The section of Middle Street that stretches from India to Franklin has seen a lot of change in three short years. Rabelais, the beloved culinary bookshop moved to Biddeford. Dean’s Sweets is now on Fore Street. Nearby Sangillo’s Tavern, a Portland dive bar institution, shut down. And where the Pepper Club churned out breakfast for 25 years, now stands a bright, hip noodle bar brought to us by the three good-humored owners of the two adjacent restaurants, Eventide Oyster Co. and Hugo’s.
In its fifth month, The Honey Paw already feels like an old friend of the neighborhood. It doesn’t hurt to be owned by James Beard-nominated restaurateurs, nor does it hurt to be next-door neighbors with Eventide, arguably one of the more popular places to eat in southern Maine. But like any tenacious third born, The Honey Paw seemed to blend in with its own unique character and agenda.
The restaurant is unapologetically “honey,” with warm yellows and oranges splashed throughout the 38-seat space. Even the lampshades along the bar are wrapped in honeycomb prints, as are the cylindrical light fixtures suspended over the 14-seat communal table in the center of the room. While the space is relatively compact, the high tin ceilings open up the restaurant, which grows lively after 8 p.m. most nights.
There are 10 seats at the bar, but unless you’re dining outside at one of the five patio tables, everyone at The Honey Paw will be seated at one of the matching wooden bar stools (high-backed and comfortable). Music plays, but not from a Spotify or Pandora playlist. Instead, a well-loved vinyl collection and a record player sit behind the host station. An album plays in full – Lauryn Hill, Talking Heads – and if the music stops (which it didn’t), the host will slip another record off the shelf.
Bar director John Myers has worked with the restaurant group for nearly five years, first as bartender at Hugo’s, and then moving on to help create and manage the bar program at Eventide. You can now find him almost exclusively at The Honey Paw at least four nights a week. Myers often works long days, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. He is efficient and friendly, with an endearing jumpiness about him. He’s often sporting a mustache, a button up shirt and a long apron – like any stylish bartender these days. And yet, Myers is less about pretention and more about his customers. He moves quickly, concocts drinks effortlessly, and if you ask him a series of questions, he’ll stop to give you his undivided attention.
His drink menu is worth a long glance. At first, the one-sided menu seems slim – four cocktails, 12 wines total, 15 beers by the bottle/can, and six or seven beers on draft. But a closer look will reveal very deliberate offerings. For instance, there are only two Maine beers on the menu (Allagash Curieux and Oxbow Bafpa).
The Honey Paw wanted to offer unusual, nonlocal beers such as Hitachino (Japan), Left Hand Brewing (Colorado) or Schlenkerla (Germany). There’s a cider from Spain and even a nonalcoholic beer from Germany. The taps include more Hitachino, St. Bernardus and Six Point.
Included on tap are two wines supplied by the Gotham Project, a bar feature that Myers says helps to cut down on wasted wine (tap wine can last months) and bottle space. For now, there’s a rosé from France and a grüner veltliner, from a white wine grape grown primarily in Austria.
Myers admits The Honey Paw didn’t originally set out to have a cocktail list, but that would have been a shame – the short selection of four is a testament to Portland’s craft cocktail scene. Myers’ creations aren’t complicated, and yet he’s utilizing ingredients, such as lapsang souchong (smoky Chinese tea) with bourbon and egg whites, or Cocchi Rosa (fruity aperitif wine), Dolin Blanc (vermouth) and gin as a summery take on a negroni. Right now, Myers’ favorite is the Strong Paw – tequila, mezcal, honey, lime and chile.
There are no nightly specials at The Honey Paw, but watch for seasonal changes coming up, as well as the occasional beer release party.
The Honey Paw is exactly the kind of place you hope moves in after a mass exodus of neighborhood favorites – a place you’ll want to take all your friends. A place you hope stays around for a long time.
78 Middle St., Portland | 207-774-8538 | thehoneypaw.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Monday; open until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Tuesday
AMENITIES: Vinyl collection, record player, custom made artisanal concrete sink in bathroom, great lighting, personal salt dishes, nightly food specials, outdoor seating
BOTTOM LINE: The Honey Paw is the third restaurant of Mike Wiley, Andrew Taylor and Arlin Smith, owners of Eventide Oyster Co. and Hugo’s. John Myers, the Paw’s bar director, is deft at making unique craft cocktails that will quickly become your new favorite drink. Head to the Paw for imported, rare beers from Japan, Germany, Belgium and France. Local beers will be available, but the focus here is not on local beer. Expect a crowd every night, great service, superb food and drink.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes