Portland, Maine ~ Enter Through the Back Door
Oh, Sweet, sweet, Portland, Maine. Why do you hold my heart so?
Beautiful harbors, the salty air on a cool, gray, foggy, coastal morning and the distant sound of fishing boats leaving the dock for their long day at sea. The pungent scent of hundreds of years of the tides hitting the pilings, weaving it with barnacles and kelp. Tiny waterfront diners neon lights, piercing the thick, chilly air, enticing the hard working class folks in for a hot cuppa joe and a hearty breakfast. And the gulls, hovering above. Waiting for their taste of fresh fish, straight off the boat.
This is IT!!! The perfect storm of lavish and poverty, working class and elite. A symmetry of people that are worlds apart yet seamlessly come together with one primary common passion, their love of Maine.
But, there is so, so much more.
I cannot think of anywhere and I do mean anywhere, that makes my heart soar as much as Portland, Maine. I’ve spent a total of about 30 years in Maine over my life and I never, ever grow tired of it. Every time I return home it seems like rediscovering a long lost and cherished childhood friend.
So, respectfully… let’s clear one thing up…
Having lived away from Maine over the years, I came to realize that Mainers, or rather New Englanders in general, sometimes get a bad wrap. While a lot of people seen intrigued and fascinated by my coming from Maine to whatever town I’ve resided in over the years, there are a lot of folks that assume all New Englanders are “mean.” I have to say, in the beginning I found this so, so strange, probably because my fellow Mainers ways were all I ever knew, prior to moving away. I was pretty used to the candor of the local folk. They are a pretty straightforward bunch of people and don’t always mask their being, shall I say… uncomfortable or wary, with anyone who is not from Maine. I suppose, they can be a bit cold toward non-natives. Don’t take it personally, they are shut in’s for quite a few months of the year and that tends to make one a bit stand-offish. Also, many of the older natives don’t travel a lot. They seem quite content staying in the state, because as they say “Why would I want to go anywhere else, when I’ve got everything I need here?”
Yes, they are a very pragmatic bunch of folks.
I’ve had friends say to me that they were surprised I came from New England because their experiences with natives apparently were not good. They’ve said to me, “They seem to be kind of nasty!” And yeah… I guess I can say that, like anywhere I’ve traveled or resided, there are some who are a bit gruff… okay, maybe even a bit… intimidating. You know the adage,” One bad apple can spoil the whole barrel!” Well, even being a born and raised Mainer I can say I’ve experienced the same discord from true “Downeasterners.” By the way, people from Portland are NOT considered true Mainers, true Downeasters. We’re “city folk” to the locals, : )
So I get it. Really I do.
But honestly, in their defense Mainers are a tough bunch of folks. The winters last a good half the year and you must be resourceful and sturdy to withstand them, or you’ll wither. That’s enough to make anyone tough… don’t cha’ think?
So what is it exactly that keeps those folks up they’a, staying up they’a?!
The winters pretty much suck and it’s a damned expensive to call home. High heating bills, high cost of living, high unemployment. So really, what is it that holds them, or has them coming back after leaving?
All I can say is the same thing my daddy told me when I moved away in 94′, “Once a New Englander, always a New Englander.”
I guess that sums it up and for the majority of folks there. They simply cannot bear the thought of having it any other way.
While I could tell you of 100 places in Maine that are amazing, wonderful, and yes…magical, I will tell you of my P-town.
The place I dug my toes in the sand, sipped really good coffee, hung out at dive bars and watched tides so powerful it would blow your mind. Not the overpriced, touristy parts that you read about in travel guides, Portland.
Geno’s Club, Portland Coffee By Design, Portland
I will give you insight on the real Portland. Art, grit, sustenance, introverts, extroverts, Birkenstocks, Dr. Martens, vegetarians and cannibals.
