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This coastal culinary hub offers a ‘big-city feel in a small-city package’


Story by Brandon Griggs, CNN | Video by Deborah Brunswick, Zach Wasser, Janelle Gonzalez and FJ Feng, CNN

Portland, Maine (CNN) — To understand how essential the sea is to the spirit of this bustling city, consider Jordan Rubin, owner-chef of Bar Futo, a Japanese-inspired eatery downtown.

Rubin estimates that 70% of the seafood on his menu comes from the waters of Casco Bay and the nearby North Atlantic. And when he and his staff need more, they don’t have far to go.

“We walk down to the pier and pick up our fish,” he said one recent afternoon. “I did it this morning.”

Such is the nature of life in Portland, a working harbor town where James Beard Award-winning restaurants operate blocks from a busy waterfront where fishing trawlers arrive with the day’s catch.

Visitors to Maine, arriving with visions of lighthouses and lobsters, often bypass Portland on their way northeast to Acadia National Park or the many picturesque fishing villages of the state’s mid-coast. But in recent years Portland’s handsome red-brick architecture, vibrant food scene and acclaimed breweries have made it a destination on its own.

Stroll down the cobblestoned streets of its quaint tourist district, known as the Old Port, and except for the T-shirt shops you almost feel like you could be back in the 1800s. Signs of Portland’s maritime legacy are everywhere, from ferries to fish markets to Winslow Homer seascapes in the city’s art museum.

Indeed, the ocean is never far away. Portland’s downtown sits on a hilly peninsula surrounded on three sides by water. To the east is Casco Bay, a broad inlet dotted with islands connected to the city by daily ferry service. Within a short drive are beaches, waterfront parks, seaside trails and six working lighthouses.

Portland is Maine’s largest city, and yet its 68,000 residents would fit comfortably inside an NFL stadium. Even so, the city offers a buffet of metropolis-level cultural attractions, from a symphony and live theater to professional baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey.

This variety and compactness suits locals just fine.

“It’s just the right size,” said Jamie Kingman Rice, a deputy director of the Maine Historical Society. “There’s plenty to do. It’s got a lot of great culture and restaurants. It’s a walkable city. You get sort of a big-city feel in a small-city package.”

On the waterfront

With its coastal New England vibe, Portland can feel like a smaller cousin of Boston, the historic Massachusetts capital about two hours’ drive to the south. Some people confuse it with its namesake across the country, the much larger Portland, Oregon.

But the city has plenty of vibrant history of its own.

Settled by British explorers in the 1600s, colonial Portland soon became a thriving seaport, spurred in part by the Royal Navy’s reliance on harvesting Maine’s towering white pines as masts for its ships. Canadian cities such as Montreal also relied on Portland for transatlantic goods, since the Saint Lawrence River often froze solid in the winter.

To help facilitate the flow of shipping in Portland’s busy harbor, a sea captain in 1807 built on a hill an 86-foot tower with a telescope that could identify incoming ships from some 30 miles away. The invention of two-way radio rendered the observatory obsolete by the 1920s, but it’s been restored and is open for tours today as the only remaining signal tower of its kind in the United States.

The city survived four major fires, most recently on the Fourth of July in 1866, when fireworks ignited a blaze at a sugar factory. That fire wiped out many of Portland’s historic buildings, although some on its outskirts survived — including the handsome Tate House, built in 1755 for a naval captain and the only pre-Revolutionary home in greater Portland open to the public as a museum.

Today, Portland’s waterfront holds everything from boutique hotels to dockside seafood joints serving fried clams and steamed lobsters on paper plates. Its busy harbor hosts a wide variety of watercraft, from fishing boats to commercial tankers to cruise ships.

For visitors, the easiest way to get out on the water is via Casco Bay Lines, which offers dozens of ferries each day from Portland’s Old Port to seven of the bay’s islands. Several islands offer overnight lodging, restaurants, beaches and bike rentals.

The ferries run 365 days a year and are a lifeline for the islands’ residents, many of whom commute to jobs and schools in Portland, said Nick Mavodones, Casco Bay Lines’ operations manager. For passengers they also offer a bounty of sights, from lighthouses and sailing ships to historic spots such as Fort Gorges, a granite fortress built on a small island during the Civil War. Tourists can even board a working mailboat, which delivers letters, packages and freight to the islands on a three-hour tour.

“You’ll get to see working lobstermen, you’ll get to see seals,” said Mavodones, who also happens to be a former Portland mayor. “You also can see cormorants, eagles and great blue herons.”

‘Innovation and entrepreneurship in the food scene’

Like many US cities, Portland experienced a slump in the 1960s and ‘70s as residents moved to the suburbs and shopping malls drained some of the street life from downtown. It’s since come roaring back, spurred by urban revitalization projects, tourism and the city’s growing reputation as a foodie hotspot.

