, because we can, and because it’s a better product,” Lee explains. “Part of being a cook in our restaurants is to come to the farm and pick. It makes the connection to what we cook more profound.” This time of year, Lee says, “I’m like a kid at Christmas, waiting for asparagus and peas. They have a vibrancy that can’t be replicated or easily described.”
Lee puts the food, not his ego, at the center of the plate. During the off season, he travels to Europe to underscore “the importance of quality ingredients, taste wine, and pick up a few ideas.” At Cinque Terre the menu offerings are refined Italian classics; at Vignola, dishes hail from the great Mediterranean wine countries of Italy, Spain, and France.
Cinque Terre. 36 Wharf St. 207-347-6154
Vignola. 10 Dana St. 207-772-1330
“We [the kitchen staff] poke around at the farmers’ markets and snag what inspires us, what looks good; then we bring it back to the kitchen,” says Steve Corry, chef and co-owner (with his wife, Michelle) of 555. “We talk the menu through, and everyone has an opinion. Some are more vocal than others, but the cooks are all passionate and intense. Sometimes it goes through a few renditions before we’re all satisfied. Then it makes it to the menu.”
Steve and Michelle both spent time in California before settling back among their East Coast roots. That time in Napa codified their respect for local ingredients and their love of fine wines — both of which are front and center on Steve’s menus.
Before opening the doors, Steve was clear about his cooking style and what his operation would be, “but mostly I wanted to make sure that this would be a place for people who live here in Portland — not just for out-of-towners. We love seeing new faces for certain, but we’re also open seven nights a week, no matter the weather.”
555. 555 Congress St. 207-761-0555
The plates that come from Sam’s kitchen carry strong Mediterranean influences, but the ingredients and simplicity are undeniably coastal Maine. Fore Street’s signature dish, for example — mussels with garlic and almonds — gives a nod to French and Spanish cuisine, but the orange nuggets of cold-water mussels coaxed from their blue-black shells are all about the briny seas around Coombs Island in Gurnet Strait, where they’re harvested by hand.
Fore Street’s many-windowed dining room is rustic and minimally decorated, but like the food, it’s a well-thought-out operation: comfortable and natural with exposed brick, rich wooden tables, and an open kitchen centered around a wood-burning oven that reaches 800 degrees and a grill that glows from the live flames beneath its grates.
Among the cooks here there’s a precisely choreographed hustle — one that comes from experience, yet, centered around that fiery gleam, somehow evokes a primal dance. It’s all part and parcel of dining at Fore Street.
Fore Street. 288 Fore St. 207-775-2717