Portland is like Disney for diners. The charming city on Casco Bay is chock-full of excellent little restaurants, clustered together and worth lining up for. From sparkling seafood to the best baked goods, food here is a tourist attraction unto itself. Don’t spend your time roaming the Old Port in search of overpriced lobster rolls. Instead, head to the places where delicious food meets a distinctive point of view. Here’s where to start when you visit this little city with a big-time food scene, as well as a couple of don’t-miss spots less than 20 miles away.
1. Central Provisions
After making his mark in Boston at Ken Oringer’s Uni, chef Chris Gould migrated to Portland, opening this restaurant with wife Paige in 2014. Inside a historic brick building, you’ll find some of the most inventive small plates in town, plus an enjoyably frenetic bar scene downstairs in the two-level space. The menu changes frequently, with flavors that roam the world. Favorite orders include lobster fritters, bone marrow toast, smoked Stonecipher Farm carrots, and suckling pig with apple, brown butter, and Marcona almonds. Foie gras, prepared several ways, is a specialty.
Be sure to try: Anything raw. Given Gould’s time at Uni, it's no surprise that crudo dishes featuring tuna or Maine scallops are a strength. 414 Fore Street, 207-805-1085, central-provisions.com
2. Công Tū Bôt
Vien Dobui got his start in coffee: He and wife Jessica Sheahan came to Portland as part of the team that founded Tandem Coffee. Then he started hosting noodle pop-ups on the side, testing the ideas that would become the couple’s restaurant, which serves a streamlined menu of pho gà, bún cha, and a handful of other dishes. You can order the fried-rice dish com chiên “mom style” — with pineapple, Chinese sausage, and Maine red hot dogs, a local cookout staple. The menu describes chè khúc bach as Jell-O salad, “very trendy in Saigon circa 2013.” Công Tu Bôt is a Vietnamese restaurant by way of Maine, and Brooklyn, and the Bay Area, and all the rest of Dobui’s life experiences.
Be sure to try: Pho gà, a version of the Vietnamese chicken noodle soup, redolent with spices and bright with herbs. 57 Washington Avenue, 207-221-8022, congtubot.com
3. Drifters Wife
First there was a wine shop, Maine & Loire, devoted to showcasing natural wines: organic, biodynamic, made with wild yeasts and as little intervention as possible. Then there was Drifters Wife, a little wine bar within the shop. Then proprietors Peter and Orenda Hale moved the whole shebang into a larger space, where visitors can spread out a little while eating chef Ben Jackson’s food. (The three met working at Brooklyn restaurant Reynard; yes, sometimes Portland feels like Brooklyn’s northernmost neighborhood.) The ever-changing menu makes ample use of local farms and fish: A whole lamb delivered in the morning is served with cranberry beans and razor clams at night. Hake and uni meet hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and nettles on one plate. It’s good to have a pleasantly full stomach as you explore the wine list.
Be sure to try: The half chicken. It’s a savory centerpiece for some of the kitchen’s more inventive vegetable and seafood dishes, and it works well with many kinds of wine. 59 Washington Avenue, 207-805-1336, drifterswife.com
Chef Rob Evans won awards for all kinds of fancy stuff at his former restaurant Hugo’s (now run by the group behind Eventide Oyster Co.), but it’s his Duckfat frites that win hearts. At this longtime mainstay, Maine potatoes are cut by hand and fried in, yes, duck fat. Salty, crisp, and wonderful, the Belgian-style frites are served in a paper cone with your choice of dipping sauce: garlic mayo, curry mayo, horseradish mayo, Thai chili mayo, or truffle ketchup. You can also order them in poutine form, with duck gravy. The menu includes a few welcome salads, along with soup and sandwiches, but you’re really here for those frites, and maybe a milkshake made with local gelato.
Be sure to try: Frites with a flight of all the sauces. 43 Middle Street, 207-774-8080, duckfat.com
5. Portland Hunt + Alpine Club
If you’re looking for a well-made drink, here’s a good place to start. Transplants from the other Portland, proprietors Andrew and Briana Volk were instrumental in bringing the craft-cocktail movement to town. Portland Hunt + Alpine Club remakes the appletini with vodka, rum, and apple cordial; it’s now something you’d actually like to drink. You’ll find classics well rendered (like the House Old Fashioned), and inventions that feel like classics (the Last Word-ish Green Eyes, made with gin, lime, chartreuse, and egg white). And when you get peckish, the menu features Scandinavian specialties like gravlax, meatballs in nutmeg cream sauce, and a smorgasbord of meat, cheese, and fish. (Briana Volk is of Finnish descent.)
Be sure to try: The espresso martini, made with coffee brandy — very Maine. 75 Market Street, 207-747-4754, huntandalpineclub.com
6. Eventide Oyster Co.
Eventide has a fast-casual location in Boston’s Fenway, but this is the original cult favorite, with a different flavor as well as good cocktails. It’s a great first stop when you pull into town: After eating a dozen of the most gorgeous oysters from Maine and “from away,” along with a cup of lobster stew, you will truly feel you’ve arrived.
Be sure to try: The brown-butter lobster roll, served not in the traditional split-top roll but on a Chinese-style steamed bun, is a new New England classic. 86 Middle Street, 207-774-8538, eventideoysterco.com
7. Fore Street
Sometimes I think this is the nicest restaurant in New England. At the center is a hearth with a wood-burning oven and grill, meat turning on spits over flames. A comforting whiff of wood smoke hangs in the background. Vast windows let in the light; the place is all brick and wood-beam ceilings. The wine list and service stand out. And chef Sam Hayward’s food is classic, unfussy, and never boring: platters of chilled and smoked seafood, wood-grilled hanger steak with tomato and horseradish vinaigrette, Maine chicken on the spit with toasted black cumin butter. Opened in 1996, Fore Street led the way for Portland restaurants, and it’s still one of the city’s best.