Portland, Maine, for those of you who do not know, is a sizable city of about 60,000 culturally diverse people, within one and a half hours north of Boston. While it’s not the most lucrative town, it has become a bedroom community for Bostonian’s wishing to live a more simple and affordable lifestyle. In other words, they get more bang for their buck. And truly, you can still find a cool, 3 bedroom pad, for around 150K. And the commute, it’s not so bad. Now, all that being said, it’s commonly known by the locals as not “The Vacation State” but as the “Taxation State.” So, make no bones about it, your property taxes will hit you in the face… HARD. Some good friends of ours who owned property downtown Portland used to pay 7 grand per year in taxes for a postage stamp sized lot. (Hmmm… our primary reason for not residing there still) But, I digress…. High taxes, low wages and super big heating costs… Let’s put on the blinders and get back to the uber coolio part of Portland and
Why it’s awesome to be there!
The Arts District ~
Portland has an amazing arts district and the community support for its artists, poets, writers and musicians is nothing short of gorgeous! Artists are happily encouraged to do the work that they were put on the earth to do.
HH Hayes Building…aka~ Starbucks Congress Square
The Arts District resides generally speaking from about Joe’s Smoke Shop (located on Congress and State Street) to just about the art school, MECA (located in the old Porteous building on Congress Street). By the way, Congress Street…or The Congo as it’s known locally, is the main vein of Portland. It runs straight through the heart of the downtown from the West End to the East End. But…first things first. Let’s grab a good cup of coffee downtown!
Coffee By Design
“He used to make the best hazelnut latte. He was like a chemist in there working. ” Ari to Josh Weinstein ~ Entourage
We adore coffee. Good coffee that is, and Portland has some of the BEST coffee houses I’ve ever been to. The locals favorite is a dive shop called Coffee By Design. It’s a funky, eclectic blend of local artists work, fliers for various goings on around town, hobos, hipsters and some really killer mega cupcakes! Oh yeah, and there is the coffee. Oh CBD I adore you!
I’ll have a large hazelnut, cinnamon latte please with some space on the top! Thank you!!
Coffee By Design
620 Congress Street
Portland, ME 04101
Monday – Thursday: 6:30am – 8:00pm / Friday – Saturday: 7:00am – 9:00pm / Sunday: 7:00am – 7:00pm
Portland Museum of Art
“O great creator of being grant us one more hour to perform our art and perfect our lives.” Jim Morrison
At the heart of the Arts District is the Portland Museum of Art. It’s a beautiful modern building housing a surprising amount of famous artists work. Many locals like Andrew Wyeth, N.C. Wyeth and a few of the European masters; Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Don’t get swept away by the galleries and miss out on the rotunda which houses my absolute favorite sculpture, Akers-“The Dead Pearl Diver.” It’s breathtaking and makes me tear up everytime.
Portland Museum of Art The Dead Pearl Diver
As you keep walking through the rotunda you’ll find a set of doors which lead you into the historic McLellan House and L. D. M. Sweat Memorial Galleries. It’s a strange juxtaposition of styles, going from the smooth, sensual, white walls of the museum into a highly decorative and colorful 18th century home and gallery. It took me years to figure out this was part of the museum!
Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, 10 am – 5 pm; Friday, 10 am – 9 pm; Memorial Day through Columbus Day, Mondays, 10 am – 5 pm
Admission: $12 for adults; $10 for seniors and students with I.D.; $6 for youth ages 13 to 17; and children ages 12 and under are free; free on Friday evenings from 5 pm – 9 pm
Fridays are FREE!!! YAY! Free= GOOD!
Portland Museum of Art
Seven Congress Square
Portland, Maine 04101
“The diner is everybody’s kitchen.” Richard Gutman
If you keep walking down the street that the Portland Museum of Art is on (Oak Street) you’ll find a super, duper little diner with a Harley theme, called Marcy’s Diner. Mmm, mmm, good!
Becky’s Diner is where the tourists go, Marcy’s Diner is where the locals go! I still am bummed that it took me a shameful amount of years to find this joint because it’s freaking GOOD and cheap!
