Lobster shacks, hidden gems, fine dining, and more.
Maine has always been a top American vacation spot. But Maine has become an outstanding dining destination, too. Some of the best restaurants in Maine are also the best in the country. So here is a definitive coastal Maine dining guide to restaurants, yes, but also the little bakeries, diners, neighborhood spots, and seafood shacks that make Maine “the way life should be.”
Covid-19 has changed the look and accessibility dining out this summer. As I write this from Maine in late June 2020, however, businesses are doing their best to make this new reality work — and doing a great job. Here are some of my top dining destinations in mid-coast Maine, including the hidden spots I kinda want to keep all to myself.
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Welcome to Portland. Bring your appetite.
Portland, Maine is a small, slightly depressed port city built of old red brick, with winding streets and waterfront views. Seagulls swoop and sound their loud calls throughout the streets, mingling with tourists, residents, pigeons, and businesspeople. But most of all: There’s the food.
There have always been, and will always be, the timeless Maine spots serving honest, regional favorites like chowder, lobster rolls, anadama bread, and fried haddock. But Maine also offers modern, seasonal, and even fancy fare to meet every mood and appetite. A prime example? Portland. Portland has become a top dining destination in all of New England — and the country — for good reason. So we start our Maine dining guide here.
By some great stroke of luck, Italian chef and 2008 World Pesto Champion Paolo Laboa came to live in Portland, Maine. At Solo Italiano, he crafts Italian food rooted in simplicity. Great attention has been paid to every ingredient, from the young basil leaves he grows for the pesto to the homemade pastas. Solo Italiano is one of my favorite restaurants in Maine. You want to get that award-winning, silken Ligurian pesto folded into a handkerchief pasta dish, of course. But everything is outstanding.
An Italian store with a capital “I” even if it wasn’t already a proper noun. Micucci’s is the top destination not only for Italian groceries but also takeaway food and wine. Their pasta and olive oil selections are excellent and fairly priced. Insiders know to head to the back of the store, up the stairs, and around the corner, for huge lunchtime slices of pillowy Sicilian-style pizza right out of the oven.
Standard Baking deserves a spot in the Maine dining guide for baking the best bread in Portland. Period. Crusty, artisan loaves including baguettes, levain, the must-get raisin pecan bread, and lots more. Standard Baking Co.’s rustic shop with bread-making viewing window also sells an array of buttery pastries, scones, and cookies. Get the chocolate shortbread.
I love this bakery for its air of casual disorganization, where stepping into the store feels more like stepping into a home kitchen filled with pie. The charming little shop sells cakes and other small treats, but pie is the way to go.
5. Fore Street
High-end Fore Street restaurant is the spot in Portland (and beyond) for special occasion dining, but does not feel fancy or pretentious. Fore Street has won multiple awards over the years, and deservedly so. Seats with a view of the wood-burning hearth and kitchen are my favorite. I also like the bar for happy hour or a nightcap, where food is available.
Eventide drew fame and big crowds since its opening several years ago. People love the casual, bustling atmosphere accompanied by great cocktails, the best oysters around, and other perfect, Asian-inflected dishes like crab buns and scallop waffle yaki. Get the brown butter lobster rolls. Get the clam chowder. Get other stuff, too. Repeat.
7. J’s Oyster
J’s Oyster is everything you want in a divey seafood bar, from swarthy regulars to bad lighting and unbeatable oysters and haddock chowder. It’s right on the pier, so enjoy a stroll before or after your meal.
Maine Dining Guide: Further Up the Coast
Continuing our Maine dining guide northward up coastal Route 1, you will find lots of charming towns, quiet and picturesque harbors, stunning ocean waves crashing against large granite rocks, and more great food.
“Number 47!” “Number 82!” Having your number called over the megaphone at Shaw’s feels like winning the seafood lottery. Grab a seat on the outdoor deck overlooking one of the prettiest harbors in Maine and watch lobstermen return with their daily catch as you await your order of whole lobsters, fried seafood platters, beer, and lots more. Head downstairs to pick out your exact lobster, if you’d like.
2. Dot’s Bakery
Blink and you’ll miss this wonderfully un-fancy bake shop. Dot’s Bakery in Round Pond operates from a wing of an old Victorian home. And you will feel right at home as Dot herself helps you choose homemade pies, cookies, donuts, and other sweet and savory treats. The cinnamon-sugar cake donuts are especially good.