Be sure to try: The wood oven-roasted mussels, a huge bowl of the plumpest shellfish, tinged with smoke and swimming in gorgeously garlicky broth. 288 Fore Street, 207-775-2717, forestreet.biz
8. Mr. Tuna
Last fall, somewhere between lunch and dinner, friends and I stopped in for a snack at The Shop, a raw bar run by Island Creek Oysters. On our way to the bivalves, we saw a sign: Mr. Tuna Mobile Sushi Bar. Sure, why not get a hand roll or two? One bite in, we already wanted more. Chef Jordan Rubin (another Uni alum) folds pristine in-season seafood — uni, scallops, crab — into crisp nori along with rice and other accompaniments. The whole is much more than the sum of its parts. Although he still operates his sushi bar on wheels, Rubin now has a fixed location as well, inside the Public Market House.
Be sure to try: The hand roll of Maine chutoro — bluefin tuna belly that practically melts on your tongue — is one of Portland’s best bites. 28 Monument Square, 207-805-1240, facebook.com/mr.tunamaine
About a 25-minute drive from Portland is the little city of Biddeford, which is developing an interesting food scene in its own right. One of its bright lights is Elda, named for chef Bowman Brown’s great-grandmother. Brown spent much of his career in Salt Lake City, where he won acclaim at (since-closed) Forage restaurant. It’s funny that a transplant should be able to translate Maine to the plate so clearly and evocatively. Local uni is served in its spiky shell over savory corn bread pudding. Lobster comes with carrots and yarrow. Japanese influence might pop up unexpectedly in something like sweet potato mochi with mussel broth and citrus butter. Then things turn Scandinavian in a dish of gravlax with mustard and buckwheat English muffins. Somehow it all comes together, in a reasonably priced four-course menu.
Be sure to try: Nothing on this menu is constant, but the quality of the bread, served with seaweed butter, is worth mentioning. 140 Main Street, Biddeford, 207-494-8365, eldamaine.com
10. The Honey Paw
From the same folks as neighboring Eventide, this “nondenominational noodle bar” runs amok through the flavors of Asia in delicious fashion. Sit at the bar or communal table and order a feast: lobster wontons in lobster dashi with confit mushroom, rare beef salad with smoked oyster mayo, and a passel of house-made noodle dishes, from smoked lamb khao soi to uni udon with crab. After 4 p.m., order large-format fried chicken to share with the table; at brunch, sit alongside hungover hipsters and adorable toddlers as you eat your breakfast sandwich on a togarashi biscuit.
Be sure to try: Lobster toast, the perfect Maine-Chinese mash-up. 78 Middle Street, 207-774-8538, thehoneypaw.com
11. Standard Baking Co.
Standard Baking Co. is to the Portland baked-goods scene as Fore Street is to its restaurants, and indeed they are part of the same hospitality group. From baker Alison Pray and team, breads such as Maine 5-Grain, Vollkornbrot, and miche are far from standard; they are extraordinary. So are the pastries, from morning buns to pistachio snails to chocolate corks.
Be sure to try: The warm cookies that come out of the oven at 1:30 p.m. daily. Don’t be late! 75 Commercial Street, 207-773-2112, standardbakingco.com
12. Tandem Coffee + Bakery
The line extends out the door at this temple of caffeine and butter in a former gas station. It’s worth waiting for Tandem’s breakfast sandwiches, orange brown butter sticky buns, rosemary lemon pie, banana and black sesame cake, and so much more. Everything is good: Baker Briana Holt is a serious talent. Oh, yeah, very nice coffee drinks, too.
Be sure to try: The loaded biscuit. You might be tempted to skip it in favor of something that seems more “interesting,” but this beautiful, buttery biscuit piled with butter and jam is a showstopper. Don’t be surprised if it’s the most delicious biscuit you’ve ever tasted. 742 Congress Street, 207-805-1887, tandemcoffee.com
13. Palace Diner
Welcome to the diner where everything is the best possible version of itself. The egg sandwich is somehow the best egg sandwich I’ve ever had. The smashed, perfectly seasoned Palace Potatoes are preternaturally crispy. The pancakes are ridiculous. That tuna melt! When was the last time you had a transcendent tuna melt? I don’t know what magic Greg Mitchell, Chad Conley, and crew work in this classic, stools-at-the-counter dining car. All I know is that I’ll never visit the area without stopping in.
Be sure to try: The French toast is the best possible French toast, a thick, custardy slice with a crunchy bruléed top. (I don’t even like French toast!) 18 Franklin Street, Biddeford, 207-284-0015, palacedinerme.com
14. Rose Foods
A spiritual cousin of Mamaleh’s in Cambridge, Rose Foods specializes in bagels, smoked fish, and other Jewish deli classics: matzo ball soup, pastrami on rye, full-sour and half-sour pickles. Started by Palace Diner’s Chad Conley, the appetizing shop makes its bagels in-house every morning. Top them with house lox, Nova, sable, and more. Along one wall of the sweetly retro shop, wooden shelves are stocked with matzo, Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic, Fox’s U-Bet syrup, and other tempting provisions.
Be sure to try: An everything bagel with cream cheese and whitefish salad. 428 Forest Avenue, 207-835-0991, rosefoods.me
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the name of the photographer who took the photo of oysters from Eventide Oyster Company. The photographer was Mat Trogner.
Devra First is the Boston Globe’s restaurant critic and food reporter. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.