what portland means to us

When I was a kid, I used to order vacation pamphlets over the phone. I doubt they even make those anymore now that we have the mighty internet, but they were like little magazines for cruises and vacation spots. There were pictures and descriptions and they’d lay out pricing for the cheap packages and the more expensive high end vacations. I had a huge stack of them, and I’d come home from school, surround myself with booklets about Disney world or some Caribbean island on the table, and then I’d plan a vacation for my mom and I.

It seemed like everyone else had some place they went to, some glorious beach house or island they returned to every year. I wanted vacations like everyone else seemed to have.

This is us, this past weekend, in Portland, Maine. We were just on our way out of town, but we stopped at this little beach in South Portland so we could stick our feet in the ocean before heading home. The girls made their way down the stairs to the rocks, and then it hit me. I thought of all the times we had been to that beach, sometimes to sit and watch the cold wind ripple the winter water, other times to dunk all the way in for relief from a heat wave. And then I realized–this is where we come. Portland is our vacation spot.

I think that like so many other aspects of grownup-ness, the reality surprises me. I thought we would take sunny and faraway island vacations with our kids. I thought I would have a big job where a wristwatch was really important. But here we are, popping the girls in the car and driving to Maine. Over and over again. It’s family budget travel at its finest. And you know what? They like it. And so do I.

My very oldest friend, Sarah, lives in Portland with her sweetie, Jefferson. Sarah is the one who brought us to Maine that very first time 5 years ago when she was living on Peaks Island. She and Jefferson have lived in all sorts of apartments since then, but wherever they are, they always make room for us to visit. At first we’d go up once or twice a year, and now it’s more like every few months. We crave the milkshakes at Duckfat and the sand between our toes. We love the city and everything around it. And whereas I might not have called it a vacation when I was 8 years old and clutching a pamphlet on Bermuda, I now know that it is absolutely just that. Sometimes a vacation is as simple as a good friend in a faraway place who is willing to share their bathroom with a family of four. And for years now, every single morning started in Maine, the girls wake up Jefferson and they go out for a walk in any kind of weather. An hour later, they come in, happy, maybe wet or snowy or muddy, just as Joey and I are waking up in the living room. It’s not a vacation for the girls unless they get their walks with Jefferson. You can’t get that in Bermuda.

This was officially a little book trip (thank you Longfellow Books, and Phyllis who made pound cake with her homemade yogurt, and woman who showed up with her copy of the book stained and all filled with post-it notes–my book! filled with post-it notes!), but it was a vacation through and through. And as I find myself more often making recommendations to people who are heading up to Portland, I thought I might gather a few of them here.


Novare Res Bier Cafe (also lovingly referred to as the beer garden): Amazing beer at sunny picnic tables right in the center of the city, and really one of the best lunches I’ve had in Portland. Family friendly, too.

Duckfat: 7 dollar milk shakes for which we scrimp and save, if only to share two between the four of us. Poutine, in duck fat.

Schulte and Herr: This is a new little place that just opened on Cumberland Ave. Really homey, with good spaetzle and a dense seedy rye bread I’ve been dreaming about ever since.

Caiolas: Oh, Caiolas, Caiolas, Caiolas.

Ohno Cafe: A little cave in the West End that make superb, inexpensive breakfast sandwiches.

Micucci’s: Thick, sweet, Sicilian pizza. And really large jars of olives when you need them. (And don’t you always need a really large jar of olives?)

Baked Goods and Markets:

Standard Baking Company: I know I don’t have to tell you this. But it’s that good. EVERYTHING is good, but my personal secret favorite is their bag of homemade English muffins.

Scratch Baking Company: You have to venture to South Portland for this one, but the bagels! And again with the breakfast sandwiches!

Aurora provisions: the girls’ favorite, and I think the best coffee in town.

The Rosemont Market and Bakery: Like Portland’s own Bi-Rite market, only affordable, and even littler. This time was filled with fiddleheads and fingerlings.

Other, food and not food:

Le Roux: A kitchen store for the dreamers. Big, filled with beautiful, useful, affordable things. And there’s a really good bathroom there.

