The Porthole on the Docks
The Porthole Restaurant—the poster child of Portland’s gritty working waterfront—flourishes amidst the rough and tumble epicenter of the city’s decaying piers. Exuding boundless personality, it remains a discernable beacon for intrepid diners who search out pit stops with panache.
Portland’s rundown docks like Custom House Wharf might feel like dining amidst germ warfare, but the Porthole’s inglorious setting musters up some pretty good grub. Much of the food is sourced locally and cooked with a modicum of care by longtime chef Paul Dyer. The producers of the Food Channel thought so, too, when it became a feature last year on Diner’s, Drive-ins, and Dives.
The Porthole started out as a coffee shop in 1929, and its appearance apparently hasn’t changed much since then. While the pot belly stove in the center of the dining room is defunct, it remains a reminder of the way life was for fisherman bounding in from the cold for sustenance.
As you’d expect, the food can be hearty and soul satisfying or sometimes slightly quirky. The menu has its idiosyncrasies.
I go there often for lunch and recently a friend joined me. He ordered a BLT, which I thought was a mistake—no better than having a burger at a lobster pound. Not surprisingly the sandwich was uninteresting.
I ordered the crab cake salad—one small, lone patty on a bed of local spinach, a sprinkling of asparagus tips, croutons and a few dabs of roasted tomato vinaigrette. At $9.95 there should have been a pair of crab cakes. Still, it was well made and tasty.
Since it was a beautiful spring day, we sat on the deck that overlooks the working harbor, and one of the few places in Portland that offers waterfront dining, such as it is. The restaurant always draws a mixed crowd. That day there were a bevy of city council members chomping on haddock sandwiches while presumably vetting some pending city issue.
At another lunch visit last week I had the fish and chips, which has to be the best deal in town on Fridays when this already huge portion is offered as an all you can eat item for $5.99. The haddock is utterly fresh and flakey, and the batter is really flavorful and crisp. To drink I had the Porthole's excellent housemade lemonade served in a mason jar.
I don’t know what the lure is about crab cakes, but here again, yet another lunch pal who joined me ordered it as an entrée. In this version, two crab cakes were served with little else except a few leaves of greens and a lemon wedge. In comparison to my plate piled high with food, this was Spartan in the extreme. Did the kitchen forget to include the sides? Not eve a thimble of Cole slaw? I offered to share my fries, which were excellent, but we asked for a side of fried onion rings, which happened to be very good.
The Porthole is a great place for breakfast too with the usual fixings done in the restaurant's inimitable style. I recently had the sausage and gravy over biscuits. It's about as heavy as a breakfast dish could be—wallpaper paste thick sausage gravy over very chewy drop biscuits. Not my favorite. Stick to the omelets and various benedict preparations.
The Porthole is also open for dinner and rates as one of only a handful of restaurants in Portland serving three squares a day. The menu looks good, too, with a range of dishes from steamed mussels to skate wings.
Its website says it’s open 7 days and nights, and I wanted to go there last evening for dinner only to find it closed. I wish restaurateurs would keep their websites up to date.
In daylight or dark, this little square wood-frame building looks like it’s on the verge of collapse. But that would be a shame because it’s a lovable old spot, offering a sense of place, pretty good food, and a welcome respite from otherwise precious dining alternatives elsewhere in the city.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at email@example.com.