Rumored to have more restaurants per capita than any other U.S. city except San Franciso, Portland is definitely a must-see destination for any foodie. The city’s food scene is thriving and with an abundance of fresh seafood at the ready, a collection of local artisan bakeries, numerous distinct independent breweries and a community of innovative chefs, it’s considered a gem in the industry.
“Portland is a well-kept secret that the rest of America doesn’t know about yet, “ said Canadian chef, Iron Chef America champion and restaurateur, Chuck Hughes.
But Hughes is planning on telling this secret to the rest of the world. Hughes hosts a television show Chuck’s Eat The Street where he travels across America, visiting major cities and diving into the local food scenes, digging into meals in some of the best independently owned establishments in the country. On Tuesday, Oct. 30, an episode titled “Where the Ocean Meets the Farm,” will air the Cooking Channel that focuses on food in Portland. The “foodiest small town in America” has a lot to offer, and Hughes aims to showcase some of his favorite venues.
“Maine is so unique because they have the bounty from the sea, from the farm and even from the forest all in the same region. Just the area allows Portland to be on another level entirely,” said Hughes.
In the episode, Hughes learns to create some real Portland dishes, sampling a delicate pollock stew at Farmer’s Table, baking some fresh sticky buns at Standard Baking Company, getting a taste of Italy at Vignola Cinque Terre and catching his own lobster at Three Sons Lobster & Fish.
People in the industry know why Portland is being picked out as a unique city, too. There are many reasons why Portland is considered a great place to open a restaurant.
“I really like the scale of this city,” said the production manager of Standard Baking Company, Tim Gosnell. “It’s big enough to attract attention, but small enough so that everyone knows each other to a certain degree.”
Many of the chefs in Portland have worked in each other’s kitchens at one point or another. It’s become common for a new restaurant to be created by a previous employee of another independent business. Enemies and friends are made, and everyone is competitive.
“The beauty of Portland is that it’s full of young, creative entrepreneurs that aren’t scared to say, ‘hey, I’m going to start my own business’ without flinching,” said owner of Maine Foodie Tours, Pamela Laskey. “Ninety percent of the food venues are owned by the chefs, which I think makes them more committed to the local scene.”
Maine Foodie Tours is a four-year-old company that takes groups of curious, hungry people around the city to help them uncover some of the most unique local dishes. Mixing culinary art with history, the tours are both tasty and informative. An estimated 80 percent of tour-goers are from out-of-state, proving that Portland’s food is worth traveling for.
There are competitive farm-to-table networks through the area that move food straight from the fields to the plates of customers, and chefs race to stock up on local supplies. Because many of Portland’s restaurants buy a majority of their stock from local community-supported markets and agriculture organizations, menus throughout the city are constantly changing to reflect availability of ingredients what the seasonal offerings are. The seasonality of the industry requires chefs to always be innovating and altering their dishes to work with what they have at the ready, leading to some interesting creations.
Local food lovers regularly say that the individuality and self-directed nature of restaurants in the area is something that draws them in. There’s a culture here of eating out, exploration of the city and supporting the local culinary scene. Fast food is regularly shot down, and hungry visitors willingly wait for a fresh slow-cooked meal instead.
If the regular serving of savory dishes isn’t enough, customers are always drawn in by the classic, friendly Mainer attitude and strong work ethic.
“At Standard Baking, and I think this is true of a lot of other places in Portland as well, is that we put people over profit,” said Gosnell.
“That’s the beauty of the area. It’s going back to the roots. Commercial Street specifically is a working man’s zone. There’s a grittiness to the area. There’s this authenticity and connect with the people that you don’t find in a lot of places,” said Hughes.
Venues manage to keep prices low too, making their rich creations relatively affordable. Fresh seafood, normally viewed as an expensive, upper-class dish in other regions, is a common meal for Mainers, breaking the elitist attitude that generally surrounds it. Owners are able to keep prices low because Portland is an affordable city to open a small business in, in comparison to other major U.S. cities.
“Portland, Maine is a one-of-a-kind city,” said Hughes. “A city like no other, with food that you can’t find anywhere else.”