Select Page

All Night Long

Stalking the ghost of the 1980s is easier than you think

October 2015

by Jeanee Dudley

Ozzy Osbourne is out of his mind, standing at the edge of the Eastland Hotel’s rooftop deck, flinging pool furniture onto High Street. This special performance by the Prince of Darkness is a beloved piece of Portland history. It’s the perfect 1980s rocker scene: having had his fill of snorting ants and biting off the heads of bats, Ozzy has entered the crucial peak of his hotel-trashing period. Breaking lamps and burning mattresses are passé, and Portland, Maine, that sleepy city by the sea, is the first to know.

Ozzy hasn’t played a show in Maine since 1988–he canceled an appearance in 2008 due to illness. But there are other ways to capture that time of wonder–ways that won’t result in the permanent closure of a swanky rooftop pool. The Forest City offers a good 1980s throwback any night of the week.

For those heavily involved in the rock- and-roll lifestyle, Geno’s Rock Club at 625 Congress Street is the place to be. It’s dark, hot, and loud, and there are shows all week long. The former adult theater takes advantage of its layout, making for an, um, intimate space. There’s a big bar, a pool table, and a lower level for taking in a show. The venue hosts a range of local talent as well as musicians from away, from indie rockers to death metal acts.

For that 1980s punk-rock experience (Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, and Misfits), Portland favorite Big Meat Hammer delivers. Heavy on the grunge, this local legend is guaranteed to please the 1980s punk within. Combined with a crowded room, cheap beer, and strategically placed safety pins, a Big Meat Hammer show at Geno’s is the perfect way to stick it to the establishment.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, 1980s Night at Bubba’s Sulky Lounge at 92 Portland Street fulfills the party dream of every valley girl and yuppie-at-heart. At the door, dressed-up dancers get in for free. That means neon spandex, side ponytails, leg warmers, and off-the-shoulder tees for all–and Miami Vice suits for the discerning gentlemen in the crowd.

Inside, revelers fall upon a cavernous club filled with unique trinkets. Walk past the mannequins, wagon wheels, and stuffed horses to find either of two bars. Grab a libation and head to the flashing dance floor. With the infamous DJ Jon spinning 1980s pop, yacht rock (think Doobie Brothers in admiral suits), and smooth, synth-infused R&B, it’s a good place to get your Olivia Newton-John on.

Of course, the 1980s weren’t all loud music and tight pants. This beloved decade brought about the popularization of the modern video game. Portland’s year-old Arcadia National Bar at 24 Preble Street helps true 1980s geeks reminisce over the 8-bit glow of classic arcade games. Domestic and craft beers are available on tap and by the can. The bar mixes up specialty drinks inspired by all things nerdy and hosts a range of game-centric events.

On the floor, gamers can load up on quarters and smash the buttons of some rare machines. “We have arcade games that date from the early 1980s through the 1990s,” says Vinny, bartender and pinball aficionado. “This is definitely a great 1980s throwback spot–I think Marty McFly would be very happy here.”

Vinny and I both favor BurgerTime, similar in format to Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man but with the critical endgame of building hamburgers by stepping on components, causing them to drop onto the buns below–while either avoiding or “peppering” the walking hot dogs and fried eggs that try to knock you off course. While there is no prize counter, the friendly atmosphere and beer specials are incentive enough to burn through your designated laundry quarters.

Night Galleries

September 2015

Collecting fine art is not just for Mellens and Guggenheims. In Portland, you might find something you love–and can afford–at your neighborhood bistro.

By Claire Z. Cramer


ED KING art bars

“This show has been really well received,” says front-of-the-house manager Katharine Hall at Local 188 on Congress Street at Longfellow Square. She waves a hand at the restaurant and lounge’s east wall. “Her name is Anna O’Sullivan, and she’s sold quite a few prints already.”

The framed prints are charming two- or three-color portraits of web-footed shore birds–herons, pelicans, ducks–plus the odd hen and rooster, done in a style that recalls old Chinese block prints but with Maine birds. They’re stunning and graceful, priced quite accessibly between $100 and $300. French Fry Gulls is $250.

Cafe-Art Commerce

Local 188 has always hewn to the motto “Eat, Drink, Art,” and its walls have always served as a gallery for local art. Meg Walsh, a potter who’s worked on and off at Local for half a dozen years, curates the shows, hangs them, provides viewers with titles and prices, and manages the sales details.

