A month or so before Hurricane Irene arrived, and a few weeks after a soppy, gray June, White Cap Grille rolled in, replacing what had been Sebago Brewing Co. on the corner of Middle and Market streets (Sebago moved a couple blocks away to Fore Street).
Since that summer of 2011, White Cap Grille has been somewhat of a mystery in the Old Port. Tourists and business professionals seem to frequent the restaurant’s outdoor seating in warmer months, but as an eating and drinking establishment in the heart of Portland’s growing culinary scene, how does White Cap hold up as a bar in the winter?
The breathy female voice for its local TV spot says, “This is how Portland does casual dining,” but it’s hard to tell if what White Cap does is casual or just downright unfortunate.
On a recent Monday night, around 6 p.m., an employee of the White Cap Grille was seen pouring Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup and spraying Reddi-wip into the mouths of three male friends at the bar. In the same room, several diners were quietly eating hanger steaks and plates of fresh pasta (entrées range from $18 to $24) at high-top tables in the bar area and in the adjoining dining room separated by a thin partition.
It stands to reason that maybe this is what White Cap is all about – maybe it’s even what regulars have come to like and respect. But the conflicting part, then, is how the restaurant is advertised. Aside from the cheesy-glam TV commercial reminiscent of a video on repeat in a hotel lobby, White Cap’s Facebook page is regularly updated with professional photos of beautiful (delicious-looking) plates of food and even a contest to win a “dinner for two.”
Nowhere on its website, nor on its Facebook page, is there a sense that this is a place to “let loose” and, well, casually squeeze some Hershey Syrup into your mouth directly from the bottle.
Hershey’s and Reddi-wip aside, there’s clearly some thought put into the drink menu. The local draft list includes the likes of the Baxter Stowaway IPA, Foundation Eddy, Moat Hell Yes Lager (New Hampshire) and the Smuttynose Porter, as well as Allagash and Sebago.
The cocktail list – most drinks are within the $8 to $9 range – is somewhat long but pleasingly split into five sections: margaritas, martinis, tall rocks, warmers and Marys. The martinis have names like “Berrylicious” and the ever-stubborn, worn-out “Appletini,” while the warmers seem to have a smidge more originality. The “Hot & Buttered” is not bad, sufficiently boozy and wintery and topped with – you guessed it – Reddi-Wip.
There’s also wine, bottled beer (Narragansett and Coronas were on special that night for $1 because of an overstock) and cider. A glass of the Hob Nob (Pinot Noir) tasted old and overly warm, as if the bottle had been sitting under a halogen light for too long. Wine bottles are half off on Wednesdays.
Despite some of its shortfalls, White Cap does have fine service. The bartender was attentive, friendly and offered recommendations enthusiastically. Its sister restaurant, Black Cap Grille in Conway, New Hampshire, has a similar menu but a swankier, more upscale vibe.
White Cap’s prime Old Port location keeps it busy on weekends, as it undoubtedly benefits from the waiting-list spillover at Portland’s more popular eateries. However, given its reliable food menu and basic drink selection, White Cap certainly fills a touristy niche and is perhaps a good place to accommodate fussy eaters and drinkers.
WHERE: 164 Middle St., Portland
HOURS: Daily 11:30 a.m. to close
SPECIALS: Half off wine bottles on Wednesday; ask server about daily specials
AMENITIES: Two TVs in upstairs bar, comfortable bar seating, views of Middle Street/Post Office Plaza, outdoor seating in summer.
PARKING: On Street
BOTTOM LINE: White Cap Grille has prime real estate in Portland’s Old Port but not so much in the minds of locals. Good for tourists who need a decent meal or a work crowd looking to accommodate fussy eaters, White Cap gets the job done. In the long run, it’s a restaurant that is more or less forgettable.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes