This small town has a big appetite
(CNN) – For Johanna Corman, drinks are her game.
The co-owner of Vena’s Fizz House in Portland, Maine’s, Old Port neighborhood, Corman and her husband Steve know all about making old-timey and modern bitters and shrubs and natural syrups for alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks that delight the senses.
Johanna invents and makes the drink mixers and creates products for their tiny retail shop, while Steve works behind the bar creating the drinks, many of which change as the seasons change. (She created her first syrup while working at her parents’ apple farm in nearby Hiram, Maine.)
When the Cormans are hungry for a nice meal, they have plenty of options within walking distance or a short drive away.
Whether it’s the summer high season or snowy wintertime, Portland has all they could wish for. With a population of just about 66,000 people, this city is home to reknowned food establishments such as Duckfat, Eventide Oyster Co. and Hugo’s and so many more. This is a town for food and drink fans year-round.
When we asked Johanna for her favorites, she had to work hard to limit her list.
“Portland is stocked to overflowing with amazing places to eat,” she says.
“I’m lazy and go to places that are near — a five-minute walk, from Vena’s – but I did include many that are not actually just around the corner from Vena’s.”
Let’s start with breakfast
Tucked away on a side street off Congress Street, Dutch’s Breakfast and Lunch has a laid-back, retro vibe and a creative menu that includes a crispy chicken biscuit and turkey corned beef hash.
Ian and Lucy Dutch have cooked in fine dining establishments elsewhere, and it shows. Lucy bakes sourdough country loaf, biscuits, bagels, croissants, two kinds of muffins, brioche cinnamon rolls, cookies and more from scratch six days per week, plus donuts on weekends (they’re closed Mondays).
Bayside American Cafe is a local institution, so expect to wait for its elevated classic breakfast food, served in a cozy interior or (in good weather) the tree-covered porch.
For breakfast or any time of day, head to Holy Donut, where locals rave about the potato donuts. If they’re in stock, Johanna recommends the popular chocolate sea salt flavor at the nearby 7 Exchange Street location. Owner Leigh Kellis advises arriving before noon to avoid an empty shop. (The three locations close when the last donut is sold.) If you’re willing to drive, Johanna’s family farm sells apple donuts in season (and her apple syrup year-round).
Stop for a quick lunch
For lunch, the Cormans love to pop next door to Mami, a Japanese food truck which now includes brick and mortar establishment next door to Vena’s.
“Their food is amazing,” says Johanna, and they have “great prices. “We love everything on their menu but seem to order the Nikuman (steamed bun with miso barbecue lamb), and the Poke Don (salmon with avocado and sesame) the most.”
For a taste of Colombia, they’ve discovered Maiz on the second floor of the Public Market House’s food hall. Also run by a husband-and-wife team, Martha Leonard and Niky Dwin Watler Amaris. Johanna recommends the choclo arepas, which are made with sweet corn and cheese. Maiz (which means corn in Spanish) also offers other types of arepas, pan de bono, empanadas and coffee.
When they’re in the mood for a hot dog, they head to the Blue Rooster to get a Slawski and Hutch. “It’s so good and it has tater tots on top,” she says. Want your tots on the side? Order BBQ Tots, Tot-tine, Thai Tots or other tots from the menu.
Pai Men Miyake noodle house offers a lunch special that allows guests to mix and match 2 items of dumplings, vegetables, sushi or ramen.
A coffee break
There’s no shortage of good coffee spots in Portland, where a break from the cold weather is welcome. Tandem Coffee Roasters offers “some of the best baked goods you will ever eat in a renovated gas station,” says Johanna, and it’s open and airy.
Portland’s original coffee house, Coffee By Design brews great coffee in a great atmosphere, while high-end Speckled Axe offer wood roasted coffee. Arabica‘s Commercial Street location on the waterfront making it easy to grab a cup and walk along the Eastern Promenade Trail next to the water.
After a long day, it’s time for dinner
After a long day at work, Johanna and Steve love to head to J’s Oyster Bar on the wharf and grab a beer and a bucket of steamers. (Never mind that the owner’s tax problems sent her to jail. The food hasn’t suffered.)
It’s worth the wait to grab a table or a seat at the bar, where you’re likely to chat up lobstermen drinking a pint after a hard day’s work and get into conversation with waitresses who move the food quickly from the kitchen to your table. Of course, J’s has fresh Maine lobster as well.
“It’s divey, local, no frills,” says Johanna.
Looking for more farm-to-table seasonal cooking, where you might bump onto local Slow Food activists? A 20-minute walk from the Old Port area, Blue Spoon offers wine specials during happy hour and an open kitchen with a seasonal menu.
For big occasions like their anniversary, the Cormans head to Street and Co., which is operated by the same folks who operate Fore Street. (Many credit Fore Street with launching the latest the Portland food renaissance, and it has continued to be a major destination for tourists and locals alike.)
“I love the warm, cozy, wood and brick, open kitchen/wood fired-ness of it. The food, I feel I have barely scratched the surface, is amazing. It has never disappointed.”
They also love Central Provisions, “the newer, hipper, amazing restaurant for the younger foodies to celebrate,” she says. “Small plates, amazing cocktails, but also the cozy, woody/brick/open kitchen vibe, plus a bar downstairs.”
Looking for a secret gem? Piccolo is a little gem serving Italian that may sometimes get overlooked because of its size, says Johanna. “Steve and I have run up and been lucky enough to get in and sit at the tiny bar. It is warm, inviting and intimate. The food is divine.”
Have a drink
When they’re not creating or serving drinks at their own establishment, they like to head to Maps, a cozy bar that is “always prepared for birthdays with slices of cake,’ Johanna says.
The name of The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box caught Johanna’s attention and owner Nathaniel Meiklejohn’s drinks keep them coming back.
“I think — other than ours of course — they have the best cocktails in Portland,” she says. “It’s really cozy but hip at the same time but not pretentious,” she says. “I think runs a little under the radar and I love places like this.”
It’s Maine, so yes, lobster
Talk to any resident of Maine about lobster, and many will say the best lobster can be found at home or a local fish place nearby. Asking 10 different locals might produce 10 different answers, and they could all be right.
For a leisurely drive with friends, Johanna and Steve will head to the Lobster Shack at Two Lights on the coast in nearby Cape Elizabeth. Open for the season in March, the shack serves everything on paper plates and has indoor and outdoor seating. Lobster, shellfish and other fish are available at market prices.
“I love sitting and eating outside on the rocks or at a picnic table and watching the waves crash and smell the salt air — doesn’t get much better than that!” She says. “It is also a great place to people watch because people from all over the globe come in the summer.”
For an off-season lobster roll, they love to run down to Gilbert’s Chowder House, specifically its Portland location, a casual, no-frills on Commercial Street. “You can always get a good, fresh lobster roll and fried clams, plus they do really have amazing chowder, in a bread bowl if you want,” she says. “I’m a sucker for a bread bowl.”