Mackworth Island: fairy houses. (Remember those?)

I could go on and on, I think, but if you have something to add to the list, please do!

Thank you, Portland, and to Sarah and Jefferson for making their living room our official vacation house, and to the ocean and to Longfellow Books and the milkshakes and the hibiscus beer from Montreal. We’ll be back. Soon, soon.



  1. says

    Love it. And love the idea of traditions sneaking up on us. “Our” Portland is the Oregon one – but if I ever make it to Maine, Duckfat is first on my list!

  2. says

    I was raised in Portland. We now reside in South Portland and I consider myself very, very lucky! The community, the food, the arts, and the geography are all tops. We must have similar tastes because your favorites list is similar to my list, although I would pick chocolate sable cookies at Standard. I would also add Verbena over here on the SoPo side for turkey meatloaf sandwiches, quiches, and chocolate chip cookies not to be missed.

  3. Kelley says

    Thanks for the great recommendations! I’m the owner of the stained and post it-noted cookbook. I love it and use it all the time – the munching you hear is granola. I’m working on making some adjustments to a few recipes so my very food allergic sister can try them – the post it notes help me keep track of the things I’ve tried.
    I also love your list of food places – I need to try the coffee at Aurora – I’m not sure it will convert me from Coffee By Design – but we’ll see. We are big fans of Novare Res and Standard Baking. Thanks again for a fun evening at Longfellow!

    • alana says

      Oh, I hope so! I’m working on trying to gather a few more funds for some more touring- I’d love to get up there, ideally to the Toronto area, I think.

  4. says

    Though I currently live in Minnesota, I pretty much consider Portland home. It is always so heartwarming to hear other people describe there love for and favorite places in Portland. If you go to Duckfat, you’ve got to pop across the street and try some of the amazing truffles at Dean’s Sweets. I love Caiola’s too! I wrote about some of my other favorites before we moved away if anyone needs more ideas http://roadtothefarm.blogspot.com/2010/03/portland-maine.html

  5. Sarah says

    Love that you love Maine! We live in York (just 40 mins south) and consider our trips up to Portland special occasions :)
    Novare Res is a fave and your other recommendations are high on our list to try. One suggestion for your next visit would be pizza at Otto!! Deeeelish! Right downtown…
    One final note – I am in love with your book and very, very grateful to you for writing it and doing all of the legwork so someone like me can begin the journey of making more food from scratch for my family. Made the lentil soup last night and couldn’t be happier with it. Have been making my own yogurt and feel newly inspired each day.
    Many thank yous and if you ever find yourself in York, there are some treasures here too!

  6. ritu says

    I really appreciate your thoughts, Alana. For our family, upstate New York — Catskills, Hudson Valley, Ithaca — is our vacation spot. It has been our default go-to vacation for years and definitely feels like “our spot.” We go summer, winter, and sometimes spring, often only for a few days. It is only a few hours drive from our home and it is a wonderful and budget-friendly getaway for all of us. It feels good to be able to provide that change of environment and routine, in such a simple and stress-free way, for ourselves and our children.

  7. Heather Fuller says

    I hope you are enjoying some sunshine out your way. I wish we were able to make it up there for your book tour. Portland is our vacation spot too. Last time we were there our innkeeper raved about Caiolas but we were always too full from our lunches for a proper dinner (I blame Duckfat) so we would get a fancy drink and split an appetizer and a bowl of olives at Local 188 – so much fun and delicious too. Now I am bummed we did not save room for Caiolas at least once. Oh well, next time.
    BTW Since I last wrote about how excited I was to get your book. I have made over 50% of the recipes and they have all been super successful; including the ever elusive fresh mozzarella (heat proof gloves made all the difference in the world). Last night faced with a pot of soaked black beans I gave the flour tortillas a whirl and they were awesome. So good in fact I decided to make a tortilla pie (my first) so they could star in the dish. I am going to be making these every week!

