Could it be that my new favorite cocktail bar in Portland is a chain hotel’s lounge? Those sorts of places are supposed to be for weary business travelers too uninspired to venture elsewhere, and yet the question weighed on me as I sipped a very good old-fashioned — subtle sweetness, restrained bittering, judicious dilution — at Top of the East, in Marriott’s downtown Westin. I tried to talk myself out of it: the vests and bowties on the staff were, perhaps, symptomatic of trying too hard at sophistication, and ouch, 20 bucks is awfully steep for an old-fashioned, even in our inflationary age. But Top of the East is the rare exorbitant cocktail joint that’s probably worth the price of admission, especially on account of the stellar views from 15 stories up.
Top of the East
157 High St., Portland. 207-517-8818
Cocktails $12–$20; small plates $9–$31.
Beer and wine are also served, as are mocktails, such as the Cucumber Collins, with an Italian-orange nonalcoholic aperitif, cucumber reduction, lime juice, club soda, and a Luxardo cherry.
The hotel that houses Top of the East is now a Westin, but a big, red, impossible-to-miss EASTLAND sign is still mounted above Congress Square, on the bar’s roof.
What’s now the Westin Portland Harborview isn’t a typical cookie-cutter chain. Opened in 1927 as The Eastland, it was the largest hotel in New England at the time, a grand addition to the city. Over the years, it hosted dignitaries ranging from Charles Lindbergh to Margaret Thatcher to Ozzy Osbourne. Management once refused Eleanor Roosevelt a room because she was traveling with her dog (the rooms are pet-friendly these days). The uppermost floor started out as a sunroom — the hotel debuted during Prohibition — and didn’t become a bar until 1963. Since then, it has gone through various design iterations but always boasted floor-to-ceiling windows looking out across the city and over the harbor. The scene is particularly lovely at dusk, as the natural light of day gives way to the electric light of evening.
Top of the East closed for refurbishment at the start of this year, even though it had gotten a face-lift just nine years earlier “that doubled our size and tripled our iconic ambiance,” per the bar’s website. I’m not an interior-design mathematician, but I’d hazard that the most recent changes have quintupled the ambiance. Blond wood floors have replaced red-and-black carpeting. Cozy circular banquettes were added along one wall. Lamps now cast a low, warm glow across the room. And leather-upholstered, mid-century seating feels like a fitting throwback to the early ’60s. An intimate vibe prevails, almost in spite of the magnificent panorama outside.
There are other bars in Portland with a more ambitious repertoire of well-executed cocktails — the Bramhall, the Jewel Box, Hunt & Alpine Club, et al. — and my first drink of the night at Top of the East was merely good, combining mezcal, lime, raspberry puree, and red-bell-pepper juice. The latter was a creative touch, but its dry, vegetal effect lingered a little too long. The usually humble gin-and-tonic, on the other hand, was a work of art, served in an oversize wine glass and garnished with mint leaves, a sprig of rosemary, and pansy petals, with pink peppercorns floating amid the ice cubes.
Shareable small plates were artful too. Victoria Currie-Girard, formerly executive chef at Kennebunkport’s Breakwater Inn & Spa, created the new menu. Her ample crab cake was laced with sweet potato — a sweet-savory, creamy counterpoint to crisply seared edges. Cheddar biscuits topped with lobster and caramelized onions and bathed in Newberg sauce played like deconstructed (and improved-upon) lobster bisque. For dessert, baked Alaska, which had a heyday at fancy restaurants back when Top of the East first opened, hid whoopie-pie cake under the warm, gooey meringue. It was excellent alongside a Cafecito cocktail — coffee and vanilla vodkas, orange-vanilla reduction, and oat milk frothed tableside. By the time I’d drained the last drop, the truth felt unavoidable: indeed, my new favorite Portland cocktail bar is inside a chain hotel.