Why Is the Whitest, Oldest State in the U.S. Home to Such a Vibrant Food Scene?

Chefs divulge why they ditched bigger cities and moved to Portland, Maine

Juliette Luini
Heated
Published in
6 min readNov 6, 2019

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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.

How can the whitest, oldest, and one of the coldest states be home to such a celebrated restaurant city?

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.

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