“I love the opportunity to give local artists a place to sell their work,” she says, speaking for herself as well. When we sit down and order drinks, we find Walsh’s bud vases on the restaurant’s many tables. These are available for sale in the retail shop at Portland Museum of Art down the street.

On a subsequent visit, a new exhbit has just been unveiled, that is, released. Chad Creighton’s startlingly expressive owl paintings preside above diners’ heads. “He paints on salvaged pallet wood,” Walsh says. “He sands it just enough to be able to paint it.”

The restaurant’s commitment to art informs its very atmosphere. It’s a bohemian place, with ceiling fans spinning lazily way, way up among the antique chandeliers and exposed ductwork, seating that includes couches and church pews scattered with colorful pillows, and a soulful soundtrack in the background. Owner Jay Villani’s welded iron sculptures stand here and there–one serves as a plant stand, and others as stanchions for the rope around the outdoor sidewalk seating. Artist, illustrator, and sign painter Patrick Corrigan has painted dreamy murals here and there on walls and bar tops.

Local 188 has you at hello when you first walk in, because it always smells utterly delicious in a lively Spanish or Italian way. And as the song says, the gin is cold and the jazz is hot.

The Spoon On the Hill

At the other end of Congress Street, the Blue Spoon’s rich gray walls are hung with a collection of what at first looks like framed sepia pen-and-ink portraits. Closer inspection reveals these are actually dyed cotton and linen napkins.

“I don’t have formal training with wax resists; [I’m] just winging it, learning what does and doesn’t work,” artist Amelia Fais Harnas says. Wax resist is the fabric-dying method used in batik. Using wine, Harnas achieves a remarkable level of detail dying fabric in stages. “I tend to use old-vine wines,” she says, which lend the brownish brick-red color.

We’ve arrived at the Spoon in time for “Wine Time” happy hour, so we order up $3 glasses of the house Italian white and take a seat under wine-stain portraits of Ernest Hemingway and Joan of Arc.

The Blue Spoon, though much smaller and more minimalist in decor, has the same sensual, earthy appeal as Local 188. Chef/owner David Iovino is a master of gourmet peasant food. We sip our icy, mineral wine and devour crostinis topped with hot melted blue cheese and allow ourselves to pretend we’re on the Left Bank.

by Claire Z. Cramer

Where the Locals Go

You’ve done the trendy. Why not do the tried and true?

By Jeanee Dudley



The mystical question: How can we call a watering hole one of the usual suspects if we’ve never been there? Nowadays, Portland is famous for its perpetual bloom of new bars, restaurants, and shops. But there’s a reason some places around town–friendly dives where, shockingly, you’ll find no signature cocktails or small plates–have lasted for decades. How do they keep it real?

Pizza Villa, 1965

On a Wednesday night, my friend Steph and I wrap up a shred session at the rock gym and make our way to Pizza Villa for a beer. Neither of us has ever been here before, and as we walk to the doorway (nestled next to a picture window featuring a neon beer pint and hot pink moon) we spot a handful of people inside.

We saddle up to the bar, where we meet Scott, our new favorite bartender. He’s attentive, friendly, and has worked here 11 years. While he’s pouring our $8 mini pitcher of Brooklyn Lager, I notice something funny behind him. It’s a ceramic figurine depicting a black poodle in a white sack, with a heart-shaped dog tag. I assume it’s a bank.

“The poodle?” Scott laughs and brings it over so we can get a better look. “It’s full of Jim Beam. The owners of this place are three Greek guys. Their Uncle Fred brought this thing in one day and set it behind the bar. He said, ‘When I die, I want you to drink this.’ The guy’s 96 years old.”

I examine the poodle. Its collar reads, “Tiffiny,” an appropriate name for an eight-inch tall poodle, although pretty humorous for middle-shelf, 1970s-era bourbon.

“Yeah,” Scott continues. “A few years ago–Fred had to be at least 88 at the time–I saw him roll a golf cart right over, get back up, and play the next hole.” Look for Tiffiny next time you’re there; she’s probably not going anywhere. 940 Congress Street.

Mathew’s Pub, 1872

On a Thursday evening, “Portland’s oldest pub” is empty aside from two employees, my accomplice Mitchell, and me. We sit at backless swivel stools, order $3 Budweiser drafts, and ask if the rooftop deck is open. “Oh sure, but I’ll have to give you plastic cups,” says the young bartender, pulling two green Solos from below the bar. “Can’t take these glasses?” I ask. “Yeah, people would throw them off the roof, so we don’t allow them up there anymore,” she says.