Marcy’s is cash only. No ATM. Remember that, because there are not a lot of resources around to get money in this area. Also, it should be noted that parking can be tricky. There is one parking garage, but its hours are odd. It’s worth noting by the by… that most of the parking in general around Portland is meters and they no longer offer lengthy time on them. Remember to bring quarters and to feed your meter or you will get a ticket!
Ah…Marcy’s… Greasy spoon goodness. Their homefries there are to die for. These are not deep fried bits of potato, aka… &^%$# french fries, my gentle readers. No way. These are old school homefries, the way mom made them. Freshly sliced and cooked for hours on the flat top griddle. The other thing they make is wicked good grilled raspberry and blueberry muffins. OMG! Some days, I’d go and just order homefries, fresh fruit and a muffin for breakfast.
They make killer omelets, the best corned beef hash, righteous french toast and pancakes with real maple syrup! And yumm-o grilled cheese sandwiches.
Marcy’s Diner has only a few booths and many days you’ll have to wait outside for 1/2 hour or longer, to get a seat. Keep this in mind if you have little ones that are hungry and maybe bring snacks for the babes. They do offer counter service as well, which is always fun! Sit side by side with the locals, most of which are pretty hung over from the night before, but it adds a bit of color to your morning!
The owners are a super nice couple. They work the grill and seem to love their jobs. There are also a few long timers who do it all. Wait tables, bus, wash dishes. It seems as though they know they’ve got a good thing going there. They never appear frazzled or grumpy. They just do their thing and do it well with a smile and a good chat!
47 Oak Street
Hours: Monday – Friday 6:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. / Saturday & Sunday – 7:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
First Friday Art Walk
“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Picasso
Every first Friday of the month, Portland’s Arts District opens its doors to the general public. The galleries, private art studios and such host wonderful little soirees for all to enjoy. It’s a wonderful night of festivities all over the downtown area and it’s not limited to studios. Outside, there are musicians playing, actors reciting impromptu Shakespearean sonnets, jugglers and a drove of talented guys and gals out and about, doing their thing.
Check out some excellent art and then grab a bite to eat at one of the many small cafe’s or pubs and you’ve got yourself quite an affordable and fun date!
The Green Elephant
“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” Paul McCartney
So you’re out and about going to First Friday and you’re smelling all the great smells from the numerous restaurants around P-town. Now I’m hungry!
Where to go, where to go? So many choices!
Even if you’re not a vegetarian, this place totally rocks! It makes healthy vegetarianism taste oh, so good. It’s a pretty little Asia modern vegetarian bistro across from the State Theater with fairly simple decor, great old brick walls, pale floors, boxy tables and funky lighting.
The Green Elephant has flavorful, creative and beautiful food. It’s artwork on your plate!
A few notable favs of ours is the roti canai. This wonderfully crispy, yet tender Indian bread is served with the most amazing curry dip. Absolutely get a couple of these! They are kind of pricey at about $6.00 per order but trust me… You won’t want to share it once you’ve tasted it.
The Mr. loves their Asian Vegetable Stew. It’s a bright blend of various Asian veggies in a tasty broth and tofu and for just $4.50, it’s healthy and filling and totally affordable. My go to dish is their Steamed Assorted Vegetables with Peanut Sauce. Amazing pan seared 5-grain tempeh, spicy peanut sauce, fresh steamed veggies and brown rice! HUGE flavor, HUGE YUM and not a bad price at $9.50
“A lot of people think that punk rock musicians don’t know what they’re doing.” Travis Barker
One of our old favs is The Downtown Lounge on Congress Street, near High Street. While it’s not a family style place, if you’re over 21, you’re good to go. DTL has an ever changing array of super rad bar food, hand written on their chalkboards across the length of the joint. It’s decor is reminiscent of many of the old bars I’ve been to in Boston. Bright candy apple red walls, checkerboard floor, way cool cove ceiling in a funky yellow color, oddly placed lou, simple… but comfy booths and old photos of Portland and Boston memorabilia from the owners personal collection. It’s the kind of place you would go to every night … well, pre-babies, that is!
