Sometimes Portland is hard to escape. During summer especially, there are reasons to stay, but there are also reasons to go.
Not that you really want to (leave, that is) – the summer scene in Maine’s biggest city is all about the best al fresco dining, breezy days, ocean air, unrivaled food and drink. Complaining – or wanting out – feels downright sinful.
But even on the most glorious days here, when blue sky seems endless and sunshine abundant, the only thing that will do is a dark, cavernous dungeon with all the tasty delights of any self-respecting craft cocktail bar. Some summer nights call for Bramhall.
Most Portland lifers know Bramhall as “Bramhall Pub,” the subterranean dive-y bar that existed for nearly 30 years at the same location on Congress Street in the West End. The floors were carpeted; there were pool tables, dartboards, and bluegrass band Jerks of Grass played every Tuesday night.
Jerks of Grass still play (every Thursday starting at 9:30), but the pool and darts, and the carpet are all gone. Once you’ve descended the stairs outside to the ground-level entrance, and pushed through a heavy curtain, this veritable speak-easy will catch you by surprise. There’s a noticeable drop in temperature, and a subtle smell of earth and steel and dampness (it’s a basement, after all).
But the biggest surprise is the look. Clean and rustic, dark but attractively lit with dozens of candles and antique Edison wall sconces, Bramhall makes you feel like you’ve just entered a secret club.
The bar seats about 12, with a few tall tables, and some additional two- and four-top tables throughout the cozy space. The centerpiece of the room is a brick chimney that’s open on both ends and filled with dozens of candles, contributing to a mushrooming mound of wax. Co-owner Mike Fraser says the chimney used to collect all of the ash from the fireplaces in the connected building above. Behind the bar are two porcelain bathtubs filled with ice to keep beer and wine cold and cut down on the cost of beer coolers.
Fraser’s business partner, Guy Streitburger, is the mastermind behind the bar program. The specialty cocktail list, a collection of six drinks all $10 and under, hold their own with any of Portland’s acclaimed craft cocktail bars – Streitburger is good friends with and a former coworker of Patrick McDonald of Central Provisions.
The drinks and beers (all local craft on draft; cheap bottle beers) are all top-notch, and the food is comfort, bone-sticking stuff, like the Frito pie, loaded chips with nacho cheese and bacon, a house burger, and several other classic sandwiches (Cubano, BBQ pork).
Prices here are substantially lower than what you might expect at a new, craft bar in Portland. You can easily spend less than $15 on food and drink at Bramhall, and on Wednesdays, all appetizers and salads are half off. Tuesday is taco night – nothing special here, think: your mom’s old-school El Paso taco shells – three for $9 and $1 for each additional.
On Monday local DJ Mozart spins starting at 9:00 and trivia starts at 7:00 on Sundays. Jerks of Grass nights (Thursdays) have been Bramhall’s busiest.
There’s still plenty of time this summer to hang out on a deck and sip margaritas. But sometimes that old scene just won’t do. Bramhall is where all the cool kids are hiding.
767 Congress St., Portland | 207-805-1978 | bramhallme.com
HOURS: 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. every day
AMENITIES: Candle lighting, cool temps, foot pedal sink in restrooms, t-shirts for sale, black and white photography
PARKING: Free lot behind building
BOTTOM LINE: Bramhall is a subterranean craft cocktail bar serving local craft beer, comfort bar food and sandwiches, and nightly entertainment, like bluegrass band Jerks of Grass, DJ Mozart, and trivia night.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: No