A night on the docks
Richard Croasdale plunges into Portland's amazing nightlife
Words and photos: Richard Croasdale
Thursday 23 May 2019
This article is from
Maine, New England
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Bar-wise, Portland has an embarrassment of riches. I attempt a modest crawl on my first night, but a combination of sleep deprivation and not really knowing where to start sends me back to my hotel by 10pm. The next five days though are a whirl of earnest recommendations, only a fraction of which I have time to follow up. Tina, John, Joel and Christie from Foundation Brewing kindly take me out for a downtown bar tour and leave me with a list of places to see over the next couple of days (as well as a terrible hangover).
First off, the city’s brewery taps are all excellent, particularly Sebago (at the brewery and downtown) Rising Tide, Foundation, Bissel Brothers and Oxbow. There are a few other Portland institutions one feels obliged to drop in on, such as Gritty McDuff’s (established 1988, this brewpub is home to live music and British-style ales) The Great Lost Bear and $3 Dewey’s, right on the docks.
On an unassuming side street, Novare Res (meaning ‘to revolt’) is definitely among Portland’s best beer bars, dedicated to bringing the greatest international beer to Portland. The décor has a distinctly Europan feel, and vintage Cantillon posters adorn the walls, plus they boast a beer list aimed at the dedicated explorer. Good fries too.
As well as being a good bar in its own right, The Thirsty Pig’s main draw is its house-made sausages, which it pairs with a range of quality local beers. The choice of toppings is a little bewildering, but I went for a frankfurter with Sriracha, sauerkraut and grilled peppers. Classic.
Towards the west end of downtown, Arcadia National Bar is right across the road from Slab Pizza, and is an absolute blast. With as good a craft beer selection as you’ll find anywhere, Arcadia is deliberately short on table space, opting instead to line its walls with vintage pinball machines and videogame cabinets. On the evening I visit, all the pinball machines are set to free play mode, and alpha nerds of all ages are pitting their reflexes against Darth Vader, Nazis, vaudeville villains and Mata Hari. There’s even a gaggle in the corner playing Dungeons & Dragons. It’s like coming home.
The Mash Tun is one of those cosy, low-ceilinged bars with a big, constantly-changing chalk beer list at one end – the kind of place a beer lover can walk into and instantly know where they stand. The selection is focused on the best local breweries, with special limited releases sitting alongside the classics; basically, whatever owner Ricky Binnet fancies drinking himself. Not a bad philosophy really.
Central Provisions is both one of the city’s best bars and best restaurants (this line is very blurred in Portland, as you may have picked up). On the food side, a host of delicious, fresh small plates with plenty of veggie and vegan options are made for sharing. As a drinking spot, there are eight well-curated beer lines and a selection of bottles, as well as good wine and cocktail lists, if that’s your mood.
I usually try and avoid Irish pubs in America – the hit rate isn’t great – but Portland predictably has a handful of great ones. Rí Rá is kind of legendary, eschewing off-the-peg Irish-themed pub tat in favour of authentic décor – including books, chandeliers and acres of warm, dark wood – salvaged from pubs back in the mother country and shipped over. Spread over three floors, there’s always plenty going on, and it’s a great place to recover if you’re feeling overwhelming by chic modernity. Likewise Bull Feeny’s, right in the heart of downtown, is a laid back, old school pub with a very respectable whisky/whiskey collection at pretty reasonable prices.
It isn’t until I’m here that I realise with horror that I’ve booked my return flight for St Patrick’s Day. Just like Boston and other cities on the Eastern Seaboard, Portland takes St Patrick’s Day very seriously, and I’m narrowly missing out on what promises to be an amazing party. Understandably glum, I share my troubles with the barman.
“Oh, well if your flight isn’t until the afternoon you should just do the Paddy’s Day Plunge,” he says, sympathetically. The what? “The Paddy’s Day Plunge. A couple of hundred people get up at 5am and dive into the water off the Eastern Beach. You should definitely do that.” I rarely remember getting bad advice from barmen, and this guy looks like he’s seen some stuff so (admittedly a couple of drams in) I sign up on the spot.
The Eastern Beach is spotted with compacted snow and, still 90 minutes from sunrise, the air is around -3 Celsius as the city’s hardcore revellers gather on the edge of the lapping Atlantic. There’s a lot of nervous laughter, but morale is high and bravado is rampant. After a countdown from five, the assembled crowd charges ahead into the black water, splashing and screaming. A few of us even take the full plunge and swim a little way out from the shore, for bragging rights and the benefit of the onlooking TV crew.
Everyone is dressed and into their cars as quickly as possible, off to take advantage of the free breakfast being laid on by the Rí Rá Irish pub (which organises the whole event, in aid of the Portland Firefighters Children’s Burns Foundation).
I however decide to hang about and get a few photographs of what promises to be an amazing sunrise, and within about ten minutes have the beach completely to myself. Sat on a rock, looking east, I reflect on the fact that the next major landmass is Ireland itself. Not a bad way to spend St Patrick’s Day, or to draw my stay in this fantastically warm city to an appropriate conclusion.
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