Pemaquid Seafood Co-Op, located off a quiet residential street in New Harbor, offers a beautiful view of the river and harbor while serving simple seafood suppers like lobsters, clams, rolls, and fish, all served with sides like corn on the cob and slaw. The lobster rolls are particularly generous.
A gourmet shop in downtown Damariscotta worth visiting for their heat-at-home pastas, excellent cheeses, wine, simple baked goods, and other light menu items. Weatherbird also sells a fine selection of kitchenware and dining accessories, perfect for finding a host gift or non-tacky souvenir.
“Do I keep this secret or write about the Cupboard?”
That was my internal debate for the past five minutes before writing this, because a big part of me wants to keep this special little spot as secret as possible. But, owner MaryDee and her family deserve the recognition.
The Cupboard Café serves, hands-down, the best cinnamon and sticky buns in the country. There is no debate. As if that was not enough, this cozy, wood-paneled day kitchen serves up excellent, uncomplicated breakfasts and lunch. Their breakfast sandwiches, pancakes, and haddock chowder are standouts.
A destination ice cream parlor with dozens of flavors and a penchant for huge scoops. Strong-biceped young employees will indulge sampling as many flavors as you like. I always get the vanilla milkshake, or “frappe” in local parlance, super thick and wonderfully sweet. Sundaes are also popular.
Moody’s Diner sits along Route 1: a long, rather unattractive white building with dark green piping and a big, orange neon sign. Moody’s is the famous greasy spoon diner that feels like it’s been around forever. And it basically has (well, since 1927). The fourth-generation diner serves classic, unpretentious Maine fare. Get whatever chowder is on the menu, served with a fluffy biscuit. The pies are also excellent.
The word is out on this midcoast charmer, which gets more popular every year. But don’t worry; it’s not too busy yet — unlike the insane lines at Red’s Eats in Wiscasset.
McLoon’s has been hailed as one of the top lobster shacks and lobster roll spots in Maine. We agree, and include it in our Maine dining guide. Located on little Spruce Head Island, across from the area’s oldest working lobster wharf, McLoon’s makes a perfect spot to stop for lobster, as well as chowder, homemade pie, crab cakes, and other simple seafood.
Maine Dining Guide: Top of the Rock
The small sister towns of Rockland and Rockport have an outsized ratio of good restaurants. Neighboring (and more touristy) Camden has some good restaurants as well.
Chef Melissa Kelly helps set a national standard for seasonal, farm-to-table dining, and is an essential restaurant in our Maine dining guide. This upscale restaurant has its own working farm out back, where guests can say hi to the chickens and see the rows and rows of fresh produce and herbs. The restaurant, in a converted Victorian mansion, serves a casually elegant menu that leans heavily Italian. The pasta is a must, as are the zeppole (fried dough balls covered in sugar) for dessert.
Didn’t make a reservation months in advance? There is also a more casual lounge for walk-ins, but check for Covid restrictions.
Despite being one of the country’s leading seafood producers, Maine is notoriously short on good sushi. Thankfully, Rockland, Maine boasts jewel box restaurant Suzuki’s Restaurant. Even better, the restaurant is owned and operated by a female sushi chef — a rarity. Largely self-taught Keiko Suzuki Steinberger has been twice nominated for a James Beard award. Everything is fresh, with creative touches that still hew classic.
3. Nina June
Tiny yet increasingly trendy Rockport boasts several newish, excellent dining spots, such as 18 Central and Nina June. Nina June (pronounced NINE-ah) impresses in many ways, from the airy, chic dining room to the excellent food. Chef Sara Jenkins made a name for herself in New York City, helming standout Italian restaurants such as Porsena, before returning to her Maine roots to open Nina June. (And in between, she has also authored two excellent cookbooks.)
Locals and visitors can enjoy her lovingly-prepared pastas, famous porchetta, risotto, and more. The view from the back deck is second to none.
4. Long Grain
Award-winning Long Grain restaurant serves fresh Asian cuisine that takes its main inspiration from Thai and Vietnamese street food. Local and seasonal ingredients predominate. Try the crab fried rice and spicy night market soup.Ed. Note: Please check the individual websites for current hours and Covid-19 restrictions, and please practice safety. This article does not vouch for the above-listed businesses’ sanitation or adherence to current C.D.C. or other health recommended or mandated protocols.