It’s quiet up there on Free Street and we sit, catching up for half an hour. On the weekends, this place can get pretty rugged, but tonight it’s just us, beer in plastic cups, and a view of a parking lot partially obstructed by a steel safety fence.

Mitchell suggests pool. The bartender hands us the rack of balls, and her colleague, probably a bouncer, warns that there is only one cue. The tables are a little lumpy and the cue has no tip, but the game is free. Even better, the pool room is also a storage area, where we admire a pile of broken jukeboxes and promotional materials, including a Bud Light Superbowl XLVIII countdown clock, to which Mitchell takes a shine. 133 Free Street.

The Great Lost Bear, 1979

This is one of my favorite spots in Portland–huge tap list, good pub food, and tchotchkes absolutely coating the walls. On a Friday night, it can be hard to find a seat at the bar or in the dining room–the secret is to navigate around the bar and find a booth around the back side–it’s all seat-yourself, and the service is quick.

The Bear is best experienced with a group. You can usually find a good-sized table, and there are plenty of appetizers, like the great and zesty nachos that are more than big enough to share. With such a huge beer selection, everyone can find something he or she likes, from fans of $3 cans of Narragansett to the biggest beer snobs in Portland.

My preferred time to get lost at the Bear is on a Monday or Tuesday night, when the pub offers “Talls for Smalls,” 23-ounce beers for the price of a pint. The crowd early in the week is smaller and more personal. The Bear is famous for hiring artists and actors; just ask Bear alums like Michael Rafkin, actor and director of many Mad Horse Theatre and Portland Stage shows, and writer/actor Elizabeth Peavey (My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother). 540 Forest Avenue.

Forest Gardens, Ca. 1930

This is one definition of a hidden gem: small but diverse, with a good-humored bar staff. On a Friday night after a long day at the office, I rally my roommate Brent. “Want to go to Forest Gardens?” I call from the kitchen.

“Good enough for me.”

Our apartment is in the Oakdale neighborhood, and the convenience of Forest Gardens blows us both away. Here is a bar with $2 beer 100 yards from our front door. While the place is cash only, there are exactly three banks with ATMs along the walk there.

The pleasantly salty bartender Ray is kept busy running beers, catching up with regulars, and grilling burgers in the closet-sized kitchen off the bar.

“It’s a nice little place,” he explains. “It’s cash only, we’re only open until 11, and there’s no hard liquor. Younger people who want to go all out don’t come in here because they want to pay with plastic. They might stop in for a beer on the way into town, but being cash-only puts kind of a limit on how crazy people can get.”

We have a few rounds, and Brent asks what’s in the kitchen. The barkeep produces a menu featuring hamburgers, French fries, onion rings, chicken fingers, and even a clam burger–all under $5. He offers to make us a mixed plate. Perfect. We spend less than $20 total on two rounds and a big plate of fried snacks. 372 Forest Avenue.

Old Port Tavern, 1972

So close to the historic Mariner’s Church, Old Port Tavern is low, fun, and loud on a Saturday night. Upon entrance, it’s hard to believe this club is a former place of worship –or even that before the sun goes down, it’s a restaurant. Upstairs is a dart and pool hall, but my group is feeling adventurous so we make our way down into the basement, following the buzz of party bass lines.

Hip-hop and Top 40 music blares from subwoofers at the far end of the room, and the basement bar area is packed end-to-end with groups of 20- and 30-somethings chatting, doing shots, trying to yell over the music, and dancing.

Getting to the bar is a challenge, but I make it. The bartenders are doing their best to keep everyone happy, but they are surrounded by very thirsty patrons. My patience is eventually rewarded, and I obtain a reasonably strong whisky-ginger at a price on par with other Old Port joints.

After some dangerous and painful dancing, it becomes apparent that flip-flops were a mistake; my toes are stepped on a total of six times within an hour.  We retreat from the crush to an out-of-the-way fish tank near the door. 11 Moulton Street.

DiMillo’s on the Water, 1954

While the famous DiMillo’s floating restaurant has only been on a boat since 1982, the DiMillo family has a long history in Portland. It shows in customer service and atmosphere, because DiMillo’s on the Water is one of the friendliest places to grab a drink in the Old Port.

On a rainy Sunday, I make my way down the gangplank into the repurposed Jamestown, Rhode Island ferry and grab a seat at the long bar. The dark, polished wood has a film-noir glamor and seats a good 40 or so. I grab a stool next to Chris and Kelly, a married couple visiting from Newport, New Hampshire. Chris runs a heating oil/mechanical contracting business, and Kelly’s just taken a job as a school principal.

