A Portland Perennial
Walter's on Exchange Street has been an Old Port favorite for two decades.
- By: Michaela Cavallaro
- Photography by: Loyall Sewall
With tall windows overlooking Portland’s Exchange Street, a just-slightly-upscale atmosphere, and a menu that includes everything from a Kobe beef burger to an oxtail and scamorza spring roll, Walter’s is an Old Port standby. It’s the kind of place where you can seal a deal over a leisurely lunch or get a few details nailed down and be back at the office by one. Indeed, if you’re out on an expense account, there are few better places to go: you’ll enjoy entrees that actually require the use of utensils, and the bean counters at work won’t throw a fit about the tab.
Of course, Walter’s isn’t solely a refuge for the power-lunching crowd. It draws a considerable number of women toting bags from the surrounding boutiques, as well as the occasional out-of-towner looking for something more than the wraps and salads that predominate at other Old Port lunch spots. Meanwhile, if a cruise ship is docked in town, the restaurant’s normal hum gets upgraded to a lively buzz, with passengers drawn to Walter’s as if by a magnet.
Location and atmosphere — not to mention longevity — have a lot to do with the restaurant’s popularity. Located half a block from the intersection of Fore Street on Exchange, Walter’s has served lunch and dinner since 1989. Current owners Jeff and Cheryl Buerhaus bought the restaurant in 2004 from Mark Loring, one of its founders. Native Mainers, the Buerhauses had recently returned from south Florida, where Jeff worked for chefs including Mark Militello, who popularized so-called “Floribbean” cuisine.
Back in Maine, Jeff worked for Walter’s co-founder Walter Loeman at Cotton Street Cantina and Perfetto, then found himself in a position to take over Loeman’s namesake restaurant. Over the past few years, he and Cheryl brought some of their Florida influences to the menu — more on that in a moment — and updated the décor. The goal, says Jeff, is “to have good food, but at a comfortable level — we’re not uptight at all.”
The setting is quintessentially Portland, with high ceilings, exposed brick walls, and an unpretentious approach that includes cloth napkins on bare wooden tables. The restaurant makes the most of its long, narrow space, making even a table tucked under the staircase to the second floor seem cozy rather than cramped. Servers are friendly but not overbearing, although on occasion their easygoing attitudes tend a bit more toward apathy than you might find desirable.
As you might expect given Jeff Buerhaus’ Florida-fusion culinary background, Walter’s seafood-heavy menu hopscotches across cuisines, sometimes within one dish. The grilled fish tacos, for example, consist of haddock over shredded greens, with cheddar and pico de gallo — as well as a sriracha mango tartar sauce and a Fuji apple and jicama slaw. That’s a lot of flavor for one dish. The turkey pastrami sandwich, meanwhile, comes with a somewhat incongruous sundried tomato mayo.
Other dishes are more straightforward. Both the Cobb and Caesar salads will appeal to traditionalists, while the calamari salad with tomato, red onions, and a lemon-balsamic dressing is a hit with slightly more adventurous types. The Kobe beef burger is another favorite, with accompanying toppings that change daily. Recently, for example, the burger came with a candied jalapeno aioli and sweet potato fries.
“I like bold flavors,” explains Buerhaus. “A lot of times you go out to eat and it’s not too interesting. Our menu is a little Mediterranean, a little Asian; we try to change it up, and I think people like that.”
The wine list is similarly democratic, with most bottles in the twenty to forty dollars range and glasses running six to eight dollars. As befits a haven for ladies and lads who lunch, Walter’s has a full bar, complete with a menu of pricey specialty cocktails. If you’re looking for value for your money, go for the spicy Bloody Mary, which is served in a pint glass. Michaela Cavallaro
Walter’s is located at 15 Exchange Street in Portland. Open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner is served every night starting at 5 p.m. Lunch entrees $9-$12; dinner entrees $16-$28; desserts $7-$8. Handicap accessible. 207-871-9258. www.walterscafe.com