By the Down East staff
Photographed by Mark Fleming
From our June 2021 issue
State Lunch Craft & Kitchen, Augusta
At a moment when comfort food is everything and white-tablecloth places just haven’t been top of mind, this downtown Augusta newcomer nails the sweet spot between elevated and approachable. You can have a lovely date night in the industrial-chic dining room. You can get a nice piece of fish or spaghetti bolognese and a sophisticated cocktail. Or you could come in jeans and slurp house-made ramen while you crush IPAs and stare at a bar TV. State Lunch (the name and stained-glass marquee are inherited from a mid-century predecessor) had to make the pandemic pivot just weeks after opening. Its takeout game has been strong, and as indoor dining becomes the norm again, it’s a welcome player in the continuing Augustaissance. 217 Water St. 207-213-6025.
Ancho Honey, Tenants Harbor
In a snug shingled cottage on the dangly end of the St. George peninsula, Ancho Honey isn’t a restaurant restaurant so much as a homey, glorified snack bar. Owner Malcolm Bedell calls it a “modern luncheonette,” and the menu of mostly sandwiches and hand foods checks a lot of the same boxes as an old-school lunch counter: The tuna salad sandwich and the grilled pimento cheese are mouthwateringly nostalgic. The Thursday-night burger specials are griddled to perfection, the toppings lowbrow fabulous (a recent “gas station burger” had white cheddar, bacon, Funyuns, and chipotle Cherry Coke barbecue sauce). Some specials have global panache — tikka masala, say, or Thai peanut chicken. But most worth road-tripping for is Chicken Sando Sunday, a different-each-week lineup of three messy, perfectly crispy, fast-food–style fried-chicken sandwiches — popular enough that you need to call ahead. 6 Wallston Rd. 207-372-2111.
To many in Portland’s West End, Chaval is more than an acclaimed brasserie run by decorated chefs Ilma Lopez and Damian Sansonetti, a buzzy spot that’s made lists like this since the married couple opened it in 2017. It’s also a cozy “third place” of the sort the pandemic had put off-limits, a neighborhood hub where the staff recognizes you and maybe knows your drink. That vibe is palpable for those of us just coming for the sublime jamón serrano and other French- and Spanish-inflected tapas and entrées. Lopez and Sansonetti have done as much as any Portland restaurateur to stay welcoming during COVID — curbside specials, cocktails to go, greenhouse dining in winter — plus made hundreds of boxed meals for frontline workers and others. Now that’s neighborly. 58 Pine St. 207-772-1110.
Where to Takeout Now
Open only for carry-out and outdoor dining as of mid-June, Oysterhead Pizza Co. (189 Main St., Damariscotta; 207-563-2010) is another fine testament to Maine’s great pizza awakening. The wood-fired brick oven turns out inventive pies, but also beignets, smoked wings, and picnic-friendly small plates like rice balls and glazed string beans. Thoroughfare (367 Main St., Yarmouth; 207-400-5192) is an indulgent, curbside-only burger-and-shake shack, a love letter to fast food that chef Christian Hayes launched when the pandemic temporarily shuttered his fine-dining restaurant, the Garrison. The none-too-greasy smashburgers, with gooey American cheese and crunchy iceberg lettuce, are not to be missed.
Bruno’s Wood-Fired Pizzeria, Bath & Hallowell
The litmus test for any Neapolitan-inspired pizza place is its margherita — bright tomato sauce, judicious dollops of fresh mozzarella, and a few basil leaves atop a tender crust flecked with char. But maybe the best thing about Bruno’s, beyond an excellent margherita, is its disregard for old-country tradition. That same great dough is the base for fun, unfussy ’zas that sure aren’t Neapolitan classics — barbecue chicken, buffalo chicken, Hawaiian. Bruno’s does well with originals too, like the Pear D’Carter, a garlicky heap of ricotta, sliced pear, caramelized onion, mushrooms, prosciutto, and arugula. In Bath, a lovely patio out back glows beneath bistro lights. A second location, newly opened in Hallowell, also has primo outdoor seating, overlooking the Kennebec. 128 Front St., Bath. 190 Water St., Hallowell. 207-371-7000.
Dockside Inn and Tavern, Greenville
Come for the hearty pub food, stay for the view. Hungry vacationers grab tables at Dockside to tuck into piles of onion rings covered in smoked pulled pork, skewered maple-bourbon steak tips, platters of fried avocado wedges, and more. But what sells the place is that it kisses the shore of Moosehead Lake, with a fun floating bar and a sunny deck that overlook the water, a dozen boat slips, and the neighboring steamboat Katahdin, still iconic at 107. The restaurant (and three-room inn) opened last summer after a top-down renovation of the former Black Frog Restaurant, which shuttered in 2014, and it’s good to see some redevelopment in downtown Greenville. 17 Pritham Ave. 207-695-3663.
Where to Breakfast Now
Peace, Love & Waffles (1282 Bangor Rd., Dover-Foxcroft; 207-564-7700) serves sweet and savory waffles (try the red-flannel hash) in a barn outside town, its walls full of charming country bric-a-brac. It’s the kind of unexpected joint you stumble into on vacation and make a tradition out of. Brand new in Biddeford, Jackrabbit Cafe (14 Main St.) is an airy pastry shop specializing in Scandinavian treats and simple breakfasts (smoked trout on Danish rye, yum) from much-lauded chef-owner Bowman Brown (who’ll be reopening his popular dinner spot Elda upstairs).