We chat about local beer and the benefits of weekend mini-vacations, and about education, the weather, sports, traveling–the works. Even the bartender gets involved; she’s planning a trip to see her boyfriend stationed in Arizona with the Army. They  are amazed to learn this restaurant even served its gorgeous lobster entrees, staying open during The Perfect Storm.

I sip on a Roulette ($9), which is a borderline Manhattan combining Bulleit Rye, Grand Marnier, and Peychaud’s Bitters. Outside, the wind blows, the rain pelts the plastic deck enclosure, and we watch the Nova Star disappear into the fog. 25 Long Wharf.

by Olivia Gunn

Starry Nights

Enjoy the city by the light of the moon

June 2015

By Olivia Gunn

Our group heads through the Old Port and down Commercial Street after a quick pregame on Meaghan’s rooftop deck. A New Hampshire band, Best Not Broken, is set to open and we’re hoping to make it before they go on, but as we pass Three Dollar Dewey’s her voice surrounds us and the lights of the pier flash–“We’re running with the shadows of the night…”

“She’s on, she’s on!” We pick up the pace, racing with Neil Giraldo’s guitar and our own shadows of the night to Pat Benatar on Maine State Pier.

We arrive just in time to find the show’s sold out and the crowd is tightly packed, so the four of us grab the most expensive Shock Tops we’ve ever bought and make our way into the pack.

Since we’re late, we won’t be getting much closer than the food vendors–unless we want spilled beer down our pants–because none of the true Pat fans is trying to make room for four 20-somethings.

“Shadows of the Night” ends, and Benatar welcomes her fans, quite humble and a bit shocked we’re all here in what she calls “freezing” weather. The fans love it, all laughing and cheering for themselves. A Mainer behind me cackles and nudges my shoulder, saying, “Hell, I was in cutoffs and flip-flops earlier.” We all cheers-to-that as Benatar goes into “All Fired Up.”

With the moon hanging high above us and summer so sweet, “We Belong” strikes a chord and the moment becomes surreal. Two years ago, I was leaving college behind to start a whole new chapter, and now I’m rocking out with strangers on a pier in Portland.

Having been raised by a mother and aunts who truly thrived in the ’80s with their big blonde hair, bangs for days, and acid-washed jeans, I’m overwhelmed by Benatar’s girl power. She’s a babe, and the fact she and Giraldo have been rocking and rolling together since 1979 is enough to blow any millennial’s mind. “You know the best part?” Stephan shouts over “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” “They’re getting paid to do what they’d be doing any Saturday night!” Cheers to that, and we’re soon lost in another hit.

Drive-in to the time machine

We pull into the dirt lot with the tiny wooden ticket booth and a red neon sign above the marquee: Pride’s Corner. Fil, my forever-date, pays the 20 bucks and the Subaru makes its way back to 1953.

Old-fashioned radio stands mark the individual parking spots, and though we are an hour early, some families have already made camp. Blankets and pillows fill the beds of trucks as moms try to balance everyone’s hotdogs and dads scan the area, making sure they’ve got the best spot. Fil and I make our way to the front row, and he parks just so to get the perfect view.

Like most of the few remaining drive-ins, Pride’s Corner has maintained its original snack bar, which, let’s be honest, is basically the main attraction. While we did bring snacks from home, Fil and I walk over hand in hand and end up with burgers, sodas, and popcorn. Hollywood memorabilia lines the walls, and Andrew, the owner and Robert Plant look-alike, greets us at the register. Fil drops his film-school background, and a second later Andrew has brought out the entire Mad Max reel to show him he still screens film.

Looking around Pride’s Corner, I’m not only taken back to the Happy Days, but the days of sitting in the back of my own dad’s truck with my mom and two brothers as we stuffed our faces with Twizzlers and popcorn waiting for The X-Files movie to start. My parents didn’t have the money to take all three of us to the movie theaters, so my brothers and I would pile in the back of the Ford Ranger and cover ourselves with the blankets while my parents paid for two adults. I remember being terrified we’d be caught and never allowed back in, but every time we’d pull in between two other trucks, families of three, four, and five would pop up like fiddleheads from underneath the comforters in the pickups beside us.

The drive-in is a totally different experience than just seeing a movie. You’re seeing a movie with every single person there. You’re all in it together, hoping the rain holds off, scooting closer when the sun drops, and trying to keep your eyes from closing halfway through the second feature.

