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Updated: April 29, 2024 30th Anniversary

Portland is a restaurant city, but it wasn’t always so

File Photo / Tim Greenway Chef Colin Wyatt (foreground) in the kitchen of Twelve restaurant, which made Esquire’s 2022 list of “Best New Restaurants in America.”

Maine’s culinary identity is rooted in its unique local ingredients, such as renowned Aroostook County potatoes, succulent lobster and freshly caught fish. These, along with a thriving farming industry, have played a significant role in shaping Portland into the vibrant food city it is today.

Portland’s food scene has been elevated by places like Scales, Eventide Oyster Co., Fore Street and Twelve.

Yet Portland’s food scene wasn’t this way 30 years ago. These restaurants have helped Maine become one of the best places to eat and a foodie hot spot for those wanting an ordinary cuisine with fresh Maine ingredients.

In the 1970s into the 1980s, the Old Port neighborhood was dirty. The working waterfront smelled like fish. It was hardly a place where diners would venture out for fine dining. It was characterized by seafood restaurants, chowder houses, a few Italian eateries, a steakhouse and bars.

Image / Mainebiz archives
From an early issue of BIZ, Chef Stuart Littlefield of Beautiful Food to Go, on India Street in Portland, prepared meals that were packed fresh and vacuum sealed, ready for the microwave.

“There were several restaurants, but far fewer than today,” says Greg Boulos, senior partner at the Boulos Co. “Establishments such as the Village Restaurant across from Shipyard Brewing, the Sportsman’s Grill at 911 Congress St. and Horsefeathers on Middle Street in the Old Port come to mind.”

Remarkable transformation

In recent decades, Portland’s food scene has undergone a remarkable transformation. The emergence of high-end restaurants has been a game changer, but the earlier establishments laid the foundation for Portland’s burgeoning foodie reputation.

One of the most notable attractions is Fore Street, which is part of a family of restaurants and bakeries that include Scales, Street and Co. and Standard Baking Co. All were founded by Dana Street.

Fore Street, which opened in the Old Port in June 1996, features new American cuisine, with a menu that changes daily based on the products available from farmers, fishermen and foragers.

A few blocks away, DiMillo’s On the Water had a role in bringing more people to Commercial Street. When it opened on the Portland waterfront in 1982, it was the only floating restaurant this far north on the East Coast.

Another pillar was Back Bay Grill, which was opened by Steve Quatrucci in 1987 and helped establish Portland’s foodie reputation. Until it closed during the pandemic, Back Bay Grill served a mix of locally sourced meat and seafood dishes. Its wine selection won a host of Wine Spectator awards. Early on, the kitchen was led by Chef Harding Lee Smith, who went on to start the Corner Room, the Front Room and the Grill Room.


From being recognized in Esquire’s list of “Best New Restaurants” to being named “Restaurant City of the Year” by Bon Appetit, Portland has been making a name for itself as one of the best destinations to check out.

In 2002 and again in 2007, Fore Street was named by Gourmet Magazine as one of the “Top 50 Restaurants in the United States.” In 2004, chef-partner Sam Hayward was named “best chef” in the Northeast by the James Beard Foundation.

In 2018, Bon Appetit declared Maine’s largest city the “Restaurant City of the Year.” During that time the then deputy editor Andrew Knowlton said in the article that the “sheer number of outstanding openings” in the city have made it the top food destination in the country this year. Knowlton previously declared Portland “America’s Foodiest Small Town” in a 2009 article.

While Maine may be best known for its seafood and high-end Portland restaurants, two Maine bagel shops — Rose Foods in Portland and Rover Bagel in Biddeford — were ranked “The Very Best Bagels in the US (outside of New York City)” by Bon Appetit in 2023.

Craft beer scene

Another major trend in the past three decades is the addition of craft brewing.

Geary Brewing dates to 1986 and Shipyard Brewing started in 1994. They helped launch a wave of brewers that now includes Maine’s largest brewery, Allagash Brewing, as well as Bissell Bros., Rising Tide, Maine Beer Co. and many others.

The Maine Brewers’ Guild, which was founded in 1994, says that Maine had 10 active breweries by 1994. As of 2022, Maine had 165 active, licensed breweries.

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