Admission time: I am a huge fan of Harding Lee Smith’s restaurants. I love “the Rooms” (The Corner Room, The Grill Room and The Front Room), and since moving to Portland a year and a half ago, these three restaurants are staples in my diet. See also: Reasons why my jeans don’t fit.
So, when I finally got a chance to try Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, to say I was excited is an understatement.
To step back a bit, Boone’s is practically a historic institution in Portland. Originally opened by Alexander Boone in 1898, the restaurant prides itself on its history and visits from classic celebrities such as Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. And it’s easy to see why. With its grand location, right on the water on Commercial Street, the views of the harbor are spectacular.
Under its current ownership, the two-story space was renovated beautifully with care taken to leave much of the original woodwork and beams in tact for an exposed, rustic-chic vibe. Inside, it is dark, sexy and the perfect ambiance for a date night. And on those warm evenings, the space opens to an outdoor patio with a bar that’s half inside and half outside, which I immediately adored. Because warm weather in Maine is so fleeting, especially this time of year, I love to soak up as much outside time as Mother Nature will allow.
So, onto the actual drinks and experience. My friend and I arrived with just enough time to order from the happy hour menu — a pleasant surprise. I ordered the sangria and she ordered the Drop Rosé (which comes in a can). They were each $5.
The sangria was very sweet, like grownup fruit punch — which, depending on my mood, isn’t always a bad thing. On this unseasonably warm evening, it was refreshing. Tasty. Certainly not bad, but not memorable either. Despite coming from a can, the rosé was also good — subtly effervescent and slightly acidic, which made a good pair with the fatty pork belly nachos we ordered (also off of the happy hour menu) for $5.
Nothing was overtly bad about the experience (although our bartender could have been more attentive). The drinks were fine and cheap, which is always good. But in a city where we are surrounded by incredible food and drink, I can easily toss a beer cap in the air and hit another fantastic bar with a happy hour and well-made cocktails that make the experience more than just a “good deal.”
Speaking of deals, I want to mention the happy hour pork belly nachos ($5). The portion was so small that you are far better off ordering the full-priced portion, which is about four times the size and at only $10.95, is a significantly better value. The dish itself was delicious; the house made chips were thick-cut and crunchy, the cheddar fondue, creamy. The nachos were highlighted with red onion, salsa, peppadews, scallion avocado vinaigrette and, of course, fatty, crispy pork belly. I just couldn’t get over the tiny portion, and frankly, even though it was inexpensive, I felt a bit ripped off, as though the restaurant was trying to pull a fast one over us with these so-called specials.
Lastly, I couldn’t leave without ordering a few oysters at a place where the bivalve is in the name. And with the happy hour price of only $1.50 each, it seemed like a no-brainer, but it turns out I should have left well enough alone. The oysters were shucked terribly. Broken shells littered every one of them to the point that I couldn’t even enjoy the briny front notes and creamy finish.
It could have been an off night for Boone’s. I truly hope it was. But as it stands, Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room is not a place I will be frequenting, even for low-priced happy hour. Good thing I’ve got a few other Rooms to choose from.
WHERE: 86 Commercial St. (on Custom House Wharf), Portland
PHONE: (207) 774-5725
HOURS: 11 a.m to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
AMENITIES: Open-air bar, two outdoor decks for dining, private and special event space, happy hour (4 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily, $1.50 oysters, drink specials)
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: Maybe it was an off night, but Boone’s was a surprising disappointment with a happy hour that left me less happy and more frustrated. The drinks were fine, the oysters were carelessly shucked, and the nacho portion was measly. That being said, what shines here is the space. It is a beautiful dining area, a lovely open-air bar and the perfect date night ambiance. And what I had of the food was quite tasty, leaving me curious what the rest of the menu is like. If you go, I suggest skipping the food on the happy hour menu and ordering the full portions.