Pride’s Corner is one of the essential summer experiences, and for the sake of every eight-year-old out there, one I hope never, ever ends.

Prom Picnic

A friend has invited us to a real New England clambake–with a group of Western Kentucky grads. Right? But, after a Sunday of errands and packing for our impending move, dinner at someone else’s home sounds like the perfect remedy.

We arrive at the East End apartment to find six or seven people hanging out on a back deck, Baxter Brewing Co. beers in hand, Sperrys on foot. I try to hide our six-pack of Blue Moon behind my dress, but it’s snatched up by our friend Ben and taken to the fridge.

He returns quickly with hugs and intros. “This is my roommate, So-and-so. Over here is So-an-so II. Oh, have you met So-and-so III?”

Fil and I can’t keep track, but everyone’s nice and, for the most part, happy we stopped by their college reunion.

The sun is setting by the time Ben yells the steamers are ready and carries a giant  pot over to the picnic table. He dumps it all on a platter, juices splashing everywhere.

At first everyone is a bit shy, but I snatch up a big clam, pop it open, and dip it in the butter. That seems to open the gates for everyone, else and before you know it, we’re all in–clams, beers, and college stories.

After we’ve cleaned every shell and all feel the light buzz of drinking on a muggy night, someone suggests we take a walk on the Eastern Promenade to show the newcomers the view.

By this point, Fil and I have proven we can carry a conversation, know who the young fellow working as a “personal assistant in Kennebunkport” really works for, and can handle a nip of their communal moonshine: “Sure, I’ll try some.”

The group heads to the Prom, tossing a frisbee back and forth the entire way. I know, I know. I swear, this isn’t a script.

The sun has dropped and it’s getting harder to see, but I’ve found camaraderie with one of the girls who, it turns out, actually lives on a farm in Bangor, has kayaked the Mississippi, and lives in Florida half of the year. That’s my kind of chick. She talks her concerns of being a “gypsy” forever and I assure her that there’s nothing wrong with it, so long as she’s happy. We’re soon at the beach, and as she talks, I look to see Fil and Ben sitting at the edge of the water having what I assume is a similar discussion.

Ben has become one of our closest friends in the short amount of time we’ve known him, but he and his girlfriend will be moving to New Hampshire, his home state, in the coming months. It’s disappointing, as we’ve been making plans all year, but one thing I’ve come to understand is that is that every story has an ending. That way, new stories can always begin.

Take Me Out to the Park

It’s not summer until you’ve spent a cool evening at Hadlock Field downing $3 hot dogs and Sea Dog Blueberry Ale.

Tonight, we’re meeting our friend’s new girl, so really I’ll being seeing two games played this evening.

The four of us meet out front and hustle into the already crowded stadium. Families, friends, and couples pack the concession area, while kids in their baseball caps pulled down over their tiny heads weave in and out of the lines, hoping to catch a glimpse of Slugger. Or as the 10-year-olds and above would say, “The dude in the dog outfit.” But, hey, we all know they still want a Slugger high-five.

The guys grab the beers, and we grab the dogs and fries before making our way up to our seats. We’re right behind the batter, and even with the net, I still find myself flinching and ducking at every foul ball.

While everyone else talks stats, hits, and runs, I down the rest of the fries and sing along to “Sweet Caroline.”

I’ve never been a sports fan, but tonight under the stars at Hadlock, I can understand what all the fuss is about. We’re here as Portlanders, supporting our team, with what seems like the rest of the city. It’s community, it’s rooting for the same thing, it’s baseball.  

Many Faces of the City

Multiple personalities, one love

May 2015

By Olivia Gunn


There are so many bars here, and they’re all so different.” My friend Rachel is visiting from New York, and it’s her first night in Portland. Because it’s Thursday, we’ve decided to take things easy, avoiding the all-too-well-known set-up of “just one drink.” Instead we walk to Gorgeous Gelato on Fore Street, and because weekends start early in this part of town, Rachel gets to witness the pulse of the Old Port.

A recent graduate, she’s suffering from the restless panic of 22 and has decided to make her way to as many cities as possible in the hopes of finding her start. Her fears, concerns, and anxieties were my own two years ago as a recent transplant to Maine. Now, walking through the town I’ve come to call home, where I have favorite spots and my go-to watering holes, it’s rejuvenating to see this part of the city through a first-timer’s eyes.

