Bars & Music
Portland is usually lively in the evenings, especially on summer weekends when the testosterone level in the Old Port seems to rocket into the stratosphere, with young men and women prowling the dozens of bars and spilling out onto Fore Street and the surrounding alleys and streets.
Among the Old Port bars favored by locals are Three-Dollar Dewey’s, at the corner of Commercial and Union streets (the popcorn is free); atmospheric Gritty Cuff's Brew Pub, on Fore Street at the foot of Exchange Street, where you’ll find live music and a cast of regulars quaffing great beers brewed on-site; and the slightly rowdy Irish pub Brian Ború, on Center Street, with a rooftop patio. All three bars are casual and pubby, with guests sharing long tables with new companions.
Off the peninsula, check out The Great Lost Bear (540 Forest Ave., www.greatlostbear.com; tel. 207/772-0300), a venerable locals hangout with 50 to 60 beers on offer at any given moment, including many Maine-crafted brews. Some of the choicest ales are even dispensed from one of three cask-conditioned hand pumps. Every Thursday the bartender showcases a particular brewer or style—a good way to get educated about the nuances of good beer. To find the Bear, head about 2 miles out on Forest Avenue (away from the Old Port), or ask a local for directions.
Beyond the active bar scene, a number of clubs offer a mix of live and recorded entertainment throughout the year. As is common in other small cities where there are more venues than attendees, clubs tend to come and go, sometimes quite rapidly. Check the city’s free weekly Portland Phoenix or monthly Dispatch for current venues, performers, and showtimes.
Both the Phoenix and the Dispatch are also good resources for concert schedules at Thompson’s Point (www.thompsonspointmaine.com), the State Theatre (609 Congress St., www.statetheatreportland.com), or the open-air stage at the Maine State Pier (www.waterfrontconcerts.com), a very cool place to see a summer outdoor show, with the smell of salt on the air and the ferries coming and going right next door.
Let’s Get Hopping: The Beers of Portland
Portland is unquestionably the beer capital of New England. Not just northern New England, but all of New England—and it holds its own against most of the rest of the country, too, with more craft breweries per capita than any American city. In general, Maine’s craft brew scene is characterized by liberal pour laws that make tap rooms as popular as bars, plus a penchant for embracing (and reviving) Old World styles.
For starters, there’s the granddaddy of Belgian-style beer in the U.S. Head west out Forest Avenue (off Congress Street) a few miles, then turn right on Riverside Street and take the next right into an industrial park. You’ll come to Allagash Brewing at 50 Industrial Way (www.allagash.com, tel. 800/330-5385 or 207/878-5385), a legend of a craft brewer that’s gained nationwide recognition for its Belgian-style white, double, and triple beers. Allagash offers daily tours from 11am to 4:30pm. The brewery is still crazy experimental—taps pouring at the spacious and rustic tap room include hard-to-find seasonal and limited release brews: wild-fermented beers, beers brewed with coffee or fruit or ginger, dry-hopped and barrel-aged beers, you name it. Still, it’s the company’s flagship brew, Allagash White, that holds a special place in many beer lover’s palates. Founding brewer Rob Tod’s Belgian white is as crisp and clean as an orange rind, and indeed he uses citrus peels in the mix, as well as coriander and other spices. It’s an exquisite beer that helped kick off this country’s craft brew revolution.
And while you’re out here, don’t miss three other topnotch brewers in the very same industrial park. Across the street from Allagash, at 1 Industrial Way, you’ll want to try the milk stout or the slightly sour, easy-drinking Lawn Mower saison from Austin Street Brewery (tel. 207/200-1994; www.austinstreetbrewery.com), then duck next door into Foundation Brewing Company (tel. 207/370-8187; www.foundationbrew.com), which, for my money, brews two of the crispest, tastiest IPAs in New England, the so-very-floral Afterglow and the bit-more-of-a-wallop Epiphany. The two tiny tap rooms are a great hang in the summer, when the party spills onto picnic tables out front. Then keep going around the circuit to find Geary’s (www.gearybrewing.com; tel. 207/878-2337) at 38 Evergreen Drive, often credited as New England’s very first microbrewery. Geary’s year-round beers rely on a British yeast strain that’s a bit of an acquired taste, but the tap room also offers more diverse small-batch pours from the brewery’s pilot series.
Head down to the East Bayside District to find two of Portland’s buzziest brewers and most convivial tap rooms, a short walk from each other. Oxbow Blending and Bottling (www.oxbowbeer.com, tel. 207/350-0025) is the Portland outpost of a farmhouse brewery headquartered up the coast, in Newcastle. Its urban iteration pours super-crushable Old World farmhouse ales in a huge former warehouse decorated with an oh-so-Portland mix of b-boy graffiti and reclaimed barn wood. Though a bit hard to find (49 Washington Avenue, head into the alley next to the coffee shop), this place is a party on a Saturday night. Rising Tide Brewing Company (tel. 207/370-2337; www.risingtidebrewing.com) at 103 Fox Street has a great patio with lawn games and food trucks and excels at lower-alcohol brews. Its Maine Island Trail Ale, at just 4.3% ABV, is crispy, citrusy, and beloved by Mainers in summer.
Off the peninsula, beer lovers literally line up around the block at Thompson’s Point when Bissell Brothers (www.bissellbrothers.com) releases cases of its newest batches. The 2,500-square-foot tap room (complete pinball, wall murals, and lofted hangout space) is often packed by noon with devotees of Bissell’s bright, strong, often opaque ales. A mile away (along the bikeable Fore River Parkway Trail), in a former warehouse at 17 Westfield Street, Bunker Brewing (www.bunkerbrewingco.com; tel. 207/613-9471) is known for its easy-drinking flagship pilsner.
Incredibly, this list only scratches the surface of the more than 20 craft brewers operating in Greater Portland. You can taste a bunch at the Old Port’s superb Novare Res Bier Café (4 Canal Plaza, www.novareresbiercafe.com, tel. 207/761-2437), a modern-day rathskeller with a bottle list 500 strong and an emphasis on obscure Euro imports. Come happy hour, the crowd is a mix of flannel-clad scenesters, tipsy businessmen, bemused out-of-towners, and salty types from down on the wharf. The best six-pack shopping is at the Bier Cellar (www.biercellar.com, [tel] 207/200-6258), just off the highway at 299 Forest Avenue.
Both Maine Beer Tours (www.mainebeertours.com, tel. 207/553-0898) and the Maine Brew Bus (www.themainebrewbus.com, tel. 207/245-1940) will shuttle you around from tap room to tap room (tour options vary widely, $40–$70 per person). For an exhaustive list of brewers and a map of the Maine Beer Trail, visit www.mainebrewersguild.org.
Portland has a growing creative corps of performing artists. Theater companies typically take the summer off, but it doesn’t hurt to call or check the local papers for special performances.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.