With a designated sommelier on staff and a bar manager who can tell you the history of virtually any drink, Central Provisions in Portland’s Old Port is an education as much as it is a restaurant.
“There’s something great about not only the drink but the history of the drink,” says Patrick McDonald, bar manager and cocktail wizard at Central Provisions in Portland. He wears a crisp plaid shirt (standard uniform for the bartenders here) and sports a long beard and a short, slicked-back haircut. “I like having the ability to revive these old recipes and make them my own.”
Behind the bar, McDonald has a copy of Jerry Thomas’ Bar-tender’s Guide or How to Mix Drinks, first published in 1862. Considered the original guide on mixed drinks and a bartender’s reference, the book contains the recipes of popular drinks from the 1800s. And that’s kind of the theme supporting the cocktail menu at Central Provisions: pre-prohibition-style cocktails with McDonald’s own personal take.
While most trained bartenders know their way around classic cocktails, such as a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, McDonald has taken the art and craft of mixing drinks to an entirely new level. Ask him what his featured cocktail of the week is and he’ll stop what he’s doing in order to bring you up to speed.
Recently, he featured The Aviation as the cocktail of the week in order to experiment with a newly available gin. Made with Crème Yvette, a liqueur made from parma violet petals, berries, honey, orange peel and vanilla, which has recently become available again just in the last several years, McDonald’s Aviation is a perfect balance of tart, sweet and bitter. He uses grapefruit juice instead of lemon, and if asked, he’ll plop a bottle of Luxardo Maraschino liqueur (available at RSVP) in front of you and tell you all about how it used to be made in Croatia but now hails from Italy.
Central Provisions is crowded on a nightly basis. Whether people are gathered around the open kitchen upstairs, watching Chef Chris Gould and his staff create beautiful, local dishes, or in the snug ground floor bar where McDonald spends his time, this restaurant seems to offer a little bit of everything. The food menu features small plates, oysters and bar snacks (prices range from $5-24), and the drink menu offers anything from McDonald’s spin on classic cocktails, “temperance drinks” for $6, house sodas, apertifs, digestifs and Wine Director Chris Peterman’s expertly curated wine list. (Every Monday is “mystery wine night.” Just say “red” or “white” and Peterman will bring over a featured bottle that he pours for just $5 a glass.)
The downstairs bar is fit with locally made stools that are hand upholstered with recycled burlap bags from Central Provisions’ coffee distributor – the backs are reclaimed red wine barrel staves. It seems every piece of this place has a story, from the barn door style bathroom doors to the handcrafted sign out front and McDonald’s cocktails, which take the old and make it new.
414 Fore Street
HOURS: Open daily 11 a.m. to midnight; walk-ins only
SPECIALS: $5 mystery wine nights on Monday (Wine Director, Chris Peterman, picks a red and a white and pours $5 glasses until they run out).
AMENITIES: 20 seats along the open kitchen upstairs, nearly 20 more seats downstairs at the bar, including standing areas with platforms for drinks and food. Nice lighting downstairs, windows that look out to Wharf Street, spacious and well-designed bathrooms.
PARKING: Street parking
BOTTOM LINE: Central Provisions is one of the best places in Portland to discover new craft cocktails. Bar Manager, Patrick McDonald is known for his encyclopedia-like knowledge of pre-prohibition era spirits and drinks. You’d be hard pressed to stump him. Wine Director, Chris Peterman, is Central Provisions’ own sommelier and can talk enthusiastically about any wine on the menu (and so many more). He’ll make you feel right at home. Central Provisions’ bar scene will not disappoint.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes.