When you approach the entrance to Woodford Food & Beverage – the modern American brasserie that occupies an iconic building in Portland’s Woodford’s Corner – the first thing you see is a mission statement of sorts, lettered in bold orange on a window next to the door. Donald Valle, the restaurateur who launched his eponymous steak house chain here in the 1940s, would be pleased to see that “steak” tops the list; we were happy that “cocktails” is next.
Valle would feel at home in the airy space, completely redone by owners and husband and wife Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer in a mix of ’60s mod and classic diner style. Half the room is devoted to the zinc bar, backed by a sleek wall of mirrors, white tile and glass block. Cushy black Naugahyde bar stools and under-bar hooks are evidence that guests’ comfort is paramount, while enthusiastic greetings from the owners and staff make it clear that they’re having fun – and want to make sure you do, too.
The cocktail menu lists five “classics” and five “originals” – the latter of which are inventive while remaining appealingly drinkable. The Dark & Shrubby ($8), just updated for spring, is a deliciously sweet-sour version of the classic Dark & Stormy, made with house-spiced Black Strap rum, rhubarb-ginger shrub and ginger beer. For another tweaked classic, the Woodford 75 ($12), Maine Craft Distilling Alchemy gin is mixed with sparkling pinot noir and lemon; the pretty, pale pink result, served in a flute, makes an ideal aperitif.
Feeling bold, we went off the board and asked veteran bartender Claire Stretch to surprise us with a favorite creation. Her Pan American Flipper ($12) – a play on the Pan American Clipper – is a boozy blend of Calvados, Woodford Reserve bourbon, absinthe, Liber grenadine, lime juice, bitters and egg white, a complex yet well-balanced libation adventurous imbibers should be sure to try.
This summer, I would go back for the especially refreshing Hemingway Daiquiri ($11). To make this classic cocktail, Stretch combines Tashtego white rum from Maine Craft Distilling with Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and grapefruit juice over a pile of crushed ice in a coupe glass, for a drink that would be all too easy to slurp down fast on a sultry day.
The drinks menu also includes four beers, most local, on tap ($5-$8), several in bottles ($3-$10) and a thoughtfully curated wine list, with most bottles priced $30-$45. An additional 10 wines are offered by the glass, half- or full-liter carafe.
With our drinks, we happily noshed on crisply fried Brussels sprouts with a creamy onion and black pepper dip ($8), a generous bowl of steamed mussels, prepared in the classic manner with white wine, garlic, parsley and lemon and served with a cone of excellent French fries ($14) and a salad of greens, roasted beets, lemony goat cheese mousse, pistachios and preserved cherries ($9). Other drink-friendly snacks include the kitchen’s takes on familiar throwbacks: deviled eggs, steak tartare and onion dip.
While it was quiet when we arrived at 5:30 on a Thursday evening, an hour later, the place was buzzing, the bar and tables filled with couples out for date night, families (the kitchen offers a kids’ menu), and dining by himself, a friend we hadn’t seen in long time, thrilled that this inviting spot has opened in his neighborhood.
At the bottom of that list of words on the window is “good times.” Valle would also smile to see that his legacy of old-fashioned hospitality lives on at the thoroughly modern Woodford Food & Beverage.
WHERE: 660 Forest Ave., Portland
HOURS: Open 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Monday. Opens at 4 p.m. on Derby Day and Mother’s Day. Sunday brunch begins June 12.
AMENITIES: Comfortable bar stools with backs; family restrooms with changing tables for men and women; plenty of free parking at the Woodfords Club just a few doors down.
BOTTOM LINE: With craft cocktails and a menu of modernized American favorites, Woodford Food & Beverage is a fresh new face in an old Portland neighborhood. At the stylish yet comfortable bar, you’ll find residents of surrounding Oakdale who’ve strolled over for a glass of wine, peninsula dwellers looking for a change of scene and suburbanites drawn by the buzz – and the free parking. It’s smart, fun and feels familiar the moment you walk in the door.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes