Here's a guide, with listings in alphabetical order, to the best nightlife and dining for gay travelers to Portland, Maine. To be sure, it would be a slight stretch to come up with a significant list of gay bars in Portland - as gay-friendly as this city is, it's home to just 67,000 residents, and there are really just a couple of full-time gay nightspots, plus a few other places with fairly mixed followings. So why the long list here? In Portland, as is increasingly true in many hip cities, the social scene - whether you're gay or straight - revolves heavily around restaurants, and this town has an astounding number of truly sensational places to eat. Plenty of cities five or six times larger would be lucky to have even half as many great restaurants.
On this list, then, you'll find the handful of gay bars (if you're looking for more, also take a look at my similar nightlife/dining guide to the nearby gay resort town of Ogunquit), along with a more extensive... selection of some of the fantastic places to eat in Portland, with an emphasis on establishments with a particular following in the gay community. This is a fun city for dining and drinking year-round, by the way, although summer and fall are especially nice. Each June, Portland hosts the Southern Maine Gay Pride, and in late October, foodies and oenophiles arrive to partake of the Portland Harvest on the Harbor Food & Wine Festival.
Portland Maine Gay Bar Guide - continued on Page 2
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Head to Aurora Provisions (64 Pine St., 207-871-9060), a favorite source of breakfast and lunch as well as to-go snacks and groceries - perfect for stocking up before you go to the beach or out for a hike in the area. Burritos, smoothies, scones, creative sandwiches, salads, and sweets are available, and there's also a terrific wine selection. This is favorite of the West End's large gay community, and a great spot for picking up picnic supplies to take to the beach or park.
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A somewhat dive-y neighborhood gay bar that's toward the West End side of downtown, Blackstones (6 Pine St., 207-775-2885) has been serving the LGBT community since 1987, and is popular for shooting pool. The crowd tends toward 40s-and-up, and the bar is especially frequented by leather and Levi's types - especially members of the statewide gay leather social group, Harbor Masters of Maine, which has club nights here regularly. There's no dance floor at this cozy pub, but there is a pretty good juke box.
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Having occasionally hosted events of local gay organizations, homey and convivial Brian Boru Pub (57 Center St., 207-780-1506) is a friendly, mixed nightspot. It's fun for knocking back a few beers, listening to live music (usually Thursdays and Sundays), partaking of game and trivia nights, and enjoying consistently tasty Irish and American pub fare.
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It's gay, it's straight, it's a little of everything - Bubba's Sulky Lounge (92 Portland St., 207-772-6406), which is near Deering Oaks Park but just a few blocks from the heart of downtown, is chockfull of bizarre objets d'art and campy decorative items (including an amazing collection of old-school lunch boxes). Bubba's is most famous for its Friday '80s nights - diehards really do don their best '80s attire (and hair) for this infectiously weird and enjoyable event. You'll still hear from '80s tunes on the also quite popular Saturday nights, but the DJ mixes in plenty of contemporary stuff, too. The crowd ranges greatly in age, from those who remember partying in the early '80s to those born in the late '80s (or even after).Continue to 5 of 21 below.
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Micro-roaster Coffee by Design has three locations around Portland, all of them brewing wonderfully rich, carefully crafted coffees - the centrally situated one at 620 Congress Street (207-772-5533), which is fairly close to the West End, is arguably the most popular with the gay community, but all of these cheery cafes are comfortable venues for hanging out, reading, working on a laptop, and enjoying a beverage. This cafe in the downtown Arts District is open till 9 pm on Friday and Saturday nights, closing a bit earlier the rest of the week. Other branches are on the east edge of Old Port at 67 India Street (207-780-6767), and in the East End at 43 Washington Avenue (207-879-2233) and, near Kennedy Park, 1 Diamond Street. There's also a branch in Freeport at the famed L.L. Bean Flagship Store (207-865-2235), an excellent place for a refreshment if all that shopping wears you out.
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A first-rate neighborhood bistro and nightspot, Congress Bar and Grill (617 Congress St., 207-828-9944) has been a sponsor of Portland's Pride festival and is a favorite West End destination for well-prepared lunch and dinner fare. A good range of creative salads, sandwiches, and grills are served throughout the day and evening, from grilled lamb salad with feta to classic fish-and-chips. Prices are reasonable, too.
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An elegant eatery overlooking the tree-shaded redbrick Monument Square, right in the center of downtown, David's (22 Monument Sq., 207-773-4340) merits serious kudos for the creative, masterfully prepared regional American cuisine of chef-owner David Turin, who also runs the excellent David's 388 in South Portland, as well as the tiny 18-seat David's Opus 10, which is adjacent to David's Restaurant and serves prix-fixe, multi-course dinners. For a date, or before catching a show at a nearby theater, David's is highly recommended, his food plenty interesting but approachable, too - consider ginger-and-scallion-crusted salmon with wasabi-mashed potatoes, or the fantastic steak-and-lobster pizza, a white pie with garlic butter, roasted tomato, caramelized onion, goat cheese, arugula, and Parmesan.
