Located at the intersection of Portland’s Congress and Park streets in the Lafayette Building, erected while Teddy Roosevelt was president, Sagamore Hill Lounge features numerous Roosevelt-inspired touches. The spacious bar feels like a private gentlemen’s club, with dark wood and navy coloring and a structure over the bar resembling a ship’s hull, a nod to Roosevelt’s service as the assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy.
Hunting trophies line the walls; the rugs are reminiscent of the oriental rug collection at the original Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay. Owner Ryan Deskins is – no surprise – a huge Roosevelt fan, citing his progressive nature, his role in revolutionizing America’s National Park System and the fact that he was the first president to dine with an African-American (Booker T. Washington) at the White House.
The bar is upstairs but has a lift. Two banquettes were designed at the right height for wheelchair users.
The menu is clever, with cocktails in lovely vintage-looking glassware starting at $11. Some are on the menu because a president liked them: Roosevelt, for example, enjoyed mint juleps made with mint from the White House garden. Others are there because a president inspired them, such as the $12 Cape Kennedy made with Tang. There’s even one called 45, a $2,500 cocktail in a gold martini glass filled with nothing but hot air and an orange garnish. There are 19 wines by the glass ($8 to $16), seven draft beers ($6 to $7) and 15 canned or bottled beers ($5 to $9).
On my first visit I ordered a $12 Manhattan. Working at a themed bar or not, all bartenders ought to know how to make a Manhattan. I, however, would never have identified my drink as a Manhattan in a blind taste test. When I told the bartender this and asked how he had made it, he did not offer to taste it or replace it. Instead, he told me that I “probably did not understand that a classic Manhattan is made with rye, not bourbon.” Yes, readers, he Manhattan-splained me.
Undeterred, I returned weeks later with a large group, one member of which ordered a Manhattan, while the rest of us ordered selections from the themed menu, including the JFK daiquiri ($12), the Earl Warren gimlet ($12), the McKinley’s Delight (bourbon, absinthe, cherry liqueur, Campari and lemon peel for $13), the mint julep ($14) and, for me, the Blue Dress (vodka, crème de violette, blueberry muddle, simple syrup, prosecco and lemon juice for $12).
The results were mixed: the gimlet and the mint julep were fabulous, the Blue Dress was pretty good (although there was a missed opportunity to serve it with spinach dip smeared on the glass), the daiquiri was sour, the McKinley’s Delight was bitter, and the Manhattan arrived cloudy and tasting like the bitters had been added like one might add Tabasco sauce to scrambled eggs. We didn’t have to wait long for service, but the bartenders remained far more interested in chatting with each other than in engaging with their customers.
My drinking companions and I agreed that we had all wanted to love this bar, but it just wasn’t there yet. The bartenders are missing the opportunity to share the bar’s fascinating story with interested customers, and sometimes don’t even know the story behind the drinks. When one customer asked what the story was behind the Earl Warren gimlet, all the bartender said was “Earl Warren was the chief justice of the Supreme Court.” Thanks, we knew that. We wanted to know what the connection was to a gimlet, or to Roosevelt – Warren wasn’t a president, and he wasn’t Roosevelt’s chief justice, so why was that drink on the menu? If the bartenders don’t seem vested in the bar’s unique angle, it’s hard to expect patrons to want to return.
WHERE: 150 Park St., Portland
PHONE: (207) 808-8622
HOURS: 4-11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday
AMENITIES: No food served, small parking lot across the street costs $4.50 an hour.
BOTTOM LINE: A must for any Teddy Roosevelt enthusiasts, but also a beautiful setting if you’re feeling upscale. Just don’t order a Manhattan.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes