[NOTE: I am resuming the waterfront walk I started last week. Hopefully, you are refreshed and ready for more of Portland’s colorful history and current events.]
“May You have Fair Winds and Following Seas” are the words on the sign above us as we leave DiMillo’s parking lot to finish our ramble through Portland’s wharves and history.
Before traveling too far, I want to point out La Roux on the other side of Commercial Street. This is our favorite kitchen store with its two floors chock-full of culinary tools and gadgets, infused vinegars, and lots of temptation for anyone who likes to cook. This is also an excellent place to look up, past the florescent lights, and appreciate the old hand-hewn beams and solid structure that is characteristic of these old former-warehouses that have been renovated and turned into storefronts, restaurants, and offices here along the wharves.
Crossing back over Commercial Street to Portland Pier we come to J’s Oysters, a long-held local secret that savvy visitors have begun to scent out. If you eat at the bar, you are as likely to be seated next to a lobsterman as a lawyer or you can choose to eat at one of the few cozy tables…in either case, the oysters and seafood are always fresh and the vibe authentic.
At the end of the Portland Pier is a newcomer to the waterfront, Luke’s Lobster. Due to my husband’s active curiosity, we found ourselves the first guests when Luke’s opened their doors on June 5, 2019.
Luke is a local boy who went off to New York City to make his career in finance, or something like that, and along the way he opened a little lobster roll “shack” in 2009 in the East Village, which quickly became a hit. From there he has expanded…Luke’s is now here in Portland and there are also other U.S. locations and he is also selling is lobster rolls in Japan and Taiwan.
The view from Luke’s is unparalleled and it is a great place to watch lobster boats coming right up to their dock to offload the fresh catch. With Maine’s rigorous standards for lobster fishing, this is truly traceable and sustainable seafood. From a window inside the restaurant, you see a large room where fresh ocean water is continually pumped into a swimming-pool size holding tank. A company processing plant in nearby Saco handles about 32,000 pounds of lobster a day to be served in “the company’s 29 shacks across the country” (Kramar).
Instead of going back to Commercial Street, we like to take a shortcut that keeps us along the water’s edge. This old brick and cobblestone walkway extends from Portland Pier to Custom House Wharf…along the back side of the block-long Thomas Building. Later, on your way back to your car, you may want to take a look at the building’s unusual curved facade, which must have stood out in its day when compared to its other mid-nineteenth century neighbors.
The exterior of the low grey-sided frame building ahead is the back side of Harbor Fish. Fishermen have been pulling up to deliver their fresh catches to a fish market at this location since the late 1880s and this building dates back to the 1930s. Around the corner is the colorful, much photographed entrance to the market that has the best and freshest fish around.
The Alfiero family has been selling fish here since the 1960s and the business is now in the hands of two sons who took over from their father in the 1980s. The building may be old but the market has new fish cases and coolers that are stocked with fresh fish from local waters as well as imported seafood from all around the globe. Harbor Fish’s wholesale business supplies the finest fish to restaurants, and locals line up here at the market to pick up lobster, a handful of scallops or a fresh haddock filet for dinner. Their friendly and knowledgeable staff members are always ready to answer questions (Secret).
But Harbor Fish isn’t the only interesting business on the wharf. Seabags was started in 1999 by Hannah Kubiak who had the idea of using old sails to make totes and bags (Newenglandstory.com). Boat owners are happy to be paid for their old sails and the resulting bags are incredibly sturdy. Over the years new designs and graphics have been added to the bags, but the quality has not altered. The finest rope is used for the handles and the sewing thread even comes from a U.S. manufacturer. The bags are designed, cut and sewn right here on the wharf. As the company website proclaims, their bags are experienced: “Sailed around the world, recycled in Maine” (seabags.com).
If you really want to get the smell and feel of the working waterfront, you can take a walk down to the very end of Custom House Wharf to view Commercial Bait Company. This is where boats offload chopped fish parts, fish fluids and other refuge that is used for bait by commercial fishermen. Most visitors do not venture down this far because they are put off by the smell and also because the buildings look like they have been used as movie sets for harbor mystery murders.
You’ll get a much more pleasant peek into harbor life with a visit to the Porthole Restaurant. Local fishermen, fish mongers, and dock workers sit on the old naugahyde stools at the counter in the morning drinking coffee and wearing the high rubber boots that announce their watery professions.
One winter when we came back to Portland for a visit, we found the Porthole closed and a building permit in its window. We were most concerned that this longtime favorite might be getting a facelift or worse, being converted into a trendy new bar…but when we came back in the spring we were relieved to find that everything looked the same except for an improved washroom and some kitchen updates. A large deck has been added on the channel side of the restaurant where there is live music, food and drinks at the end of the day.
Right at the corner of Custom House Wharf and Commercial Street is Solo Italiano Restaurant, which is one of our favorite places in this entire foodie city. Executive chef Paolo Laboa’s menu is filled with his contemporary interpretations of classic Genovese cuisine. The finest farm-fresh produce and meats, local seafood and handmade pastas go into his award-winning recipes. The menu changes with the season but a year-round favorite is his handkerchief pasta with his unique basil pesto.
Across the street you can’t miss the handsome old Customs House. Ever since the British settled this area, a customs tax has been levied on all goods coming into Portland’s harbor. According to the U.S. Custom’s website, “As early as 1730, a British naval officer was stationed in Falmouth [now Portland] to collect the customs.” The first British customhouse was built in Portland in 1775 and located a couple of blocks from here…ironically, it was destroyed in 1775 when King George III’s fleet set fire to the city.
After the American Revolution, the U.S. Congress wasted little time in establishing their own revenue stream: “The Fifth Act of the First Congress of the United States was signed on July 31, 1789, which created an organization of customs collection districts.” Portland officially became a “port of entry and residence of the collector of customs.”
Other customhouses have been built here in the city over the years, but they did not fare any better than the first until in 1872 a new “Fireproof” U.S. Custom House was built covering the entire block between Commercial and Fore Streets. Due to the steep slope of the lot, the “entrance to the Customs business room [was] at the two-story end facing on Fore Street, and the entrance to the warehouse and appraiser’s stores [was] at the three-story end facing on Commercial Street and the wharves.” Although it may not have been taken down by fire, by the turn of the 21st century, the building was dilapidated, leaking and uninhabitable. A major restoration took place and the doors have been reopened for tours sponsored by the Portland Landmarks (a local preservation society).
From top to bottom, the stunning structure stands as proudly as it did at its 1872 opening. One of the most interesting features in the “business room” is the tall wooden structure in the center of the room, which is topped with a four-sided round clock. The slanted surfaces at its midpoint fold out to create writing surfaces where documents could be completed. It is not hard to imagine clerks sitting at desks piled high with papers or scurrying to and from the thick-walled vault in the areas behind the elegant marble counters,
Almost as old as the Custom House is Boone’s Restaurant, which originally opened in 1898. As Colin Sargent tells the story, “In its salad days, it was one of the most famous seafood bistros in the world.” Ingrid Bergman, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and other luminaries dined at Boone’s…but it lost its luster and closed its doors when the rest of the Old Port fell into decline, leaving its tall, fading, unlit neon sign as a sad reminder to much happier days. Now the restaurant has finally received a much-needed remodel and its sign lit again when it reopened in 2013as Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room…and this really is a room with a view with tables at water’s edge on the wharf and also an outdoor stairway leading to tables on its scenic second- floor scenic gallery. In the winter months, a fire burns in the restaurant’s fireplace and it is a wonderful place to escape the ice and snow.
If you are looking for something a little less grand, next door is Gilbert’s Chowder House, which is located in the former Portland ferry terminal. Theirs is truly a no frills menu where you can always count on finding a good cup of chowder.
The Irish have long history here in Portland going back to the 1830s, even before the potato famine forced so many people to leave their country. At that time, Portland’s docks, factories and businesses needed workers. In addition to being a large part of the labor force that helped build the city, these immigrants have left behind strong imprints of their Irish culture. If you have a taste for pub fare and maybe a Guinness, there is no place better than RiRa. The restaurant serves traditional Irish dishes as well as seafood and hamburgers, and it has an authentic, antique wood-paneled Irish pub interior imported from the Old Country. This is an especially lively place to be during International Champions Cup soccer playoffs.