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The owner of Duckfat (43 Middle St., 207-774-8080) describes this always-packed establishment rather modestly, as a "small sandwich shop." Technically, that's right, but this place that often has lines out the door (and long waits, so prepare for that) serves not only wildly good sandwiches (olive oil-poached yellowfin tuna, duck confit with stone-fruit compote and rosemary mayo) but also outlandishly delicious milkshakes in novel flavors like burnt Maine honey and wild Maine blueberry. Craft sodas, duck-fat-fried doughnut holes, poutine, and hand-cut Belgian fries cooked in - of course - duck fat are other notable treats at this storefront space open daily from late morning till about 10 at night.Continue to 9 of 21 below.
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El Rayo Cantina & Taqueria (85 & 101 York St., 207-780-8226) comprises a cozy cantina serving mostly small plates (queso fundido, hibiscus-pickled deviled eggs, corn-jalapeno fritters), a few entrees, and premium tequilas and other cocktails, and a festive taqueria with a good-size outdoor patio and a menu of tasty snacks (papas fritas, chips and guac), tacos (barbecue pulled pork, al carbon, black bean, carne asada), as well as chilaquiles, burritos, rice bowls, and other Mexican fare. These neighboring establishments are affordable and reliably good.
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James Beard-recognized chef Steve Corry helms the kitchen at sophisticated but unpretentious Five Fifty-Five (555 Congress St., 207-761-0555), a dapper bar and restaurant that's well-suited for a long and memorable dinner with a significant other or grabbing drinks and some late-night snacks with friends, or brunch on Sunday. The same team here also operates the terrific little neighborhood bistro Petite Jacqueline (see below).
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Flask Lounge (117 Spring St., 207-772-3122) is a cool little neighborhood bar in the West End, right by the Portland Museum of Art, and offering a fun mix of diversions - live music some evenings, open-mic nights, a particularly gay-popular karaoke night, occasional queer-themed dance parties, and good drinks and pub food. It's a welcoming place, drawing an eclectic crowd that varies in style and vibe from night to night, though it tends to draw a mostly 35-and-under crowd. While in the vicinity, also worth a visit is the next-door gastropub the Little Tap House (106 High St., 207-518-9283), which serves stellar burgers and other finely crafted comfort fare and has a great selection of Maine microbrews.
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Fore Street - restaurant
Romantic, spacious, and much-celebrated Fore Street (288 Fore St., 207-775-2717) is a stalwart of Portland's dining scene - it's a handsome place clad in vintage redbrick and situated above Standard Baking, which the owners also operate (along with Street and Co., Scales, and Two Fat Cats Bakery), and it's been delighting foodies since it opened in 1996. The menu here changes daily, based on what's fresh and seasonal - count on oven-roasted mussels and other seafood specialties, grilled hanger steak, and plenty of accompaniments fresh from area farms.Continue to 13 of 21 below.
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A gay favorite for brunch and dinner on the east side of town, on Munjoy Hill not far from the scenic Eastern Promenade park, the Front Room (73 Congress St., 207-773-3366) is an inviting, cozy neighborhood spot open daily and highly popular morning and night, as a place to eat and drink - and mingle with locals. Brunch specialties include huevos rancheros, a grilled duck and goat cheese sandwich, and croque Madame, while at night, you might nosh on house-smoked salmon pastrami, lamb shepherd's pie, a burger with tomato tapenade, or pan-fried potato gnocchi.
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Few restaurants in Portland can claim a more dramatic setting than Grace (15 Chestnut St., 207-828-4422), which opened in 2009 inside a stunningly transformed 1850s church with dramatic high ceilings and arched Gothic Revival windows. Given the snazzy trappings, it's not surprising that this is a favorite venue for celebrating special occasions. Contemporary takes on Maine lobster, rib-eye steak, pan-roasted pheasant, and veal sweetbreads "Oscar" feature on the oft-changing menu.
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Two of the gems of Portland's dining scene are these sister establishments, located side-by-side. Hugo's (88 Middle St., 207-774-8538) is a special-occasion spot, at least as casual Portland goes - it's a handsome, modern take on a corner tavern where casual threads are fine. But dining here from the oft-changing menu of exquisite small plates can be expensive - you choose two courses for $45 or five courses for $90. Dishes might include roasted venison with escarole, hakurei turnip, and wort, or udon noodle salad with Chinese sausage, citrus foam, and radish. Just as much care is taken with the cocktails and desserts (like the s'more with smoked-chocolate ice cream, spruce shoot, and toasted marshmallow). Next door at the breezy and less spendy Eventide Oyster Co. (86 Middle St., 207-774-8538), you can feast on numerous varieties of both local and distantly harvested oysters on the half shell, or nibble from the menu of cold and warm small seafood plates - lightly... cured Arctic char, chacuterie, lobster stew, and grilled swordfish belly. It's a playful antidote to Hugo's, although there's no reason you can't make a night of dining at both.
