Portland, Maine - The Secret Foodie City of the 70s & 80s — 86&co. (2022)

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Written By Daryle Degen

While doing some research on new restaurants opening in Maine this year, we discovered that the Portland dining scene had made its way into another national magazine - Vogue. Twelve, a new restaurant slated to open in Portland this summer by Prentice Hospitality Group, made Vogue's list of "America's Most Anticipated Restaurant Openings in 2022". According to Vogue, two high-profile chefs from Manhattan, Colin Wyatt and Daniel Gorlas, will be heading the kitchen at Twelve. As Portland's amazing food culture continues to be at the nation's forefront these days, this is not surprising.

A few days later, we came across an article about how a variety of old Portland restaurant menus were now digitally available through the Portland Public Library website. How cool! Most of the menus were collected for a project in 1982. As a result of the pandemic, the library found the time to finally upload the menus to their website for others to view. After browsing a few of the menus with nostalgic wonder, we became very curious about the history of Portland's dining scene and when it all began.

What was Portland like before Bon Appetit named Portland the "2018 Restaurant City of the Year" or before they termed it "America's Foodiest Small Town" in 2009? Some would say that Portland's dining scene really took off with the opening of Fore Street in 1996. But others would argue that there's been great food in the city for much longer than that.

The most interesting historical account of Portland's restaurant scene we found was written by Michael Quibb, the author of the blog Epicuranoid. In his post titled "History Of A Food City, Simultaneous Evolution & A Sense of Place", posted in July of 2012, Quibb shares Portland's restaurant history as he remembers it. Quibb was a young chef who worked in many of Portland's restaurants in the 80s and 90s. He also grew up in Portland in the 70s and dined in many restaurants there with his family. He has continued to remain in the industry and now owns restaurants of his own. For these reasons, we hold Quibb's historical account of the highest value, as well as other locals who commented on his piece. After all, doesn’t the most accurate information from the past come from people who lived and worked during those times? We think so.

From Working Waterfront Slum To Trendy Old Port.

According to Quibb, many say that Portland's restaurant renaissance began in the early 80s, but he disagrees. Quibb remembers Portland having "a hopping restaurant scene" in the 70s. Similar to other places in the Northeast in the 70s, excellent Italian cuisine dominated the restaurant culture - and Portland was no exception. Some of the notable establishments he recalls are Verillo's, The Sportsman's Grill, The Roma, The Village Cafe, Maria's, and Giobbi's. According to Quibb, these restaurants were authentic and "as good as anywhere in the country."

In the 70s, the Old Port, what is now a booming epicenter of Portland dining and tourism, according to Quibb, was "a dirty, dark, working waterfront slum that smelled like fish". Many people did not feel safe wandering around that neighborhood either - so, with the exception of DiMillo's, Portland's popular restaurants were located in other neighborhoods.

In the early 80s, however, things began to change in the Old Port neighborhood. According to Quibb, because rent in the Old Port was super cheap, aspiring entrepreneurs with no money were able to open restaurants there. Retailers and artists also began to follow suit and the revitalization of the "waterfront slum" began.

While the Old Port began to take off, Portland restaurant trends began to shift from Italian cuisine to more modern fare, just like in other major cities across the country, including New York and San Francisco, as Quibb noted in his article. From his perspective, some of the noteworthy, trendsetting restaurants established in the late 70s/early 80s were The Good Egg Cafe, Alberta's, and Hu Shang.

The Good Egg was a popular spot for a great breakfast with some creative dishes, like smoked salmon and cream cheese omelets. Alberta's was one of the most eclectic restaurants of its time, and, according to Quibb, the most popular. They served "serious food unpretentiously presented with menus that changed on a whim". The owner of Alberta's, Jim Ledue, went on to open other successful creative restaurants in Portland as well.

One of the most popular restaurants of this time was surely Hu Shang. If you look it up, you'll find several articles about it as well as many local commentations stating it's still the best Chinese food Portland's ever had. Hu Shang opened in 1979 and introduced Portland to authentic Szechuan food. According to Quibb and many other locals, everyone loved it. It was so popular the brothers who owned it also opened two other successful restaurants. But Hu Shang remained the most loved and is still missed by many today. Unfortunately, the Ng brothers went to federal prison for tax evasion and were later deported. There's a great piece written about the Hu Shang story by the Chinese and American Friendship Association of Maine. For the sad yet intriguing details, you can read that storyhere.

