When it comes to drinks, Portland, Me, tends to linger in the shadow of its libationally rich West Coast namesake. And yes, Oregon’s PDX is a great place to drink – but so is the New England gem for which it is named.
One stroll along the waterfront Commercial Street will convince any visitor that Portland remains very much a working port, with fisheries and container ports mixed among oyster shacks and ferry lines. As such, the city is far more a beer-and-booze-basics sort of place than it is a haven of mixology. But this is in no way a negative, especially when the drinks in question can be both good and surprisingly well-priced.
Cheap and cheerful
You’ll have to work to find Novare Res, but trust me: It’s that good. Find the KeyBank sign, navigate the alley which abuts it and follow your nose around a shallow corner. You will arrive at what is one of the northeast’s premier beer destinations, a half-basement bar with plentiful exposed brick, a tin ceiling, communal tables and a brew list that could leave you undecided for an hour.
But why wait? Amble up to the lengthy curved bar, peruse the 33 taps that range from New England cult favourites to imported oddities – even a Canadian craft brew or two – then bypass them all in favour of a bottle of Curieux, an oak-aged strong blond ale from local heroes Allagash Brewing. It’s inspired by Belgium, but brewed a mere 15-minute drive from where you’re standing. 4 Canal Plaza, Suite 1; novareresbiercafe.com
Traversing Portland’s Arts District is Congress Street, home to a multitude of reasonable restaurants and mostly reliable bars. Plus one extraordinary spot that works small wonders on both counts.
Make no mistake: Five Fifty-Five, helmed by a classically trained husband and wife team – she in the front and he in the kitchen – is primarily a restaurant. But take a seat in the cozy if unexceptional, low-lit Point Five Lounge and you won’t be treated like a second-class patron. On the contrary, you will receive all the warmth and attention you would if you were dropping a couple of hundred dollars on dinner for two.
If you find yourself in need of guidance, the bartender will happily and graciously steer you toward the best of whatever beverage you favour, be it wine, beer, spirit or cocktail. But if you are both flavour- and value-minded, opt for the “Flight of Bubbles,” a modestly priced trio of flutes two-thirds filled with fizzy wines, which on my last visit included a Spanish cava, a Californian blanc de noirs and a champagne. 555 Congress Street; fivefifty-five.com
Last night indulgence
There are bars you visit for the drink selection and bars you visit for the service standards – and then there are those you visit simply because of what they are. The bar at Eve’s at the Garden, on the second floor of the Portland Harbor Hotel, is one of those last places.
Although small, almost diminutive, the restaurant at Eve’s is generally considered one of Portland’s best, and the equally abbreviated bar located neatly to one side is almost as good. In a city where refined drinking environs are not exactly multitudinous, Eve’s provides an understated, languorous environment in which to sip and savour a cucumber-accented Hendrick’s gin martini, recommended on the rocks when the bar has their special cucumber ice balls in stock. 468 Fore Street; evesatthegarden.com