If you are beginning to feel tired, it is little wonder…but don’t quit just yet. Around the corner from RiRa is the Maine State Pier where the Casco Bay Island Ferry Terminal is located. This is where you catch the ferries that transport residents and visitors to the islands in Casco Bay. Throughout the seasons and even in the worst weather, these boats are a vital lifeline that provides transportation and brings goods and services to island dwellers.
These sturdy, colorful boats also offer a wonderful way for visitors to catch a glimpse of island life, wildlife, sea birds, historic lighthouses and the forts that were built in Casco Bay to protect the entrance to Portland Harbor from invading enemies.
This dock is also where the Portland Fire Department has boats tied up, ready to serve in rescue operations and to fight fires along the waterfront.
Just this last week we saw them called into action when a twenty-foot fishing boat caught fire while tied up for a fueling stop. When life is quieter, it is a lovely sunny spot for the resident cat to keep watch on passersby.
I may have saved the best for last…but as I write this I am also chagrinned that by the time you cross the street and arrive at Standard Baking Company they may be sold out for the day. Having found this amazing gem I know you will return, possibly early in the morning to buy a cup of coffee to go with a blueberry scone, sticky bun, croissant or one of their many other delectable and delicious offerings (our favorite is a small raisin-nut roll). You will also want to nab one of their famous baguettes or a country boulé or a focaccia as well. Of course this reminder is totally unnecessary; once you see their baskets and wooden shelves overflowing with fresh bakery, the biggest problem becomes making up your mind which ones to buy.
As Karen Watterson tells the story, Alison Pray and Matt James, the owners of Standard Baking Company, took a trip to Europe years ago and were inspired by bakeries they visited in France and Tuscany. They loved not just their breads, but they also found that these little businesses were central to the heart of their neighborhoods and they helped maintain a sense of community. When the travelers returned home, Pray began a three-year apprenticeship at a bakery in Massachusetts where she learned to bake European-style breads. James, already well familiar with kitchens, also learned to bake bread. He had worked in Portland at Street & Co., so when in 1995 when they felt ready, they came to Portland’s Wharf Street and opened a small bakery, at first making baguettes to supply that restaurant and a couple of other commercial accounts.
But the aroma of their bread wafted out through the open door and brought more and more customers to buy their bread, so they began baking rosemary focaccia, morning buns and scones. They had started small and within three years they outgrew their space, so they bought a bigger oven and moved to a former pool hall at the back of a parking lot on Commercial Street with Fore Street Restaurant upstairs.
They have achieved a loyal following of both commercial and retail customers. While remaining a major force at the heart of Portland’s culinary scene, their impact has expanded far beyond their original concept in that they have become leaders in the use of local grains and have become champions of the whole grain movement here in Maine. Many of their handcrafted breads are made from 100 percent Maine-grown, stone-milled grains that they buy from Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan. They have developed partnerships that are building on New England’s “rich history of producing grains such as oats, rye, wheat, corn and buckwheat” (Urein).
Even with a larger space, customers frequently have to line up outside waiting to make a purchase, and when we hear that the baguettes are sold out for the day, we use that as an excuse to try something else with the anticipation of it becoming another favorite.
It may seem like you have walked and I have talked forever, but you are only about six or seven short blocks from where you parked your car. I will leave you here knowing that you have the option of many fine dining and shopping opportunities…and don’t forget to stop back to pick up the wine you may have bought from Jacque…or you may want to go back to The King’s Head Pub and enjoy a relaxed meal on the waterfront.
There is much more of Portland’s story to tell so I will pick up here next week.
Kramar, Andrea. “How a 25-year-old turned his ‘passion project; into a global business with $30 million in sales.” CNBC.com. July 3, 2018.
Merrill’s Wharf Building. North River Company, northriverco.com.
Sargent, Colin, W. Portland Monthly “Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room “Boone’s – A room with a View. October 2013.
“Secret Recipes of Harbor Fish Market.” DownEast Magazine (downeast.com). September 7-13, 2020.
Urein, John. “A New Standard.” Bakemag.com. October 8, 2015.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection – cbp.gov “Did You Know…Fires, Ships, Railroads and a Year-Round Ice-Free Harbor made Portland the Premier Port of Entry in Maine? December 20, 2019
Watterson, Karen. “Standard Baking Co.” Portland City Magazine. Oldport.com. January 3, 2018.