When I moved to Portland, Maine, I started a list of restaurants I wanted to try. But it’s been harder than I imagined to check off a pho dinner here and a Sunday bagel there. It’s no secret that Portland is a food destination, and I quickly realized I’m competing for a table with hundreds of locavore enthusiasts and hungry tourists.
The easy answer is this: because food publications with clout said so. James Beard Awards have been putting Portland on the map one chef at a time for decades. Early culinary pioneers, like Sam Hayward and Rob Evans, have been inspiring young chefs with big dreams to join this coastal New England city. Then, in 2018, Bon Appetit named Portland the best restaurant city in the U.S. Now, Maine is more than lobster rolls and summer blueberries. It’s craft IPA and bún chả.
In 2018, Portland was listed among the top 50 cities in terms of restaurant spending, according to the U.S. Census; each resident in Portland spends around $1,000 annually eating out. According to the most recent statistics, the median income in Portland is $68,570 a year, (the average U.S. income is $60,336 for some context), so people have some wiggle room to treat themselves for a meal. And the cost of real estate is half of what it is in nearby Boston, making it easier for restaurateurs to open a place (let’s not even talk about the absurdly expensive price of a liquor license in Boston).
But to really understand why Portland is such a food destination, I turned to the chefs and bakers themselves. They all celebrated Portland’s proximity to the ocean and farms, quality of life, and cheaper real estate, but they differed as to why they ended up in in Maine, and what niche their business fills in the food scene.
Chris Deutsch opened Belleville with his partner, Amy Fuller, a Portland native. The couple ran a bakery food cart in D.C. before settling just a few blocks from where Fuller’s father grew up.
Deutsch said that the affordable real estate, freedom from D.C. traffic, and family time were all major reasons they decided to move to Fuller’s home city. Not to mention, there’s access to the outdoors: the kayaking, hiking, skiing, boating. And the cold winters? “The longer you live here, the more you get used to it,” Deutsch said.
For Amber Lambke, the president of Maine Grains, the winters are what drew her back. After a quick stint in Ithaca for college, she missed the sunny Maine winters of her youth.
But it’s more than just the winters that brought her back: It’s the state’s rich history of grain production. In the 19th century, Maine was the breadbasket of New England. So in 2007, when a Victorian-era jailhouse in Skowhegan went up for sale, Lambke saw an opportunity to repurpose it into a gristmill. When I asked about the shorter growing season in Maine, Lambke explained that farmers learn to work with it or adopt new practices, like using hoop houses. And Maine Grains isn’t focused on production efficiency; Lambke and her team care about regenerating Skowhegan’s economy, serving as a model for rural food hubs, and tapping into the intersection between Maine’s history and the people’s growing interest in local foods.
Maine Grains has been a central part of reviving locally grown organic grains. It sells to bakeries (like Belleville), breweries, and restaurants. This gives Lambke a unique perspective on the restaurant scene in Portland, which benefits from the craft beer scene. “Breweries are highly collaborative, very innovative, very hip,” she said.
Other than the boom in craft beer, Lambke believes that Portland’s vibrant food landscape was kickstarted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which supports small, diversified farms. The association has a mentorship program that has been instrumental in bringing young people who care about local food to Maine.
Over at Drifters Wife chef owner Benjamin Jackson has always prioritized ingredients, even when he worked in New York at Marlow & Sons or Diner. But he’s still stunned by Portland’s access to the ocean, allowing him to serve fresh seafood from just 10 miles away. “The seafood is as good as it gets in the world,” Jackson said.
For Jackson, getting out of a big city was a motivator. Cooking is not easy. “A lot of chefs that work in cities are tired of living in cities,” he said. “Tired of working really hard for someone else and not getting any recognition. They are working 90 to 100 hours a week for someone else.”
Freedom from the financial pressures of a big city allows chefs to push culinary boundaries. Chad Conley is one of those chefs. He’s also one of the few Portland chefs that was born and raised in Maine. Conley witnessed the vibrant food scene in Portland at a young age, studying under the famous Rob Evans. In the summer of 2017, Conley opened Rose Foods, a stylish, eminently Instagrammable spin on a Jewish deli.
Conley said that five or 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have made sense to open a restaurant focused on Jewish cuisine in Portland. But with the growing restaurant industry, people are taking more risks and reimagining traditional cuisines. While some people are turned off by tattooed waiters and higher prices, a lot of tourists and young people are eating it up.
“Some people come to Rose and think it’s going to be Katz’s or Russ & Daughters,” Conley said. “But the best customers understand that wouldn’t survive here. It’s a descendent of those places, but speaking a more modern language. People eat differently and think differently than 50 to 60 years ago.”
Vien Dobui also plays with diners’ expectations of certain cuisines. At his restaurant, Công Tử Bột, Dobui offers a fresh take on Vietnamese cuisine with local ingredients. Dobui is Vietnamese, and he faces criticism for not cooking “traditional” Vietnamese food. But he tries to disorient people—to help them let their guard down and open their minds beyond preconceived notions of what a Vietnamese restaurant looks like.
Dobui moved to Portland when his Blue Bottle coworkers asked if he would help them open a new coffee shop there. Dobui helped the now-beloved Tandem expand when the bakery opened before pursuing his own dream. So while it wasn’t really Dobui’s choice to move to Portland, he decided to stay once he realized how food-obsessed the city was.
“There’s a heartiness, an independence to Mainers that I relate to a lot,” Dobui said. In addition to access to farms and the locavore culture, Dobui said the back-to-the-land movement and trend of homesteading in the state offered a foundational attachment to food.
But that movement, and the state as a whole, is disproportionately white — 94.64 percent, Census data showed. Maine also holds the title of the oldest state: by 2020, there will be more people over 65 than under 18. But Maine is slowly changing. Even though only 3.6 percent of Maine’s population consists of immigrants, the state has been accepting a growing population of immigrants and refugees, mostly from Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. In just one week this past June, 250 African migrants seeking asylum arrived in Portland. There has been such an influx of migrants that the city turned a basketball arena into an emergency shelter.
Dobui said that these newcomers to Portland are not reflected in the food industry, but they should be. “Most restaurants serving non-Western cuisine in Portland that get national attention aren’t opened by people of color” Dobui said. “But maybe the lack of discourse here was an opportunity for me to help start one.”
Juliette Luini is a writer, reporter, and radio producer. She attends Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.