Unless you’re one of Peaks Island’s few thousand year-round and summer residents, a visit to Jones Landing starts with a boat ride. From the Maine State Pier, in the Old Port, the Casco Bay Lines ferry blows its horn and leaves the hubbub behind, chugging past plucky little Bug Light and austere Fort Gorges, while the dramatic silhouette of Portland Head Light, on its rocky promontory, hangs in the distance. Peaks, technically a Portland neighborhood, is the most easily accessed of the city’s ferry-serviced islands — about a 15-minute ride, with boats running almost every hour from early morning to midnight. That’s lucky, because Jones Landing is the kind of place that can inspire a person to skip the next ferry in favor of another drink.
For years, it was primarily a wedding venue, open to the public only on Sundays, for bar service and live reggae, a rollicking affair that developed a cult following among Portlanders. This past winter, though, Molly Ritzo signed a lease for the space and began converting it into a proper restaurant (that, yes, still hosts reggae Sundays). From the dock, the restaurant sits a few dozen paces uphill, and its spacious deck looks right back across the water to mainland Portland, some two miles distant. Inside, there’s a cozy bar-and-lounge area with a billiards table, but the deck is the undeniable star, with its salt-air breezes and westerly water views. It’d be a real shame to leave before sunset.
Ritzo first served food on Peaks seven years ago, when she started Milly’s Skillet food truck, offering lobster rolls, fish sandwiches, tacos, and more. In the intervening years, she also leased a disused farm in Falmouth and started Old Smith Farm restaurant, which does weekday dinners in the summer and fall, plus weddings on weekends, and has a year-round breakfast-and-lunch bakeshop. At Jones Landing, she’s repeating the process of breathing new life into an underutilized spot. During the day, guests can bring food down from Milly’s Skillet and get drinks from the bar. In the evenings, Jones Landing’s own kitchen starts firing up dinners.
6 Welch St., Portland. 207-766-5652.
Appetizers and bar menu $8–$25; entrées $28–$32.
Sundays at Jones Landing start with brunch, then switch over to barbecue and live music from Stream Reggae in the afternoon. Lawn games are always out.
Jones Landing is often closed on Saturdays, when it hosts nuptial celebrations. Check the restaurant’s online calendar or call ahead for an up-to-date schedule.
Celia Conaghan is the head chef, and her husband, Nick, is the general manager — she previously cooked out of the food truck on Peaks for a couple of years. Among appetizers, the oyster trio feels like a good way to kick off an island meal. The oysters come from Basket Island Oyster Co., a Casco Bay aquaculture operation owned by a Peaks resident. One is served raw and drizzled with zingy mignonette, one is grilled and accented with garlic butter and Parmesan, and one is fried and dolloped with a cocktail-sauce aioli. The quick succession of contrasting textures makes for fun eating — firm and fresh, pillowy soft, crunchy.
A bar-food section of the menu comprises fries, burgers, fried monkfish sticks, and other casual fare. Then, there’s what the menu calls “Island Plates” — build-your-own entrées, with everything piled together on one dish so that the component parts combine a little differently in every forkful. Fried flounder, grilled haddock, and jerk chicken are among the feature ingredients, which can be accompanied by either little red Maine potatoes (roasted with herbs from the on-site garden) or coconut rice. Each dish also comes with greens and slaw and one of three house-made condiments — chimichurri, sweet-chili hot sauce, cilantro-lime aioli. A little back-of-the-napkin math says that, after picking any given protein, there are six different ways to put it all together.
We ordered the fried flounder with coconut rice and sweet-chili hot sauce, which added up to a sort of southeast-Asian flavor profile. The flounder was delicate and crispy (and gluten-free to boot — the kitchen always uses gluten-free breading in its fryer). With grilled haddock, we did potatoes and cilantro-lime aioli for a more classically New England experience. All of this was accompanied by drinks, which skew summery and bright — mojitos, slushy rosé wine, palomas. The Casco Bay Mist was a surprise hit, an improbably refreshing Highlands-meets-Tropics combination of mildly peaty scotch and sweet, nutty coconut water, garnished with a sprig of mint.
For dessert, a slice of cream pie topped with a tart raspberry jam seemed to sum up the meal, balancing hearty and light in each bite. By the time we’d scraped up the last crumbs, we were really just playing for time — one more beer? a glass of wine? why not? — as we watched the color slowly drain from the sky and the city lights start to twinkle across the water. Eventually, though, we saw the ferry gliding toward the dock and resolved, reluctantly, that it was probably time to go.
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