Tight budget, full plate

Portland has built a reputation for fine dining, but good food comes in many guises

By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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Old Port / Waterfront
Escape the Old Port hordes in the elegant Eve’s at the Garden lounge of the posh Portland Harbor Hotel (468 Fore St., 207-775-9090, Settle into a couch, comfy chair, or bar seat, then order the 5-ounce burger ($6), made with smoked bacon, blue cheese, grilled onions, and oven-dried tomatoes, from the lounge menu (served 4-7 p.m.). Pair it with roasted fingerling potatoes with duck jus and melted Brie ($6) or a salad, soup, or dessert from Eve’s dining room menu ($7 each).

Just steps from the hotel is chef-owner Jean Claude Vassalle’s Merry Table Creperie (43 Wharf St., 207-899-4494), a charming French country bistro. Indulge in a bowl of French onion soup ($6.95), then savor a crepe ($9-$13), perhaps jambon fromage (Black Forest ham and Swiss cheese) or Poireaux (braised leeks, wild mushrooms, and goat cheese). Share a sweet crepe ($5-$7) for dessert.

The Porthole (20 Custom House Wharf, 207-780-6533, is a retro, unfussy dineresque joint hanging over the harbor. Think faded signs, more-faded linoleum, an old pot-bellied stove (replaced by a far more efficient gas one), an upright piano, hospital-green paneled walls, a counter full of salty character (and often, characters), and a pooch-friendly deck. Always popular for breakfast, it also serves lunch and, in summer, dinner. You can’t go wrong with the $5.95 Shipyard Beer-battered fish ’n’ chips, especially on Fridays, when it’s the all-you-can-eat special.

Here’s a twofer with budget-friendly options and harbor views. Downstairs on the waterside is Flatbread (72 Commercial St., 207-772-8777,, home of pizzas made with organic whole-grain flours, organic produce, free-range chicken, and nitrate-free meats. Sure, these are pricier than fast-food pizzas ($9-$10 small, $13-$18 large), but the atmosphere, flavors, and views are worth it. Sharing the building is Ri Ra (72 Commercial St., 207-761- 4446,, with a traditional Irish pub at street level and an upstairs dining room. Chicken pot pie, beef ’n’ Guinness stew, emigrants’ corned beef and cabbage are each $12.95.

Watch the Sox play amid comfy camaraderie at $3 Deweys (241 Commercial St., 207-772-3310, This family friendly alehouse has been satisfying local demands for brews (36 on tap), burgers, and free buttered popcorn since 1980. Also served are soups, salads, sandwiches, and daily specials, such as grilled pork chops. Almost everything on the menu is under $12.

Becky’s Diner (390 Commercial St., 207-773-7070, is one of Portland’s most popular breakfast joints, but it also serves lunch and dinner. Plunk down on a counter stool, slide into one of the red vinyl booths, or score a seat on the new upstairs deck. Then, count your blessings for having found a spot serving meatloaf, clam cakes, and ham steak, each accompanied by proper go-withs and costing $10.95. Salad plates and pasta dinners begin at $7.50; breakfast in the evening goes for $3.75-$6.50. Start with a homemade soup or salad, end with a piece of pie.

Have a hankering for Mexican? El Rayo (101 York St., 207-780-8226,, a onetime gas station converted to a festive tacqueria, serves chilaquilles, quesadillas, tacos, burritos, and rice and bean bowls ($3.25-$10.95). Portions are on the small side, so order a selection and share. It’s equally popular as a watering hole, although many of the favorites — margaritas, tequila flights, sangria, or nonalcoholic refrescos — are budget busters. It’s not on the waterfront, but you can see the harbor from the umbrella tables dotting the parking lot.

East End
A must on almost any culinary traveler’s list, no matter what the budget, is Duck Fat (43 Middle St., 207-774-8080,, owned by James Beard Award-winning chef Rob Evans, of Hugo’s fame. Duck Fat has earned national kudos for its Belgian fries, double fried in duck fat, and served with a choice of enticing sauces. Split a large order ($6.25), and match it with a panini, soup, and/or salad ($5.75-$13), and a house-made soda. Finish with a beignet, a doughnut hole topped with spicy chocolate, powdered sugar, or cinnamon sugar ($3.75).

A couple doors up is Norm’s East End Grille (47 Middle St., 207-253-1700,, source of wood-smoked barbeque faves as well as salads and seafood (most choices run $10-$15) and sides including sweet potato fries. Find a table upstairs, where there’s also a full bar. Consider splitting the BBQ sampler ($17.95), a piled plate with spare ribs, country ribs, barbecued chicken, sausage, and steak tips along with beans and cornbread, which easily feeds two normal appetites.