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Located in the defunct White Heart Lounge space in the downtown Arts District along a trendy stretch of Congress Street, Nosh Kitchen Bar (551 Congress St., 207-553-2227) is every bit as enjoyable and gay-popular a restaurant as its predecessor. Modestly billing itself a sandwich shop, Nosh turns out artful creations like the much-raved-about Apocalypse Now Burger (topped with a patty, cheese, crispy pork belly, foie gras, mayo, and cherry jam), a delectable "Oyster Rockafella" on a hoagie roll, and a crisp avocado sandwich made with citrus crema, cilanto, chipotle sauce, and queso fresco on naan bread - these are some pretty inventive sandwiches. And don't miss the "Nosh fries", dusted with bacon. It's just the kind of food that makes utterly good sense late at night, perhaps after bar-hopping - or you can grab a cocktail or beer here, as there's a full bar, and Nosh is open until 1 am.Continue to 17 of 21 below.
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Burgers, mac-and-cheese, cured meats, and other classic comfort fare prepared with admirably integrity and high-quality ingredients are the reason this hipster-frequented neighborhood tavern and grill near the West End has become a favorite for drinking and eating just about every night of the week - Thursdays seem especially popular. LFK (188A State St., 207-899-3277) has an impressive selection of beers and wines, too, and the bartenders know their way around a craft cocktail. In nice weather, take a seat out front overlooking charming Monument Square. On cooler evenings, dine inside amid the literary paraphernalia. Note that neighbors Pai Men Miyake and Petite Jacqueline (see below) are also terrific.
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Nirvana for craft-beer enthusiasts but really anybody seeking a cool Old Port venue for drinking, hobnobbing, and eating inspired gastropub-style food, Novare Res (4 Canal Plaza, 207-761-2437) has an astounding list of brews from all over the world, including more than 30 rotating taps - everything from relatively local favorites like Smuttynose Zinneke and Marshall Wharf Big Twitch IPA to pours from such European locales as Belgium and Germany, and from elsewhere around the United States. This warm and inviting space also has nice selections of cocktails and wine, and the food is damn tasty: consider tuna tartare, a brisket sandwich with kimchi and red-eye mayo, or a Belgian waffle topped with Young's Chocolate Stout ice cream, fresh raspberries, and toffee sauce.
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One of several terrific spots to eat around the West End's regal Monument Square, unpretentious Petite Jacqueline (190 State St., 207-553-7044) comprises a light-filled dining room set behind tall plate-glass windows, an elegant bar (perfect for dining alone or with a friend), and a couple of tables on the sidewalk looking across the street toward the big statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Popular for lunch and dinner (and afternoon happy hour), this beautiful little bistro opened by the team behind similarly superb Five Fifty-Five (see above) turns out exquisitely prepared French classics - salade Lyonaisse, bone marrow with sea salt and warm bread, local fish of the day with caper butter, stick-to-your ribs boeuf Bourguignon. The food here is simple and super-fresh - note, too, the raw bar. There's a nicely balanced wine list, and brunch is served on weekends.
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Steps from the historic buildings of Old Port and the bustling dining and retail scene in Portland's Downtown Arts District, the long-running Styxx (3 Spring St., 207-828-0822) fills up on weekends when fans of dancing and cruising venture from throughout southern Maine. The club is looking especially good these days, having been recently renovated. On weekdays, a variety of activities and promotions keep the place hopping, from karaoke to ladies night Thursdays to piano cabaret. Light tapas are served throughout the week. This unpretentious space with two dance floors, open-mic nights, male and female go-go dancers (depending on the evening) won't make you think you're in L.A. or New York City, but for a city this size, it's a reliably enjoyable gay nightclub - and generally your best bet on weekends, when the dance floor remains packed late into the evening.Continue to 21 of 21 below.
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The West End's Yordprom Coffee Shop (722 Congress St., 207-221-2347), a member of the city's GLBT Rainbow Business & Professional Association, is a cute spot for organic teas and coffees - including richly sweet Vietnamese iced coffee - fine pastries, and light Thai and Vietnamese lunch fare. Smoothies, salads, curries - the food here is fresh and healthy, and there are comfy wooden tables out back on the patio that are perfect for enjoying a relaxing meal.