Locals trace the city’s dining renaissance to the 1996 opening of Fore Street, a farm-to-table pioneer which continues to serve elevated cuisine in a brick warehouse two blocks from the waterfront. Over the years the restaurant has won numerous accolades and its owners have since opened two upscale seafood restaurants — most recently Scales, in an airy, rustic space on a wharf with harbor views.

The city’s restaurant scene got another boost in 2012 when Eventide Oyster Co. opened to national acclaim. While Eventide’s centerpiece is its popular raw bar, some locals say it makes the best lobster roll in the city. In 2018, Bon Appetit named Portland its restaurant city of the year.

In recent years the city’s dining offerings have expanded further beyond traditional seafood to include a wide range of ethnic cuisines. Walk down Washington Avenue in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood and you’ll find eateries serving Salvadoran, Vietnamese and East African food.

“The food scene here is made up of a lot of small, owner-operated businesses,” said Rubin, owner of Bar Futo and the newly opened Mr. Tuna, which started several years ago as a sushi cart. Bar Futo’s chef was a semifinalist this year for a James Beard Award. “There’s a lot of young chefs here doing some really interesting stuff.”

Among them is Ben Wexler-Waite, a New Yorker who went to college in Maine and was inspired to open a Neapolitan pizza business in 2021 after spending time in Italy and working on an organic farm.

Instead of a brick-and-mortar location, Wexler-Waite chose something different: an outdoor space on Peaks Island, a 20-minute ferry ride from downtown Portland. His seasonal operation – a wood-fired oven on wheels, a refrigerated pantry trailer and some picnic tables – sits on land he leases each summer from the local Lions Club. In tribute, his eatery is called Il Leone – “the lion” in Italian.

“We’ve been able to build a really special, wood-fired, island dining experience outdoors in a wooded grove just a few hundred feet from the ocean,” he said.

A stickler for authentic and fresh ingredients, Wexler-Waite imports flour and San Marzano tomatoes from Italy while sourcing his vegetables, herbs and other toppings from nearby Maine farms. His efforts have paid off – in 2022 the Portland Press Herald crowned Il Leone as the best pizza in Maine.

“There’s a unique emphasis among restaurants in Portland about sourcing the best possible ingredients we have here locally,” said Wexler-Waite, who believes emerging chefs are increasingly giving Portland a shot – and taking culinary risks they might not take if they faced higher rents in bigger cities.

“When you compare opening a restaurant in Portland to a city like New York, the barrier to entry is lower, and I think that allows for more innovation and entrepreneurship in the food scene.”

Witness the city’s showing at this month’s James Beard Awards, where not one but two bakeries were honored: ZU Bakery, a tiny boulangerie whose owner Barak Olins turns out beloved artisanal loaves; and Norimoto Bakery, where Atsuko Fujimoto has won a devoted following for her chocolate sake cake, yuzu meringue pie and other pastries with a Japanese twist.

That entrepreneurial spirit also extends to beermaking – a delicious irony, given Maine’s leading role in the 19th century temperance movement. Portland has more than two dozen breweries – more per capita than any other city in the country, according to 2019 data.

Stalwarts such as Allagash, nationally known for its Belgian styles, and Shipyard, whose Pumpkinhead Ale is a longtime favorite, now share space with a flock of newcomers such as Belleflower, a family-run, small-batch brewery with a broad palette of beers and an inviting taproom.

Arts and the outdoors

A visitor could spend a week happily eating and drinking their way across town. But Portland offers nourishment for the soul as well. For a small city it has a rich artistic tradition. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century poet who famously penned “Paul Revere’s Ride,” was born here. His childhood home, the oldest standing brick structure on the Portland peninsula, is now a museum.

Maine’s rugged coastline inspired Winslow Homer, the landscape artist who painted many of his best watercolors from a seaside studio in Prouts Neck, some 10 miles south of Portland. The studio is open for tours in the summer and early fall.

Homer’s works are on display at the Portland Museum of Art, whose broad collection also contains works by Claude Monet, Frederic Edwin Church and Andy Warhol. The museum anchors the city’s Arts District, which includes galleries, performance spaces and an arts college.

With its deep green forests and deep blue water views, greater Portland also is surrounded by restorative natural beauty.

A popular nearby spot is the Fore River Sanctuary, an 85-acre preserve with freshwater and saltwater marshes, a host of aquatic bird life and Portland’s only natural waterfall.

But when it comes to scenery, it’s hard to beat Maine’s craggy coastline and its postcard views of lobster boats and lighthouses. Don’t miss Portland Head Light, an iconic landmark and Maine’s oldest lighthouse, which sits on a rocky point some 5 miles south of Portland. The lighthouse dates to 1791 and was commissioned by George Washington.

Portland also makes a good base from which to explore the rest of southern coastal Maine, from the shops of Kennebunkport to the sprawling L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport to the charming towns of Bath, Rockland and Camden further up Route 1.

Wherever you wander, the ocean beckons.

Next town: San Luis Obispo, California is No. 5

The laid-back California dream lives on in this Central Coast town.

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