Fun, frivolous, appropriately named Silly’s (40 Washington Ave., 207-772-0360, is a family favorite, a cheap eats jackpot done up in vintage 1950s retro-refined style: Formica tables, tutti-frutti vinyl-covered chairs and stools, fringed lamps, and pressed-tin walls displaying photos of customers with Silly’s bumper stickers in far-flung places. Water arrives in a wine bottle, tea selections in an Elvis lunchbox. The fare is equally eclectic, with vegetarian, vegan, and dairy- and gluten-free options on a menu ranging from burgers and pizza to Thai-style noodles and the Big Fat Greek Dinner ($5.75-$15). A separate menu lists an anything-goes selection of milkshakes, or concoct one from dozens of ingredient possibilities (curry, jalapenos, jelly, peanut butter, bacon . . . you get the idea). Save room for the “big as a Buick’’ cookie sandwich.

Another family pleaser is Tu Casa (70 Washington Ave., 207- 828-4971, It serves authentic Salvadoran fare — similar to Mexican, but lighter — in a no-frills dining room. There’s a window for take-out orders, but grab a seat for table service. Begin with the appetizer puposas, the national dish of El Salvador, move onto the enchilada Salvadorena, or maybe the pollo enmole, marinated chicken paired with the homemade mole sauce. Escape with your wallet intact; nothing costs more than $12, and most items are far less.

Nosh (551 Congress St., 207-553-2227, updates the concept of New York-style deli fare with a fresh-and-local twist (pig-belly Reuben, BLT made with house-cured bacon and an option to top it with a fried egg, duck confit sandwich). The setting is sleek, with a granite bar on one side, copper tables on the other, and comfy lounge-like seating at the entry. Nosh serves inspired salads, sandwiches, and burgers by day ($6-$11). At night, the menu expands to include create-your-own tasting plates, allowing guests to choose from charcuterie, artisan cheeses, seafood, and vegetables. Be sure to order the fries, offered in flavors including bacon-dusted and salt-and-vinegar, and accompanied by a choice from a tempting array of mayos, cheese sauces, and even sriracha, a Thai hot sauce.

Step into chef-owner Asmeret Teklu’s Asmara (51 Oak St., 207-253-5122), and be transported to East Africa. Traditional Eritrean and Ethiopian dishes, a mix of mild to spicy curried stews and vegetarian plates, are served on injera, spongy flat bread made from teff flour that doubles as an eating utensil (silverware is available, if you ask). Entrees ($9-$14) are generous and come with a salad and choice of vegetable. Service is leisurely; this is a one-woman show.

The best solution when everyone in your party craves something different is the multi-vendor Public Market House (28 Monument Square, 207-228-2056, Mix and match from Horton Specialty Foods meats, cheeses, sandwiches, and gourmet goodies; Kamasouptra’s vegetarian, vegan, and seafood soups and fresh-squeezed juices; Peanut Butter Jelly Time’s outrageous sandwiches made with a wide variety of nut butters and jellies; Pie in the Sky’s pizza; Big Sky Bread Co.’s breads, sweets, and sandwiches; and Market House Coffee’s beverages. There’s plenty of seating on the second floor, where there’s often entertainment, too.

Breakfast is served all day at the Miss Portland Diner (140 Marginal Way, 207-210-6673, a 1949 Worcester Diner (car no. 818) that was rescued, restored, and reopened in 2007. Snag a counter stool or a booth in the original dining car, not the addition, then treat yourself to breakfast for dinner. Sure, there are more traditional choices — soups, sandwiches, wraps, burgers, dogs, comfort foods, seafood plates and platters, or nightly dinner specials (most choices range $7-$12) — but breakfast and diners go together like bacon and eggs. If you must have more dinner-like fare, opt for an omelet. The Greek, Parisian, and Spanish are stuffed with appropriate veggies along with cheese and come with homefries and toast. Added bonus: Parking is plentiful and free.

Also offering plentiful free parking is Whole Foods (2 Somerset St., 207-774-7711,, a grocery store that doubles as a restaurant and self-serve cafe. Buffets of salad fixings, ethnic foods, and hot and cold entrees make it easy to please any palate, including vegetarians. Add soup and coffee bars, sandwich counter, Mexican food station, sushi/noodle bar, desserts, and even burgers in the cafe. Sure the atmosphere is supermarket, but with these choices and free seating, what’s not to like?

Hilary Nangle, author of Moon Handbooks new “Coastal Maine,’’ can be reached at