The emails are just starting to come in. It happens around this time of year, as Maine's spring/summer visitors begin to make their plans. "Coming your way... where to eat?" is a common heading in the subject line. So is "Hungry, need advice," and the ever popular and always appreciated, "Help? Dinner's on us!" (Sometimes people actually make good on the claim.)
Normally I answer requests for dining ideas individually, but this year I've decided to be smart and put everything all in one place. A couple things to know up front, though: I've confined these suggestions almost exclusively to downtown Portland locations. This isn't a complete listing either. Some fine restaurants (Hugo's, Bresca, Back Bay Grill, Emilitsa) are absent, but only because I haven't been to them in awhile and prefer not to pretend that I have. By all means, look them up.
Bottom line? These are the places where I bring my own visitors when they come to Portland. No matter who's picking up the tab.
Best new restaurant
Petite Jacqueline is a French bistro that's owned by the people at the very popular Five Fifty-Five. I much prefer this new place, though I have to admit that I never understood the fuss over 555 in the first place. Jacqueline's food is a lot more honest. It's pretty traditional bistro fare set in equally traditional (casual) surroundings. And the prices ain't bad either. The very nice steak frites is $20, both at lunch and dinner. And the same twenty bucks will buy a full liter-sized carafe of perfectly serviceable house wine (if house wine's your thing, that is). The confit de langue d'agneau (lamb's tongue served over lentils) appetizer is fab, as is the housemade charcuterie (get the pig trotter terrine, it's terrific). The salade lyonnaise may be the best salad in town. And I'm told that the bistro burger ($9) at lunch is quite good.
Best high end meal on the cheap
If you appreciate the finer things but are on a budget, here's how to score a meal session at one of Portland's top two or three restaurants for not much more than going to Applebee's. You head on over to Fore Street and grab a seat at the bar. Then order yourself a platter of the wood oven-roasted mussels prepared with almonds and butter. They've been on the menu since Day One, cost $10, and are terrific. Plus, you'll get a basket of excellent crusty bread from Standard Baking Co. downstairs, which you'll need to sop up the sauce. With a glass of wine or a beer this can actually be a very nice light meal. I've made a night of it myself this way many times.
Best all-day dining spot
The Front Room, in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood, is very hard to beat here. Sure, it's one of only a few places in town that's even open for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. But it's also got good food at very reasonable prices. Some of the things I like here: The potato gnocchi with bacon, spinach, two poached eggs and holandaise ($8) is very good. So are any of the $7 to $9 sandwiches (the BLT is a fave). At dinner, the spaghetti carbonara ($13) isn't always spot on but it can be very good.
Best ethnic restaurant
Korea House is a family run place in the heart of the "arts district," such as it is, and is well worth a try if you like authentic Korean food. The dolsot bi bim bop ($15.95) is great, but so are most things on the menu. Try the seafood pancake ($15.95) as a shared appetizer, and I always get one of the simply grilled fish, like the mackerel ($13.95). The only downside is that the owners pay little attention to atmosphere, what people in the restaurant trade might refer to as "the concept's packaging." Korea House is strictly a space that has tables and chairs where people eat. If you're looking for high energy or a bar or a venue where things tend to happen, this isn't it. It's at 630 Congress St. (207-771-2000). Runner up: Tu Casa, Portland's only Salvadoran restaurant. I go for the menudo (tripe soup) on Sundays. I don't expect you will, but for good, honest ethnic food, Tu Casa is worth a visit.
Best places to get a banh mi
Whoever it is that runs the PR machine behind this Vietnamese sandwich needs to get a big fat raise. Seems the country is just lousy with banh mi. Portland now has its share of the sandwiches too. We locals rely mostly on two places: Kim's is a takeout joint at 261 Saint John St. (207-774-7165); get the barbecue beef. Saigon is a full-service restaurant, a good one, at 795 Forest Ave. (207-874-6666); I'm partial to their steamed meat banh mi, but the others are also good. Sandwiches at either place will only set you back around $3. Or, for an Americanized version, Nosh Kitchen Bar has a banh mi, with porchetta, for $9.
Best seafood restaurant
First-time visitors imagine Portland as a great seafood town, but the truth is that it isn't even close to being one. Street and Co. is the only seafood place I can even imagine suggesting here. It's been around forever, has gone through some ups and downs, but anybody who thinks there's better seafood in this town isn't paying attention. A sizzling pan of shrimp with butter and garlic over linguine ($21.95) is about as simple as it gets. Some would call that boring, but I call it one of the best dishes in town.
Best place for a brew
If you're an aficionado of fine beer, Novare Res is a must stop when in Portland. The 25 taps are rotating, which keeps the selection ever changing, and the bottle list is 300-plus labels long. The meat and cheese plates are good accompaniments to the brews, and an outdoor deck is secluded and great for hanging out in warm weather. Just one thing: Hours aren't nearly as accommodating as other places in town, usually beginning after the lunch hour or much later even. Check before planning your day around it.
I'm gonna give it a tie for now. The bacon cheeseburger ($12) at District comes on a buttered bun, and both the bacon and the fries that come with it are top notch. Over at The Grill Room the burger ($13) is served on focaccia with tomato tapanade, roasted red onion and an absolute mountain of very good fries.
Best big city knockoff
Maine's attempt at mimicking David Chang's astonishingly successful Momofuku comes by way of one of Portland's most innovative chefs, Masa Miyake. Pai Men Miyake is the chef's second restaurant here, and though it's not nearly as interesting as Momofuku menu-wise, it's the closest you're gonna get to such things up this way. At the very least grab a beer at the bar and order the pork buns ($9) as a snack. Miyake's other restaurant, the very fine Miyake Food Factory, is moving to new digs this summer.
Best place to eat breakfast outside
While most other visitors stand in line for just-okay grub at Becky's Diner, you will discover far better food and atmosphere at Porthole. In good weather, the very large outdoor deck on the water makes for a swell morning hangout. And they have a bar.
When my cousins visit from New York they always want to make a stop at Micucci Grocery for a "Sicilian Slab" or two. The pizza oven is up a few steps from the wine department, way in the back of the store. It's mostly for takeout, though there are two tables where you can eat if you'd prefer. I've never had a single complaint on this suggestion. Never. And my people know their pizza.
Best $1.85 you'll spend in this town
Standard Baking Co.'s morning bun has been a staple around these parts for a long time. There's a reason things become staples, you know. It's at 75 Commercial St., 207-773-2112.
Best sweet indulgence
Gorgeous Gelato is a must stop if you enjoy the Italian frozen sweet. A Milanese couple opened the shop just last year, and I can't stay out of the place. It's the richest, creamiest gelato I've had stateside. It's even better than a lot of gelato I've had in Italy. No lie.
Best place to stop if you get lost
Should you stray outside of the center of town, the Great Lost Bear on Forest Ave. has been a local hangout for burgers and brews for more than 30 years. Like chicken wings? The buffalos ($12.99 for two pounds) are a meal unto themselves. They're good, too. Of course, the big draw at the Bear is the nearly 70 beers on tap, 50 of them from Northeast breweries and plenty from Maine. My favorite local brewer, Allagash, is well represented at the Bear. Give one of their brews a try; you won't be sorry.
Best place to just drop by and see
You may have heard about the restaurant carved out of a defunct (though rather grand) old church? Well, this is it. Grace isn't the best restaurant in town, but it's certainly the most unusual you'll ever see. I'd suggest having a drink at the very impressive-looking bar, then moving along.
One other thing: If you do happen to be interested in surrounding areas, here's a coastal dining guide I put together last fall. Enjoy your trip.