Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Best eats on Maine's coast

As fall approaches, we here in "Vacationland" (Hey, it wasn't my idea for a slogan!) turn our thoughts to the visitors who follow the turning leaves.

And they are turning already, the leaves. Quickly.

You gotta eat when you're here, right? Okay, here are some ideas.

This is by no stretch the definitive Maine dining guide; in fact, it's pretty arbitrary. For one thing it's focused solely on the coast, and comes to a screeching halt in Camden. That leaves out towns like Bar Harbor, among others, the whole Mount Desert region in fact. I'd recommend driving up there; Acadia National Park is beautiful. I just haven't done much dining past Camden is all. And the dining I have done hasn't left an impression.

There are as many lobster-focused places as I could comfortably include, as most visitors to Maine demand this. And knowledgeable road-food types will note that some big, near cult-like names do not appear here at all: Flo's Hot Dogs in Cape Neddick comes to mind, as does Becky's Diner in Portland and Red's Eats in Wiscasset. I love a good hotdog, but never understood the Flo's thing; the dogs, and their toppings, I think, are drab. Becky's is a friendly enough place; I just don't think the food's anything special. And as for Red's, I never drove by the place when the line wasn't around the corner, and enough people whose opinion I trust insist it isn't worth the wait. (One of them, a budding haikuist, travelled clear from Boston one afternoon just to sample Red's famous lobster roll. She drove home that evening, reliable sources inform me, muttering over and over a single-syllable word that begins with Letter No. 6.)


Anyway, I've organized the towns from south (or west if you prefer) to north (east), as the vast number of road warriors would be driving in this direction.

Enjoy your trip.

This is the first town in Maine over the I-95 bridge from Portsmouth, NH. If you're into the outlet store scene (I thought you said you were coming for the foliage!) then it's probably on the itinerary. Like Mexican? Loco Coco's is better than the places around the shopping outlets, and only five minutes south. Go to the Cantina side and hang at one of the high-top tables near the bar. Try the fish tacos, or one of the Picadas. Specials are often good. And they serve Dos Equis on tap. Or, if you're looking to do the lobster pound thing right away, head down to Kittery Point and the Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier, where locals bring their own tablecloths and make an evening of it.

This is not likely on most travelers' must-visit Maine towns, and I'm not suggesting that it should be. However, I recently had a very nice pizza at Blue Sky, in the Atlantic House hotel. Try the Pizza Margherita, done in a wood-fired oven. Surprisingly tasty — if the only dish I've tried here. (I warned you this was going to be an arbitrary list, didn't I?) Afterward walk across the street (and way back in time) to The Goldenrod for candies, ice cream and a peek at the fountain service counter. (In case you don't know, York Beach is not unlike a funky beach town you might find along the Jersey Shore.)

I could eat the biscuits and sausage gravy at the Maine Diner all day, which is why I'm glad I don't live here. Add some baked beans on the side and you're good to go. Oh, they have other stuff on the menu too, including terrific homemade Red Flannel Hash on Saturdays.

Precious few places in Greater Portland offer a water view (Don't get me started!) but the Black Point Inn on Prouts Neck overlooks plenty of sandy beach. I wouldn't recommend it for dinner or even lunch, but the outdoor porch is a swell spot to have a late afternoon drink if you're in the nabe. (Don't tell anybody, but Glenn Close has a place a few houses away. I almost ran over one of her dogs once. The pooch's fault, not mine. And Glenn couldn't have been nicer.) If you're out to do a picnic on one of the area beaches, you won't find better fixins than at The Cheese Iron.

There are better lobster pounds, but none has a more perfect setting than The Lobster Shack at Two Lights. Actually, this isn't a true lobster pound (the lobster dinner comes in only one size: small), but the fried clams and shrimp are real good, as are the onion rings; the chowder's worth having too. The real draw here is the outdoor setting, all the picnic tables just steps from the rocky coast. And, yes, there really are two lighthouses.

This is where I live, and I know it best, but it's also where most travelers will stop, and so I'll try and telegraph some of the more notable spots that visitors might enjoy.
Fore Street Yes, it's as good as you've heard. Make a reservation, or go super early to snag a table. I just eat at the bar, but even that gets crowded fast.
Novare Res The most interesting beer selection in a brew-centric town, and the best food of all the beer joints. Plus, there's outdoor seating, woefully lacking in these parts. The banh mi sandwich is real good.
Miyake Hands down the best sushi, but the chef may also be the most inventive in town. Plus, it's BYOB.
Nosh If you like a good plate of salumi, this is the place. It's also got sandwiches and excellent fries, even poutine.
The Grill Room The best burger in town, and among the best fries.
Hugo's Top-notch grub from perhaps the town's finest chef. Plates are on the "precious" side and so it's not for everybody. About as high-end as it gets in Portland, though casual.
Bresca The only Italian worth a stop. But it's tiny, so plan ahead or make other plans.
Micucci Grocery The focaccia (pizza to some) dubbed the "Sicilian Slab" is not to be missed. And the sfogliatelle is very respectable. Grab some of each and head up Fore St. to the Eastern Promenade for a great view of Casco Bay while eating on a park bench.

