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Is Portland Losing Its Local Flavor?

Former Down East food editor Joe Ricchio considers the state of the city's dining scene.

Dewey's in Portland, Maine
By Joe Ricchio
Photographed by Ryan David Brown

I still eat at McDonald’s once in a while, and I’ve probably watched Rocky IV a hundred times. I don’t think Big Macs are delicious or Sylvester Stallone is a master actor. I’m just a nostalgic guy, and I appreciate that certain things have the power to evoke my younger days. I wasn’t heartbroken, though, when Three Dollar Dewey’s closed.

Alan Eames opened Dewey’s, an Old Port pub, almost 40 years ago. A world traveler and self-anointed beer anthropologist, he served beers from far-flung places and played a key role in whetting Mainers’ appetite for craft beer. After he died, in 2007, the New York Times obit noted his reputation as “the Indiana Jones of beer.” But Eames had sold Dewey’s in 1985, and by the time its more recent owners signaled last call, in 2018, the place had run its course.

I’d stopped in probably a few dozen times, starting in the ’90s. The food was only ever okay. Beers that had been exotic in the ’80s had come to seem commonplace. Wear and tear always outpaced repair. The best I could say for Dewey’s when it shut its doors was that the popcorn was free.

I’ve heard many longtime Portlanders bemoan the recent losses of several decades-old institutions as a sign of the gentrifying times. Silly’s was known for zany dishes and vegetarian-friendly options. Federal Spice brought Jamaican food to the peninsula. Espo’s served meatballs bigger than your fist. Brian Boru was another early leader of the craft-beer charge. All had contributed something distinctive to the scene, and the likelihood these days is that fancier and pricier establishments will replace them. But all restaurants eventually outlive their heyday. Their average life span is only five years, and for those that beat the odds and thrive for much longer, we should mark their passing with fond farewells, not dirges.

Besides, plenty of characteristic old joints are going strong in Portland. The Great Lost Bear, a beer bar, opened in 1979 and has stayed relevant by keeping its finger on the pulse of the brewing culture. DiMillo’s has plated classic Maine fare aboard a car ferry turned floating dining room since 1982, and it doesn’t look to be going anywhere anytime soon (provided it doesn’t break loose from the docks). All-ages crowds have packed Bubba’s Sulky Lounge for drinking and dancing since 1959. I could go on and on. So while Portlanders certainly have issues to grumble about — steep housing prices, part-time occupants, proliferating chain hotels — restaurant turnover isn’t one of them. That kind of change is inevitable.

However, I did find myself once again at Dewey’s on a recent afternoon. Last spring, the pub reopened — same name, new ownership. The vintage bones remain, with exposed wooden beams and brick walls befitting an Old Port haunt. But the tables, chairs, and bar have all gotten an attractive refresh, and the updated menu includes a vegan take on bangers and mash, with Beyond Sausage, mushroom gravy, and a cauliflower-and-rice blend. I had a non-vegan steak-and-cheese sub that was leaps and bounds better than anything from back in the day.

And, I was happy to notice, the popcorn is still free.