In his Bon Appetit column this month, dessert guru and Superiority Burger founder, Brooks Headley coined a phrase that I can’t stop thinking about: Good Anxiety. “The impermanence of seasonal produce is one of the joys of cooking,” he wrote. “It gets the blood pumping. It triggers the good anxiety.” It’s exactly the sentiment I experience when I wander the market surveying the strawberries (or kale or tomatoes or peaches) in a slight state of panic before reminding myself: This is a nice problem; a very nice problem. This past weekend, I discovered that this brand of productive panic also applies to visiting cities like Portland Maine, where there is so much to see and do and especially eat, that we did not stop moving for the entire 36 hours we were there, lest we live with the regret of missing something on the bucket list. It was hard to go too wrong, of course, especially since we had wise counsel from our friends and Portland locals, Mike and Sara, and because…it’s Portland, Maine. Here’s a play-by-play of our day-and-a-half.
7:30 Arrived straight from sleepaway camp drop-off; picked up Mike and Sara and headed to Scales (68 Commercial Street; 207-805-0444), a brand new restaurant on the Waterfront from the geniuses behind Fore Street. I loved this place before I even had a sip of that gorgeous cocktail you are looking at above. (The restaurant is so new, there’s not even a website to remind me what else was in the drink besides grapefruit juice and Cold River gin) Our table in the high-ceilinged, bright industrial space, was a few feet away from lobster pools, and had window-seat views of Casco Bay and postcard perfect tugboats. As for the food: The menu delivered on every Maine expectation in the best possible way: Scallops with bacon and corn, lobster rolls, crab salad that was drizzled with a spicy Louie sauce, a fleet of the meatiest, richest Little Neck clams. Go.
10:00 pm Checked into The Press Hotel, which, until 2010, was home to the offices and printing plant of the Portland Press Herald, Maine’s largest newspaper. Located in the center of the Old Port district (i.e. walking distance to almost all of our favorite food spots), The Press also featured what Andy woke up and called “the world’s most comfortable bed,” a friendly, accommodating staff, and nods to the building’s history — headlines as wallpaper, an installation of old typewriter cases in the lobby — everywhere you looked. We will definitely be going back.
8:30 Four-mile run along the Eastern Promenade Trail, right off Commercial Street, with pretty views of the ocean and harbor, alongside an old railroad track. (How else to prepare for/justify the gluttony that was about to unfold?) Do your best to run on a clear day when the bay literally glitters with sunshine.
9:00 First stop: Tandem Coffee and Bakery. This place has made headlines for pastry chef Briana Holt’s baked goods, but we just grabbed a malted ice coffee (which was like drinking a light coffee milkshake. A good thing) There’s no doubt this place takes its craft seriously, but they don’t take themselves seriously, which is a big difference. We sat in the sunny space for a few minutes and watched the regulars — moms, dads, commuters, cyclists, runners — get their morning fix.
10:00 We all decided we wanted at least part of the day to be spent doing something super summery, so we headed north-ish to Popham State Beach, stopping in Brunswick and Bath along the way because…why not? In Brunswick, we wandered Bowdoin College’s idyllic 200-year-old campus (and reminded Abby to study really hard); in Bath, we stopped long enough to visit the local bookstore and check out the flood of shipyard workers on their lunch breaks. But we were back on the road by 11:30.
12:00 Pulled into the parking lot of Popham Beach State Park, then realized: We were starving. Not just starving, but New- England-Seafood-Shack kind of starving. We asked the parking attendant if she recommended anything in the area, and she said “Take a right out of the lot, head up Popham road about a mile, and there’s a place with a lot of fried food.” Lucky for us, she was talking about Spinneys, where, in addition to the fried stuff, they offered lobster rolls, Old Soaker blueberry sodas, and ocean views from our outdoor picnic table. Yes. It’s every bit as good as it sounds.
1:00 Popham State Beach. Look at that beach. Actually, this was the front yard of Spinneys, but head to the right about a mile, and you have nothing but a calm sandy coast looking out onto crystalline waters of the Atlantic. (Crystalline: Code for bracing/exhilirating.) We walked, waded, read a bit, nodded off a bit, perfected our handstands (well one of us did anyway). If there is a better way to spend two hours in the summer, I do not know what it is.
4:00 Back to Portland! There was much talk about what our last big meal in Maine would be. Abby, a pizza enthusiast of the first order was lobbying hard for Slab (walk-ins only); I was waffling between Central Provisions (epic line situations; walk-ins only), where we’d never been, and Eventide (epic line situations; walk-ins only), which never disappoints; Andy threw in Fore Street (even though there’s little hope of snagging a last-minute reservation there). We decided to hit a few favorite shops downtown — Old Port Spirits and Cigars for local booze and beer (Peeper Ale, pictured above); K Collette for artisanal home goods — and play the dinner situation by ear.
6:15 You know us by now. We are not play-it-by-ear people. We like plans. But we also really really like Eventide. At some point on our walk we just decided to commit to it, and embrace whatever epic line situation presented itself. To be honest, I can’t really think of any other restaurant for which this would be the case. Naturally, I love it for the oysters, but the whole menu is like reading a diary of “All Jenny Needs in Life.” Above is their peekytoe crab roll, and that is Andy’s hand telling Abby to “Take a breath. Wait. Breathe. Chill.” (You have to act fast at our table sometimes.) We also had a dozen oysters, hamachi crudo, fried chicken rolls, greens with dashi, a homemade ice cream sandwich, and of course Gin & (artisanal) Tonics (and root beer) while we waited to be seated. The Portland gods were with us: the wait was only 25 minutes.
8:00 Even though we had to be on the road early, there were two more major boxes to check: The Holy Donut (above; where we indulged in their Maple Cream, Strawberry Lemonade, Chocolate Cinnamon; and where Abby nearly fainted from euphoria) and then The Speckled Ax, an old favorite, whose counter area looks more like a chemist’s lab than a coffee shop.