What I first noticed about the Old Port were all the different facets of nightlife occurring within the same few blocks. Walking along Fore Street on any given Saturday night, you’ll spot a young, flirty couple, arm in arm, headed to Wharf Street to catch a live show at Oasis. Meanwhile, the same couple, only 20 years older, heads into Central Provisions for their long-awaited date night.

Music floods the streets. Depending on where you’re walking, you’ll hear a local cover band playing Mumford and Sons or Kenny Chesney blaring out of Bonfire. And as campy as it can be, it’s hard not to be swept up by it all. You know what I mean. We’re all guilty of taking on a shot or one more beer after hearing “American Girl” blaring out of Old Port Tavern.

Then there’s the live music you can find at Brian Boru, where you’ll surprise yourself, dancing the night away to a Maine country band called North of Nashville or kicking back at Sonny’s on a Thursday night with live jazz.

Because there is something to satisfy just about everyone in the Old Port, you’ll find there’s really no lack of personalities. From the Pabst drinkers at Rosie’s to the cocktail buffs at Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, there’s always a crowd with whatever vibe you’re looking for.

“You’ll go into the Old Port alone?” Rachel asks. Of course. And a lot of people do. If you’re not a fan of the obvious spots on the obvious nights, you can always head to a low-key joint like The North Point. Every Monday, The North Point celebrates the start of the week with half-price bottles of wine, and this time of year their outdoor seating is the perfect hideaway. If you’re a true wino, you already know about MJ’s Wine Bar, where you can end your weekend with a glass of red and Lady Zen’s Obbligato midtown jazz sessions.

Of course summertime brings a whole new level of energy: college students free of classes, the cruise ships, and the vacationers. The hot nights downtown also bring out the lovers. The ladies have kicked off the Bean boots, men have finally shaved their beards, and the heat is on. Sexy, low-lit spots like Vignola Cinque Terre; Zapoteca; or Street and Co., where you can keep it casual at the oyster bar, really do the trick.

Every night of the week there’s something worth doing in the Old Port. Stroll by Pearl on Thursday and you’ll find a sea of salsa dancers tearing up the floor until 1 a.m. Looking for a mid-week pick-me-up? Head to Bull Feeney’s with Portland Comedy Showcase on Wednesdays for some laughs, or play Picasso for the evening at Muse Paint Bar. However you get your kicks, you’ll find somewhere to do it.

While the Old Port does wear on you and eventually you may find yourself on Congress Street craving a little less action, it’s good to know there’s always something going on right down the road. And no matter how many times you’ve danced at RiRa’s on the crowded floor, stood in line at Bull Feeney’s, or ended a night at the Thirsty Pig, it never gets old experiencing it all over again with someone who never has.

by Olivia Gunn

Feel the Beat

Live, loud music adds a jolt to Spring

April 2015

By Olivia Gunn


Subterranean Bluegrass

After a week of overtime and not enough me-time, I’m breaking my own rules and going out on a weeknight. Jerks of Grass is playing at Bramhall, and it’s just in time. All work, no play, and just the thought of snow in April makes anyone a dull Mainer.

It’s Thursday night and the house is packed. While there’s still a chill outside, everyone’s ready to warm up here with some good pickin’. Jerks is a local bluegrass band comprised of Jason Phelps, Melissa Bragdon, Carter Logan, and Kris Day. They are a Portland favorite, obvious by tonight’s crowd.

Eventually our group orders drinks, and it’s not long before friends are nudging me to dance, but all I want to do is sit back and listen. I grew up with bluegrass. My grandmother’s entire family played regularly at mountain reunions and family holidays. I can remember my great aunt Ada’s upright bass towering over her as she and my uncles played old favorites. This night is another sweet reminder that Portland has more going on than just foodie tours.

Around midnight I’ve had my fill, even though the band is just getting hot. I work my way up to the bar and pay the tab. Heading up the stone steps into a warming spring night, I can still hear the fiddle and it follows me all the way home.

Don’t Think

Every Wednesday, Empire hosts a Clash of the Titans, when local musicians have the opportunity to play the hits of famous artists and bands in a face-off between two icons per week. This is now a weekly celebration of pop culture and the talent of Portland that’s covered everyone from Tom Petty vs. Creedence Clearwater to Etta James vs. Aretha Franklin, but it wasn’t until recently that I was inspired to attend. I just couldn’t resist Bob Dylan battling Neil Young in a city that loves them both and at a time when their music rings too true.

