Go on a small plate “appetour” but not before reading these six tips from experienced locals.
Portland, Maine has become the leader in the local and “hyper-local” farm to table restaurant scene. In 2018, Bon Appetit designated it as its “restaurant city of the year.” If you really want to try some of the best restaurants in Portland, Maine, then go on an a small plate appetour.
Take a restaurant “appetour”
In 2005, after running our own inn and restaurant on an island in Maine without a break, my husband and I drove three hours to Portland for last-minute Christmas shopping. What was intended to be a very long day trip turned into a two-day restaurant binge and our annual Portland “
Like sailors who hadn’t seen dry land in over a year, we found ourselves tasting appetizers and small plates all over the city. For my husband who is a professional chef, it was an epicurean wonderland.
Fifteen years later and the rest of the world has since discovered that the “other Portland” has one of the most vibrant culinary scenes around. Up and coming chefs and restauranteurs are enticed by cheaper rents and access to Maine’s bounty of organic farms and fresh seafood.
Experience the best of restaurants in Portland, Maine by sampling appetizers or small plates from several different places.
Most restaurants have bar areas that serve a full menu and are set up for walk-ins. Appetizers are often the stars of a menu and can be the best way to experience a wide variety of food from several places. This strategy has some risks however, so here are tips for getting the most out of an appetizer tour of Portland’s many exceptional restaurants.
1. Go in the off-season
If you really want to get the best out of Portland Maine’s restaurants without reservations, then go in the winter to avoid the crowds. Or shoot for the shoulder seasons in early spring or late fall (think April or November)
We were once in the city during a weekend snowstorm when restaurants were open but few people had ventured out. We wandered into Vinland, which was offering an incredible tasting menu at an exceptional off-season price, and had one of our best nights of dining – ever.
If you can visit Portland mid-week or on a Sunday, you’ll also find it easier to get into most places. Just check to be sure your top spots are open.
2. Limit the size of your party
It probably goes without saying, but an appetour is not a great idea for a larger group of people. If there are just two of you you’ll be very successful as often there are seats available at the bar. A party of four will work best in the off-season. If it’s tourist season or you have more than three people, then stick to a reservation and eat a full meal in one place and you’ll be happier.
2. Stay within walking distance
Whether a nice hotel or an Airbnb is your style, stay somewhere within easy walking distance of downtown. It’s worth it to pay a little more so you don’t have to worry about parking or driving. Portland is a small city and you’ll find dozens of great restaurants within a 15-minute walk of just about anywhere. Look for hotels and rentals in the Old Port, East End, West End, and Arts District.
3. Eat when other people aren’t
Venturing out into a popular food scene without a reservation is definitely risky. But many of Portland’s best restaurants don’t take reservations because they don’t need to. If your focus is food, then be flexible and consider going at times when the crowds are not eating. Start at 4:30 or 5 for dinner, or go later at 8:30 or 9 pm.
We once arrived at the Back Bay Grill and found that even the bar stools were reserved in advance. When we explained our appetour strategy to the host we were gracefully accommodated with the understanding that we had to vacate the stools in 45 minutes. A win-win for everyone.
Above all, relax and be flexible — you’re on an appetour! If you can’t get into your top pick for an hour or so, then check out art galleries and shops in the meantime, or get a light snack and a drink at somewhere less crowded. One of our favorite spots is Vena’s Fizz House where you can enjoy a craft cocktail or non-alcoholic beverage and also browse their cool store. I recommend the “lumbersexual.”
4. Try a “mocktail” at the bar
One of the riskiest things about an appetour, is feeling like you should order a drink when seated at a bar. The problem is that when you’re stopping at several restaurants in one night, this strategy can make you intoxicated.
Enter the “mocktail.” More and more restaurants are catering to non-drinkers by offering enticing mocktails, or cocktails without the alcohol. These are delicious, easy to sip drinks made with fresh sweet and savory ingredients. You feel like you’re enjoying a high-end cocktail but it won’t get you tipsy. It’s a great way to keep both you and the bartender happy.
5. Go out for breakfast or brunch
A great way to squeeze one more great Portland, Maine restaurant onto your list after a night of appetizers is to go out to breakfast/brunch. Some of Portland’s hottest restaurants serve brunch on the weekends and/or lunch during the day. The menu can be just as creative and less expensive. Many restaurants start serving brunch at 9 am on the weekends but most people don’t show up until 10. So if you don’t mind getting up a little earlier you’ll have an easier time getting in without reservations. For Sunday Brunch Try Chaval, Hot Suppa, or Local 188 in the West End. In the East End check out the Blue Spoon and the Front Room.