Portland was recently named the 2018 Restaurant City of the Year by Bon Appetit magazine – an honor that has never been bestowed upon a city so small. While the recognition is certainly deserved, praising the restaurant scene (with a nod to several breweries such as Austin Street, Oxbow and Allagash) is only scratching the surface of what Portland has to offer the hungry and thirsty traveler. When you add the restaurants that have fully embraced the local explosion of craft beer and integrated it into what they do, the city’s offerings are raised to an even higher level.
Nationally, many world-class restaurants have focused nearly exclusively on wine as their alcoholic beverage foundation. In some five-star restaurants, bottles of wine are stacked from floor to ceiling, and the wine list is significantly thicker than the restaurant menu. Ask for a beer, though, and you’ll get a simple tap list with a macro lager, a safe brown ale like Newcastle and – only if you are lucky – an easy-to-get locally made beer. There’s some history to this – beer was considered for some time to be more of a “blue collar” drink, while wine was perceived to be more upscale and became synonymous with class and elegance. Beer has been trying to fight its way into the culinary sphere, despite its ability to pair with foods in far more ways and with much better harmony than wine.
What stands out in Maine’s restaurant scene is the ability to appreciate and showcase wine as well as well-made local beer, and to do so in a thorough and genuine way. Most of the restaurants profiled in the Bon Appetit article have both beer and wine (and some specialize in cocktails). But, left off that list are a few beer-centric gems that are worth pointing out to anyone who may be tempted to visit Portland to check out the food accolades – but wants to experience the bounty of our local beer producers at the same time.
When thinking about beer at restaurants, it is easy to think about the simple flavors in flagship beers – an IPA, a brown ale, a wheat beer – as being the only options for food pairings. But Pai Men Miyake begs to differ. Its ramen and other Japanese and Asian-inspired dishes are bursting with umami and savory morsels of veggies and meats. But its beer list does not shy away from strong flavors, complexity and funk. It is common to see beers on tap at Pai Men Miyake that use wild or unusual yeasts, that are barrel-aged or involve fruits or other souring techniques. Pai Men Miyake’s beer list treats the beer as if it is every bit as nuanced and complex as wine (and it is). Curating a list like that takes some guts; there are really no one-note or safe beers on the list. Each is its own adventure in a glass, there to accompany on your journey to the bottom of the ramen bowl.
Then there is Little Tap House, which occupies a much-needed niche as a beer-focused restaurant. Instead of settling on being a place for standard pub fare, the food is seasonally inspired, utilizes local ingredients when possible, and always goes a little above and beyond in flavor and presentation. When you order food, you’re presented with a little “amuse bouche” from the chef, a small bite that gives you a hint about the caliber of the food about to arrive. I am always impressed with the brightness and depth of flavor in every bite at Little Tap House, and thrilled to have a great beer list to pair it with. The beer list usually features a great balance of styles, and there is nearly always a farmhouse ale and a stout or porter on, but the producers vary. If I want to find the wonderful John Henry milk stout from Fore River or something from the now nationally famous (thanks to Bon Appetit) Austin Street Brewing, Little Tap House is where I head first to look for them. This beer list diversity is what stands out when it sometimes feels like tap lists are just drowning in IPAs and pale ales.
Finally, I must mention Slab Sicilian Street Food. Slab has managed to take the simple and satisfying flavors of Italy and, specifically, Sicily and translate them into crave-worthy dishes and pieces of pie. The food alone is a reason to venture down Preble Street to get there, but the beer list is, yet again, unique in its curation and breadth. Yes, Slab pick its favorite locals to put on, but they’re not necessarily the most hyped. Then, from away, there are sours, West Coast-style IPAs and barrel-aged stouts.
So, if being named the Restaurant City of the Year has enticed you to try Portland’s food, I suggest also staying for a pint. The tap lines are waiting for you.