Several of the most memorable restaurants from the 70s and 80s mentioned by Quibb and the commenters on his post were also part of the Portland Public Library's menu project in 1982. As a result, many of those menus are available on the Portland Public Library website. So amazing! Thank you, Portland Public Library! One of those beloved restaurants was Sportman's Grill, where you could get anything from a fried seafood platter, baked lasagna with meatballs, to beef liver with onions - truly something for every palate. F. Parker Reidy's and Horsefeathers were also included. According to Quibb, Reidy's had "the most tender and delicious top sirloins". Horsefeathers, according to its menu, had "heavy-handed bartenders constantly pouring two-fisted drinks three fingers high". No wonder it was so popular!

Carbur's was also one of the restaurants mentioned several times in the comments of Quibb's blog. For a good laugh, take a look at the menus below. Apparently, Carbur’s had fantastic homemade sandwiches and an incredible sense of humor as well!

During this time, Portland also had their first vegetarian restaurant from 1979-1981 called Hollow Reed. Not only was Hollow Reed ahead of its time, but it was also well known for being incredibly delicious. Unfortunately, the Portland Public Library collection did not have a copy of Hollow Reed's menu as it closed in 1981. It did, however, have this great photo of its storefront.

Portland Restaurants Standing The Test of Time.

Some of the great restaurants that opened during the 70s and 80s are actually still in business today - which is quite a testament to how much they're loved. J's Oyster Bar, Three Dollar Deweys, The Great Lost Bear, and Maria's have truly become Portland institutions - and all for different reasons.

J's Oyster Bar was and still is known for fresh seafood located on the working waterfront in the Old Port. Some of their menu items, like the "Crabby Janice", are so popular they’ve been on the menu since 1982! Three Dollar Deweys, according to Quibb, was the first place in the Old Port that established itself as a safe place to drink and hang out - and helped change the vibe of the waterfront neighborhood from dirty and sketchy to "clean, fun, safe, and good at what you do". It's awesome to see that this early trendsetter established in 1980, although it has changed ownership a few times, is still a popular spot for both locals and tourists. Deweys has expanded their food options beyond a few bar snacks since the 80s, and even have an impressive amount of vegan and vegetarian options on their current menu. Deweys has done well keeping its "ale house" roots alive while continuing to evolve with the times.

The Great Lost Bear, located on Forest Avenue, has been a Portland favorite since it opened in 1979. With its large bar and eclectic decor, not much has changed there over the years - not even the bartenders. Some of them have been there for over 30 years! Now that's impressive! The Great Lost Bear has had an extensive craft beer menu for many years, even before all of the breweries sprouted up in Portland. And their "short beer" nights, where you get a 24-ouncer for the price of a pint, will likely never go out of style.

Maria's, another Portland classic that Quibb referred to, is also still in business today. Maria's Ristorante, located on the section of Congress Street between downtown and the bottom of Munjoy Hill, was established in 1960 by the Napolitano family. Maria's is still owned by the Napolitano family and continues to make outstanding authentic Italian dishes featuring lots of fresh seafood right from Casco Bay. In fact, according to Maria's current menu, Anthony Napolitano Sr. was the first chef in Portland to put calamari on his menu. As Portland restaurants and modern cuisine continue to evolve, some things may always stand the test of time - like "short beer" nights at the Bear and Mr. Napolitano's calamari marinara.

From Quibb's article and many of the locals who commented on his insightful piece, it seems that the food scene in Portland has been on par with other cities in the Northeast long before it was recognized. For those of you who believe good food finally came to Portland in the 90s, we highly recommend reading Quibb's article and taking a look at the interesting menus from the 80s on the Portland Public Library's website. They’re bound to give you a new perspective.

As times have certainly changed since the 70s and 80s, we food lovers certainly look forward to the opening of new culinary destinations like Twelve. But to truly experience Portland's amazing dining culture, you must visit the tried and true classics as well. Unlike many of the latest and greatest that have come and gone, the classics are still in business in 2022 - and for good reason. These restaurants played a big role in establishing the amazing culinary destination that Portland is today. Without them, the city just wouldn’t be the same.

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