It’s 9:30. The dim venue is nearly packed with a crowd of all ages–from baby boomers who know The Freewheelin’ by heart to fresh-faced college students who found their way to Dylan after discovering the Black Keys. They’re all here and easily distinguished, but it doesn’t matter at all.

First up is Neil Young played by Bob Ray, and he opens with “Powderfinger,” a treat for the seasoned crowd. Ray’s band comes naturally to Young’s music and has me picturing these grown men playing Neil Young in a garage after school long ago, long-haired and just stoned enough.

They’ve got the crowd rolling, and when Cam Jones steps up as Dylan, harmonica around his neck and guitar in hand, we can hardly wait. He chooses “The Times They Are A Changing” and “Masters of War,” and in seconds has the audience quiet. Regardless of your politics, Jones captures the spirit of Dylan with these timeless songs. Soon we’re all in a rhythmic hypnosis. Several generations, each all too familiar with the concept of war. Maybe it’s not the average millennial’s hump-day celebration, but I’ve got to say, protest songs need a comeback.

After two favorites–“Heart of Gold” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues”–I head home, back to 2015, where the songs from 40 years ago matter more than ever.

Edgy Variety

“Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” plays in my head as I enter the second-floor back room at Bull Feeney’s following a parade of jingling belly dancers. On stage sit three members of the vaudeville group who call themselves the Dark Follies–Lady Selcouth, Solange, and Stephen Carpenter, among others. Known for their street performances, the Dark Follies celebrate storytelling, music, side-show acts, and really anything else you can shape into a performance piece. Also on stage are special guests Shayfer James, a Harlem-based performer who happens to be passing through Portland, and local spoken-word artist Samuel Hunter Mercer.

All the performances intertwine. At times James plays along as Selcouth or another performer does a solo dance or the audience joins in a song praising beer led by Madame Sinclair. Each act feels strange, imperfect, but exciting. It’s almost as if I’m at the Kit Kat Club awaiting Sally Bowles.

It’s a treat to see a performer like James joining in on a local show for no other reason than to play, and I realize that this is what Portland’s arts scene is about. It’s inviting and accessible. If you have an idea or a vision, there are plenty of ways to pull it together, and Portland will applaud anyone brave enough to do it. 

by Olivia Gunn

Ladies’ Night

Going out with the girls is a time-honored ritual. And it’s a blast.

February 2015

By Olivia Gunn


Stayin’ Alive

One of my very best friends from college is in town, and there’s no better reason to be dancing at Bubba’s Sulky Lounge. Marcus is the life of every party, and in his Michael Jackson Bad leather jacket, he’s catching every eye on the floor. He’s taking the girls out for the night, and I’m feeling like Bianca Jagger strolling into Studio 54.

We walk to Bubba’s, not exactly knowing what we’re in for. I’ve heard tales of a Saturday Night Fever light-up dance floor, but I hate to get my hopes up. Upon arrival, we’re all checked for ’80s gear–I’d settled on faded black jeans and a jean jacket–before being allowed to pass. Those who don’t do throwback have to pay to enter Friday’s ’80s Night.

Inside, Bubba’s could pass as a flea market. Antiques, music memorabilia, and Elvis surround the never-ending bar. If there is a theme, they lost it years ago. We order a round of cheap beers before heading to the–Oh, my God, it’s a light-up dance floor! Marcus gasps before pulling me into the crowd and taking over the floor. He really makes quite the scene, and soon he has a circle of fans watching him. It was bound to happen. Marcus is a trained dancer/actor, and bringing him to Bubba’s might as well have been giving him a starring role in a Broadway play.

He’s on fire, and soon I’ve lost him to another. No hard feelings, because I’m drenched in sweat and could use a breather. I’ve had many full nights in Portland, but I must say, Bubba’s has been the hottest by far.

Shake it

I’m quite aware that not everyone would jump at the chance to take a belly dance class because, quite honestly, I wouldn’t have, either. But my neighbor Audrey, who’d been taking ballet classes with local dance instructor Rosa Noreen, has invited me to a free belly dance class with Rosa.

I‘m hesitant at first, envisioning a room full of hard abs shimmying about as I try desperately to keep up. But, after some convincing and the promise of wine afterward, I decide. Why not?

Along with several other women, we arrive at Wildwood Medicine on India Street just in time for the evening class. It seems as if we’ve all just finished work for the day, and from the vibe of the room, I sense everyone is slightly nervous, not knowing what to expect.

