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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: June 13, 2014

First look: The King’s Head on Merrill Wharf

One of the newest dining venues to open along Portland’s waterfront, The King’s Head is an English-style pub with more than 20 beers on tap.

Written by: John Golden

Charm is deceitful, beauty is fleeting and somewhere in between The King’s Head prevails after its long-endured renovation of the street-level space it now occupies at the Pierce Atwood building, anchored above by the white-shoe law firm.

King's Head

King’s Head

Essentially The King’s Head is a pub in the English style with moniker to match. Smack on the working waterfront, it almost recalls the dockside bars that used to exist in a grittier Portland when the fishing industry was hot and heavy. Since that barely exists anymore the wharves are gradually becoming gentrified and The King’s Head has joined the ranks.

Right off Commercial Street, it’s an apt tourist destination  offering the  simplicity of traditional pub fixings — hearty food and great beer. Whether this will be a port of call for locals remains to be seen.

The King’s Head offers over 20 beers on tap served at its 26-seat zigzag-shaped bar that dominates the front room. But this is hardly novel. Places like Novare Res a few blocks away and  In’Finiti, virtually next door, are daunting competitors. In fact the city is crawling with pubs high and low brow. Grub-hubs like East Ender, Congress  Bar and Grill,  Little Tap House and RiRa certainly lead the pack. Perhaps this newcomer with its direct waterfront location might find its place in the sun.

Across from the water and just off Commercial St., it enjoys an ideal location for the tourist trade and locals

Across from the water and just off Commercial Street, The King’s Head enjoys an ideal location for the tourist trade and locals

How’s the food?  The menu doesn’t resort to trendy gastropub fare or the ubiquity of small plates found elsewhere but rather sticks to the basics: casual, well-made dishes with the emphasis on classic English pub cooking.

Of that there’s plenty that’s interesting. The snack offerings include scotch eggs, maple-bacon popcorn, beef jerky, a cold-cut platter and cheeseboard.

The zig-zag configuration of the bar is unique

The zig-zag configuration of the bar is unique

Unlike Central Provisions, which played on the rustic interiors of its historic building, King’s Head’s trappings are blandly shiny-new.  The wood-paneled wainscoted walls merge with old brick in a pleasing enough effect.  But the plain wood-topped tables are too ordinary in a space that calls for more diversified charm.

The dining room seats about 50 and has a wall of windows overlooking the water

The dining room seats about 50 and has a wall of windows overlooking the water

I thought about finishing my drink and to return in a few weeks’ time when this place was up to speed. This being a First Look, however, I stayed and ultimately enjoyed a reasonably good dinner.

I started with the maple-bacon popcorn, which should have been served warm, not cold. And it was way too sweet.

Maple-bacon popcorn

Maple-bacon popcorn

The house-made bangers and mash set over bubble and squeak (mashed potatoes with cabbage) was a hearty, satisfying dish. The sausages were well spiced and made with local pork. The classic bubble and squeak was bathed in a rich, dark onion gravy that held it all together. But, I thought, would I rush back again for this? Maybe I would next winter.

A very tasty rendition of bangers and mash

A very tasty rendition of bangers and mash

Other items on the menu included a bavette steak (a cut that refers to hanger, skirt or flank steak); fish and chips and grass-fed burger with pickled Maine onions and spicy ketchup.  There are lighter dishes like beet salad, Bang Island mussels and an old-fashioned dish of cod and potato croquettes

The house specialty is pot pies.  Two were on the menu — rib steak in stout with a lofty potato crust covering a large portion, which a couple across from me were served (it looked whopping good).  There’s also another one made with smoked rabbit.

For dessert the sticky toffee pudding was ample and quite tasty.  It had all the classic trappings: a moist date-filled cake  covered in caramel with a sidecar of cream.  I prefer this English dessert with custard sauce instead of the sour cream that the kitchen used.

Sticky-toffee pudding

Sticky-toffee pudding

Perhaps this First Look appraisal is premature — the experience was ho-hum, the place had no character but if I were a beer drinker (which I’m not) I might have liked it more.  Still, what I had to eat was good.

The chef, Robert Petzold, cooked in San Francisco where he ran the kitchen for 9 years at Bocadillos, a highly regarded wine and tapas bar in the heart of the city’s downtown.  In a blurb from a San Francisco Chronicle review, it said, in part, “Robert Petzold’s food is so vibrant you will want to stay a while and relax with a bocadillos at lunch and maybe a flat-iron steak with chimichurri at dinner.”

Petzold’s family summers on Peaks Island and he’s apparently glad to be back in the Portland area (for our vibrant food scene, no doubt?).  Perhaps The King’s Head is the sleeper worth considering after all.

Note: Parking is available at the pub after 6 p.m., but only when there is an attendant on duty, which allows patrons to park in spaces otherwise reserved for Pierce Atwood during business hours.

The King’s Head, 254 Commercial St., Portland, ME 207-805-1252

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