Travel Log: The Maine Meal of the Day

The Red Boat

(Portland, Maine; July 30, 2018) I’m back in Portland for my final night in Maine, and I think I ought to share with you my first-ever food column! After all, the Maine meal of the day is important when you’re traveling, and you can get a real idea of the flavor of a place by sampling local food.

Now, first off, a confession. I am not very adventurous when it comes to food. It’s an irony of the anxiety disorder I wrestle with. Agoraphobia by itself makes it hard to get up and charge into the unknown, but I refuse to become paralyzed so I get up and charge in. One of my personal coping mechanisms is food…but familiar food. I’ll get crazy and go scrambling across rocks 30 feet above a roaring surf, but then I’ll regain my sense of equanimity by eating at a familiar chain restaurant.

I decided to push myself this time and get local. For one thing, Maine is (of course) famous for its seafood. For another, well, I really just wanted to challenge myself since I enjoy this state so much.

Palace Diner
The Palace Diner in Biddeford.  Great sandwiches in a 1920s diner, but it’s a cash-only business, so stop by an ATM before you come!   (July 24, 2018)

Drive into Biddeford, just south of Portland. Sitting on Franklin Street is the Palace Diner. Looking for all the world like a rail car, the diner was ordered from a Sears catalog back in the 1920s! It’s a cash-only business, but it’s a fairly well known local place where the specialty are sandwiches and a chance to listen in on local conversations. The diner’s seating are is small—just enough room for the bar, several bar stools, and a narrow walkway. I had a simple ham and cheese with chips when I pulled up a bar stool. I wasn’t that hungry when I visited on July 24, but I wanted to check it out, and it was trully a fun place to eat.

 

Bluebird Ranch Restaurant
The Bluebird Ranch Family Restaurant in Machias is a typical family restaurant, but the fare is hearty and the blueberry pie is wonderful!  ( July 28, 2018)

If you’re heading out towards Lubec, check out the Bluebird Ranch Family Restaurant on Main Street in Machias. Maine is famous for its seafood, but Maine is also a major producer of blueberries. Yep, blueberries, and you’ll see the blueberry influence once you get inland a bit and experience the country side of Maine. The Bluebird Ranch Family Restaurant is a pretty typical diner, but the menu provides a lot of choices from sandwiches to full entrees, and the desert-end of the business shows the blueberry influence of this part of the state. Try their blueberry pie!

Coffee Break Cafe
The Coffee Break Cafe in Hampden is a truly local place in which you will see the staff and customers banter in a way that you’d really only expect on TV.  (July 27, 2018)

Now, if you want to get the feel for really being in small-town Maine, go to Hampden and visit the Coffee Break Cafe on Main Road North. The cafe’s hours are limited; it’s a family place and open for breakfast and lunch. Usually closed by 2:00 p.m., the cafe is a true local hangout. Take a seat at the bar, and you’ll hear something right out of a TV show! The waitresses bicker with the customers in a fashion that can only be described as family love. There is never a frown in this place, and the coffee and sandwiches are easy and pretty tasty.

Portland is, perhaps, the pinnacle of seafood for the state. Hobson’s Wharf on Commercial Street features Becky’s Diner, a very popular local place that is a diner in all but name only. The usual diner fare one would expect is there, but it’s a diner in Maine. That means seafood—fresh, locally caught seafood—is as ubiquitous as the requisite hamburgers. Becky’s has been in business since 1991, and is so popular that you really need to go during off-hours if you want a seat. Go during the normal lunch and dinner hours, and you’ll see a line standing wrapped around the building as you drive by…and you’ll be driving by because there’s no parking left!

Becky's Diner on Hobson's Wharf
The food at Becky’s Diner in Portland is well worth the wait if you come during rush hour.  (July 24, 2018)

I got lucky (very lucky). I went to Becky’s for dinner on July 24 (same day I ate lunch at the Palace Diner), and just happened to get there after the dinner rush was over. The scallops were huge and very flavorful, the coffee didn’t stop, and the warm feeling of a happy tummy sent me happily off to sleep when I got back to my hotel. The next day I drove by at lunch to see if the rumors of the waiting line were true, and the wait staff had not exaggerated. The line was literally wrapped around the building…and there was even a crowd partway down the wharf! I’m planning to go to Becky’s for breakfast tomorrow morning before I head out for New Hampshire. Hopefully it won’t be hard to get a seat early in the morning.

I’m back in Portland for my final night in Maine. I wanted to go back to the Portland Head Lighthouse, and I wanted to have my final dinner at The Porthole. Portland’s downtown waterfront is a treasure trove of locally-owned seafood restaurants that offer delectable fare (Becky’s Diner is of the same quality, but their location a couple of miles from the downtown waterfront means they have a nearly competitionless-claim on their clientele).

Portland Waterfront
For the crowning glory of your dining experience in Maine, go to The Porthole in downtown Portland.  The whole Maine lobster you order will be huge and filling.  Or try their fish and chips, or even the bouillabaisse.  (July 25, 2018)

I happened to stumble on The Porthole on Custom House Wharf by accident. As I was exploring downtown Portland on July 25, I took time on a wharf to watch lobstering boats heading out, and noticed an open-air restaurant setting up for the day. I was waiting to catch the Casco Lines mailboat for a tour of Casco Bay, and decided to get lunch at The Porthole. I was seated at small table right on the water and tried my very-first whole Maine lobster. I’ve had lobster tail before, but cracking into a whole lobster was quite an experience!

The claw meat was something out of a dream, and the clam chowder I had as an appetizer was the smoothest, richest chowder in the history of chowder! I enjoyed the meal and the banter with the staff so much that I returned to The Porthole for dinner after the mailboat run that night. I tried their fish and chips, and the two pieces of fried fish were freaking huge! I was so full after the fish that I hardly touched the chips. Tonight I tried their bouillabaisse, and it did not disappoint.

The menu describe the bouillabaisse as lobster, clam, scallop, and shrimp meat in a spicy tomato-based broth, but that does not do it justice. The lobster was literally half a whole lobster. The clams and shrimp and scallops were big, juicy, and generous. Mussels were in there too, and if anything was lacking, it was the broth. Instead of a bowl filled with broth and a bit of meat for flavor, I got a bowl full of tasty meats enhanced by a rich, spicy broth. It was a meal that left me quite happy.

The Porthole can be tricky to find. Go around to the left side of the wharf when you’re looking at it, and you’ll see The Porthole’s red sign about halfway back past another restaurant. If the wait line is long, get a drink at The Porthole’s bar and be patient. The food is worth the wait!

Even if you’re like me and not terribly adventurous about food, get out of your comfort zone in Maine. The chance to get to know the locals and experience some incredible food is something you really shouldn’t pass up.

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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