The food at the DTL is simple, eclectic, unpretentious, flavorful goodness. They have a great selection of local brews, fun mixed drinks and of course what self respecting Maine dive bar would not serve cheap PBR’s? Add to this already way, awesome place, a cool, laid back waitstaff. It perfectly sums up, why we adore Portland!
The Downtown Lounge is a narrow, tiny place, kinda like an old silver diner, of about six booths and a dozen or so bar stools (give or take). So don’t be surprised if you try to slide on in there at 8:30 on a Friday night, that there won’t be a place to sit your fanny. It gets filled up with regulars, pretty quickly.
I miss my dates with the Mr. at the DTL.
I miss going there early… round 5:30 or so, while it was still quiet. Grabbing a booth, holding hands, having a double Jameson neat, chatting with our regular waitress, Katie and perusing their wall o’food, anticipating which gastronomic delight I could have that night. And I miss their fajita’s. Oh mercy, their fajita’s were divine! There was nothing overly complicated about them; grilled chicken, onions and peppers, bathed in some sort of oil. But there was something extraordinary about their smoky, slightly crispy tortillas that they served with the fajita’s. Add a good douse of the table’s hot sauce and a tall, cold one, and your talking big flavor! If i’m not mistaken often times The Mr. would get the steak sandwich. Gods know I never got a bite of that! But, I’m positive it was outta sight!
There were even a few nights where we’d buy dinner, drink a few and then top it off with one of their wicked good pizzas for “dessert!” Seriously!
606 Congress Street
Hours: Monday – Sunday 5:00 p.m. – 1:00 a.m. / Food till 11:00 p.m.
Geno’s Rock Club
“I’m not here for your amusement. You’re here for mine.” Johnny Rotten ~ Sex Pistols
Ah, Geno’s. I have a wicked soft spot in my heart for you. Many a night I spent dragging down to Brown Street. (the old, original location) in any weather, clutching my hard earned $10.00… $4.00 for the cover and the rest for $1.00 PBR’s, to go see one of our local bands or maybe a band from Boston or NYC, shred up Geno’s stage. It was /is, Portland’s punk rock mecca and hang out for the mod, punk rockers and garage set, because down those stairs and into the bowels of Brown st. you were totally free to be authentically you, leather, spikes, pink hair and all.
Civil Disobedience show ~ 1986
Geno’s reminds me a lot of Boston’s Middle East and even more like, my old Boston fav… The Rat.
Dingy, smoke filled (well, at the time when smoking was still legal in bars), smelling of beer and perhaps a faint, faint wafting of urine. You knew you had firmly made it in the “scene” when you walked through not the front door, but the infamous back door to Geno’s. No waiting in line, no cover. Very cool.
The back room in Geno’s was a portal to another world. This is where all the bands hung out and all the punk rock madness ensued. On any given night you could be hanging out with GG Allin, D.O.A., Violation, Zero Mentality, The Brood, Chesterfield Kings…you name it.
Me and Trish~ 1985 The back room
The original owner, Geno D’Alessandro Sr. was a super cool guy. He generally was behind the bar, pouring beers and yelling at us to stop hanging off the pipes on the very low ceiling. “Damned punks!!” “I’m gonna stop the fucking show!” he’d threaten over and over again. I don’t think he ever did.
In general, he did not give us too much sh&$ because he knew we kept the place open. Even if a lot of us drank water instead of beer! The other old standby at the bar was Barb. When she was not at the bar she was booking shows and was pretty much a mother figure to the local bands, many of whom were transient or semi-homeless.
Geno’s is still rockin’ hard today, though I must admit I’ve only been to the new location once or twice, sadly. It seems to have spawned a whole new generation of punks who have proudly taken our place. Thankfully.
Keep watching for new posts on our four part series: Portland, Maine~ Enter Through the Back Door.
Next Week: We’ll take a 10 minute walk down The Congo, to my old haunt… The Old Port. Good pubs, good friends… good times! I’ll tell you the best places to hang!