    • alana says

      It’s funny- we’ve never been to Local 188, because we always break down and go to Caiola’s! Next time, next time.
      And I am so happy to hear that the book has become such a presence in your kitchen! You’ve totally made my day with that one.

  8. Maryann says

    What a lovely postcard to the city I call home. Thanks for the reminder – this is a great place to visit and live in. What a great idea: Novare Res as kid-friendly lunch spot. I second the Local 188 recommendation. And I’m currently obsessed with Petite Jacqueline for mussels and fries on Monday nights. Two fat cats bakery just around the corner from Duckfat and Micucci’s has a mean whoopie pie too.

    And I am so bummed that I missed you at Longfellow books!! I would’ve loved to meet you in person and thanked you for the lovely book you wrote. My family and I are really enjoying it, and already many recipes are favorites. I just made the pot of bean in the oven recipe yesterday afternoon. Worked really well (no mushy beans). I also felt brilliant after making my OWN ricotta- and used the whey for smoothies, great suggestion – mayo, and mustard. It actually feels liberating to NOT run to the store for these basics.
    This book has not made it on the book shelf yet; it’s still on the kitchen counter with pages tagged, waiting for a free moment to make something else…

  9. says

    I’ve never been to Portland (well, Portland, ME, anyway–Portland, OR is becoming our vacation spot!) but you make it sound so lovely! The west coast is great and all, but sometimes I just miss the grey Atlantic.

  10. Julie B says

    This is so wonderful (and timely)!! My husband and I are taking a road trip up to the coast of Maine next week and are definitely spending a couple days in Portland. Thanks for all the ideas!

  11. Michael Schneider says

    Sweet Deity in Heaven, Duckfat has a “Corned Beef Tongue Reuben”?! I don’t even care whether they mean ‘corned-beef •and• tongue’ or ‘corned beef-tongue’. That’s an eventual must-eat.

    You’re one of two friends of mine who are always raving about Maine. I never would have imagined that a Los Angeles-born and Santa Fe-accustomed person would start to feel a longing for Maine, but it’s definitely there, now.

  12. Tammy Gray says

    Oh, yes! I live in Maine– Brunswick, Me! 30 mins NorthEast of Portland in MidCoast Maine! Come visit!

  13. says

    Well I wish I would have known you’d be at Longfellow, I would have gone and had you sign my book! I am so glad to hear how much you love my home state.

    I am ashamed-ASHAMED- to admit that I have never gone to many of the places on your list, (I do love the Rosemont thought) but I can add a few:

    ~Flatbread Pizza Company. Organic/All Natural wood fired clay oven pizza with lots of local ingredients. They also have a huge selection of organic wines and beers.

    Silly’s-Seriously, the BEST sweet potato fries I have ever had. Ever. I dream about them.

    Ri Ra Irish Pub-way more than a pub and they have amazing food.

    Little Lad’s Bakery-you HAVE to try their herbal popcorn.

  14. Lore says

    Love the post, we are heading to Maine and will be seeing the Portland Sea Dogs as part of our trip; your suggestions for food are timely and appreciated!

    Your book just arrived and my son (13) and I cannot wait to begin using it! My son is an avid gardener and a foodie. He has become so interested in growing and preparing food organically, trying new recipes, once school is done next week we are going to begin canning, starting with strawberry jam.

    We are going through your book, marking off recipes,and planning out our summer. In addition to the jam, homemade pop tarts are top of the list, especially with our own jam, but he is also interested in the homemade mayonnaise. It will be wonderful to share this with him.

    I will send you a link w/ my food blog once i review the book – thank you, again. Come to NJ/Philadelphia for a book tour!

  15. dono says

    Sadie is getting really good at those braids. I need her to do my hair.
    i feel funny living in that town’s namesake, but a port in a storm is just that.

  16. Joanna says

    Thank you so much for this post. My husband attends the U of Southern Maine and I came in for his graduation this week. We went to Duck Fat we were blown away, we went back a few night later with a larger group. No hyperbole intended – it was the best food I have ever had. I cannot wait to try your other recommendations, THANK YOU!

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