The L.L. Bean-dominated shopping magnet isn't much for great food, but Buck's Naked BBQ has some pretty decent chow, Day's Crabmeat (in Yarmouth) is good for a crab roll and freshly made fries, and Harraseeket Lunch (not a fave of mine, but others dig it) is right on the docks if you're looking for a post-retail-experience fried seafood/lobster kind of thing.

Just south of Bath, on Georgetown Island and close to Reid State Park, is the quintessential Maine lobster pound, Five Islands Lobster. It consists of three shacks on a working dock and so you'll likely see lobstermen unloading their catch while you're there. For the setting alone, it's worth a detour.

An ultra-tourista t-shirt town, for sure, but occasionally I find myself sailing into this picturesque port by boat and stopping at the Boothbay Lobster Wharf for a lobster roll (it's jam-packed with meat). Get some melted fake butter and pour it on the roll. You won't be sorry. And they sell beer by the pitcher.

Yes, Moody's Diner is everybody's fave, and it's definitely good and cheap, not to mention heavy on the Maine atmosphere. But if I were going to eat at one place while blasting through town it'd be Morse's Sauerkraut. The European-style market (sausages, wursts, like that) serves breakfast and lunch in a very small annex to the food market. We're talking German pancakes and fresh pierogies and sauerbraten and schnitzel here, folks. It's seven miles off Route One. And you're not likely to leave the market empty handed. (Chocolate-covered Halvah for munching in the car anyone?)

If you're in this part of the state, odds are you're taking in the scenery and just relaxing. In which case make the effort to be around Waterman's Beach Lobster for lunch. There are picnic tables right on the water, a small beach actually. The crab rolls are great, the lobster rolls are good too, and the pies are worth the extra calories. Oh, it's BYOB, and closes for the season September 26th.

Two places are a must here, and they couldn't be more different: Conte's 1894 and Primo. I'll let the Conte's link speak for itself. As for Primo, this is one very fine restaurant, perfect for any occasion, serving what might be the best food in all of Maine. My favorite thing about Primo is the antipasti bar they added to the top floor this summer. Stunningly good, with lots of house-made salumi. Almost makes me want to move out of Portland to be closer. (This summer they also had oysters for a buck apiece on Sundays.)

I never had a really extraordinary meal in this town until Natalie's opened in the Camden Harbour Inn a couple years ago. The restaurant is unlike any I've seen in Maine; like its owners the place drips with European flair, part sophisticated haute dining room, part bordello. Guess you have to see it. The food? Crazy good, if a bit pricey. I've had two meals here. One was the best poached Scottish salmon I've ever eaten, the other a lamb dish done two ways, both of them fab. A must for highly discriminating types. (Francine is said to be quite good as well; careful when clicking on the link, though, as they choose to serenade us with music while we're visiting their website.)

I know, I know. Your favorite spots aren't here. Sorry. I did say this would be an arbitrary — and visitor-focused — list.

But feel free to add your favorite spots, or criticize mine, in the "Comments" section below.

I can take it. And it will provide everybody else with more to ponder while they take in the turning New England leaves.


Claudia said...

Fond memories of vacations in Maine - even the tacky towns where there's a lobster roll shack every 30 feet (still have those?) . But I must say, I will return and when I return - yes, you bet - it'll be lobster waiting for me.

Jeannie said...

You made it sounds like a great place to visit:D especially the lobsters part!

Karen @ Mignardise said...

I recently ate at a place in Kittery called Anneke Jans - and it was fabulous! I live in Yarmouth and don't normally get there much, but I have to say it was worth the trip.
Great blog! I like your style.
You can find me at blogging about all kinds of food.

john in Brunswick said...

In Portland, don't miss Back Bay Grill for true fine but not pretentious dining and super friendly staff. A favorite of informed and knowledgeable diners for years, minus all the fake hype about Portland restaurants. Take the "precious" warning about Hugo's seriously, unless you like entrees the size of sugar packs. Bresca's food is fine, but all cuteness and trendiness aside, it is just too small and noisy to be much fun. 555 is superb, a great balance, welcoming staff, a balcony.

Anonymous said...

When in Kittery ~ Morrison's lobster pound on badger's island is the best. It is where the locals go. Fantastic view, prices, service. Bring your own beverages and sides....

Anonymous said...

This comment is a bit anitquated at this point, however, kudos on your list.Wondering why you left out Brunswick? Quickly becoming a "little Portland". Kind of like the Farm Team to the big leagues perhaps. From budget-friendly (Fat Boy's), to ethnic/local (Trattoria Athena - Italian mind you, which you seem to fancy; fresh pasta/ravioli as well- or El Camino), to upscale (Clementine). Worth a trip!

Eat Here. Go There. said...

You have to go to Red's in Wiscasset in April or May. Seriously, I love their lobster rolls, and I have eaten enough of them from all around the state. Try it, I think your sources are wrong. Plus at $14.99 it's a way better deal than practically anywhere else I have been.