Little Barn at White Barn Inn, Kennebunk
A little sister to the stalwart and sophisticated White Barn Restaurant, the new Little Barn is the chi-chi White Barn Inn’s more relaxed, approachable nosh. Chef Matthew Padilla’s menu is small, simple, and ever-changing, drawing on what’s fresh from local farmers and fishermen (White Barn has a license to buy right off the boats). Highlights on a recent visit included a perfectly cooked Wagyu burger with bacon-onion jam and a blueberry crumble with tarragon ice cream, a nice sweet-and-savory mash-up. The space is rustic, an actual little barn with simple Windsor chairs and potted herbs on the tables. Jackets are preferred next door; at Little Barn, you get the same chef’s dishes without so much as a button-down. 37 Beach Ave. 207-967-2321.
Fore Street, Portland
Sam Hayward gets frequent and deserved praise for his trailblazing ways — Portland wasn’t so much as a dot on the culinary map before he helped inspire an entire generation of Maine chefs to lean into local ingredients like island lamb and freshly harvested mussels. It’s been 25 years to the month since he opened Fore Street in the Old Port. Not many restaurants last a quarter century, and fewer still stay on the cutting edge, but Hayward’s place remains one of Portland’s most celebrated kitchens and sought-after reservations. Pry open those mussels, roasted in a wood-fired oven with garlic-almond butter and dry vermouth — they’re as perfect as they ever were. 288 Fore St. 207-775-2717.
Where to Veg Now
A former staple of Kennebunkport’s Dock Square, Bandaloop (1200 Portland Rd., Arundel; 207-967-4994) left town for a renovated 18th-century barn and is still the spot for a knockout chickpea-and-hemp-seed burger or an oven-roasted Heiwa tofu steak that’ll win over skeptics. Since it opened in late 2019, Maggie Mae’s (371 Rte. 1, Yarmouth; 207-847-3010) has specialized in healthy foods to go, so adapting to the pandemic was a cinch. Lots of vegan, vegetarian, raw, and paleo options — the vegan, gluten-free sweet-potato-and-tofu jambalaya is a revelation. From brothers Cameron and Dylan Gardner, proprietors of the popular Falafel Mafia food truck, Nura Hummus and Falafel Bar (1 Monument Way, Portland; 207-536-0065), offers its silky homemade chickpea sauce in falafel pockets, salads, and mezzes — and to-go pints and quarts.
Franny’s Bistro, Camden
Franny’s offers in spades the one precious quality the pandemic robbed diners of more than any other: intimacy. The front patio, ringed with twinkle lights and hanging plants, offers all kinds of curb appeal. The low-lit interior accommodates 50, with some diners on shared church pews. It’s romantic, warm, and homey, and so’s the menu — think steak frites, duck confit, mussels in rich broth. (If you’re not ready for close quarters, the full menu is available for order-online takeout.) Chef Jack Neal’s kitchen is consistent. He and his wife, Jennifer, opened Franny’s in late 2018 from the ashes of Francine Bistro, beloved by Camdenites for 15 years, and it has proved a worthy successor. 55 Chestnut St. 207-230-8199.
Havana: Parrilla, Bar Harbor
Since 1999, Havana has been a white-tablecloth oasis amid the seasonal hubbub of downtown Bar Harbor. The Cuban-inspired restaurant is a splurge, though, and its patrons are a dressy bunch. That’s what has made Havana’s grill (parrilla, in Spanish) such a breath of fresh air since opening in 2014. Adjacent to the main restaurant, it occupies a compact, partially enclosed patio right off the sidewalk. No reservations, and no need to change out of muddy hiking boots after a day traipsing around Acadia. A few hearty, shareable platters feature a rotating cast of grilled meats, seafood, and veggies, accompanied by various sauces and pickles, best enjoyed with a refreshing cocktail from the bar. 318 Main St. 207-288-2822.
Where to Drink Now
A simple roadside oasis of picnic tables and bistro lights, Farmhouse Beer Garden (926 Farmington Falls Rd., Farmington; 207-578-4353) started pairing wide-open western Maine skies with draft beer, pizza, and ice cream last year. The downtown Saco-Biddeford area has added some fancy establishments lately, making the relaxed Up & Up (206 Main St., Saco; 207-284-3445) all the more essential, with inexpensive drinks, vintage video games, and stacks of board games. Anoche (43 Washington Ave., Portland; 207-613-9748) features the fruits of Maine’s burgeoning cider production alongside European ciders and Basque-style small plates.
Taco Trio, South Portland & Saco
It’s been a decade since husband and wife Manny Peña and Karen Rasmussen opened Taco Trio, and their unassuming Knightville taquería is as busy as ever — and high in the running for Maine’s best Mexican food. The announcement in January of a coming Saco spinoff was a rare bright spot during a tough stretch for Maine restaurants and further evidence of the Saco-Biddeford area’s increasing pull for restaurateurs. The roomier Saco restaurant, Peña and Rasmussen said, will offer more specials, breakfast, and an expanded bar (the current spot has just four taps and two seats). Then, in May, Peña and Rasmussen bought a former tavern two blocks from their longtime South Portland location, and a move is in the works that’ll roughly triple the seating and add a larger bar to the SoPo location as well. 19 Ocean St., South Portland. 27 Elm St., Saco. 207-767-9055.