Rosa, our warm, smiling leader, immediately introduces herself and offers dolmades as we wait. She sets up the music, and when it seems as if everyone has arrived, she instructs us to grab a hip scarf from her bag.

Once in our belly-dancing uniforms, we form a large circle, all admiring one another’s wrap choice. Rosa starts us off with stretches before the basics and explaining to us that all of our bodies are beautiful and that we should never feel obligated to hide them.

It’s not long before we’re all in time, shimmying and popping. At one point Rosa has us write our names using our hips, and even though I really don’t know what I wrote, I finish with an exclamation point.

Corner of Pine & Divine

After our evening of belly dance, Audrey and I take a walk to the West End for Bonobo’s Wood Fire Pizza. We order the Caspian, figuring the roasted tomatoes and basil keep it healthy, and two glasses of red wine.

Tonight the pizzeria/cafe is uncommonly slow, and we sit at the bar with the server’s beau and the owner. They talk about the new apartments being built across Brackett Street and looking forward to the cutomers they may bring.

Audrey and I sit talking art and debate whether or not one of the pieces depicts a cow or wolf. Talk about gallery snobs.

It’s not the flashiest girls’ night, but we’ve accomplished learning a new dance style and getting in our glass of red for the day with one of the best pizzas in town.


There’s nothing like an impromptu night out with a close friend, especially when you haven’t seen one another since Christmas. After purchasing two tickets for the Lorem Ipsum show at Space Gallery, I reach out to Shannen, my go-to for anything last-minute.

Shannen is immediately up for a girl’s night, and we plan to meet at Space early for drinks and catching up.

I’ve always kept an eye out for the parties, shows, and films Space offers throughout the year. Especially after being snowed in all winter, Space has the perfect events for anyone needing a little culture outside of Netflix.

We arrive a half hour before the show and make our way to the bar, ordering beers before taking our seats in front of the black box theater. The show tonight is a Caryl Churchill play, and Shannen and I can’t help talking college, as we both studied theater. Soon, we’re both inspired and planning our own productions. Good friends and theater will do that to you.

After the show we’re left with plenty to discuss: money, power, and love. It’s all out on the floor, and we’re devouring it. Before we head our separate ways on State Street, we’ve planned out next outing, even though we both know the best nights can never be planned.

Set ‘em up and knock ‘em down

“We used to be a reading club,” admits Debby Olken, a member of the Casco Bay Bowling League. “We decided to do this because no one was good at it. It’s hard to maintain a group with a focus. We have these great aspirations, and this has come the closest to working.” She smooths her turquoise bowling shirt and heads to the lane, revealing her team’s name: The Great Balls of Fire.

Olken, a close friend of the family, had mentioned her bowling team in passing before, so on this otherwise boring Monday night, I figured I’ll finally join the girls.

I arrive to find them near the illuminated BOWLING sign near the back of Bayside Bowl.

We approach seven women, all in matching shirts and bowling shoes to accent. As I introduce myself they all gather around, each with a zinger to outdo the next. “We thought she was lying,” one of the women says of Debby’s warning about my visit before ordering that the camera stay in the car.

As they make their way to their designated lane, I order a Brooklyn Lager and take a spot behind their team.

It’s the league’s season playoffs, and every lane is full. Some of the teams look much more experienced than others, but they all seem to be playing for fun.

As the waitress makes her way around the floor, one of Debby’s teammates orders a glass of red wine–not your typical bowler’s poison, but if you’re playing as The Great Balls of Fire, you might as well do it with class.

It’s not a lively game, I’ll admit, and there are more gutter balls than not, but I have the most fun watching the teammates laughing among themselves. Their opponents, visibly younger, greet one another with daps (fist bumps) and sing along to the background music, but there’s still no denying The Great Balls of Fire fit right in. Simply because they’re having fun.

By 10 o’clock, I’m too tired to stay much longer, even though it looks as if the party’s just getting started. I hug them good-bye and admit I can’t keep up with them. As I leave the lane, it’s as if I’ve never been there. They’re back to their laughs and silly dance moves, never once fretting that their score on the board leaves something to be desired.  

by Olivia Gunn

Tables for Two

Discover special Valentine spots hidden in plain sight.

January 2015

By Olivia Gunn

Couple drinking wine in bar --- Image by © mother image/Corbis

Couple drinking wine in bar — Image by © mother image/Corbis

We walk into Salvage with no idea how large the barbecue joint actually is. We were hoping to catch some live music, drink a few beers, and pick at some ribs, but not tonight. There are far too many people here–the entire bar is lined with folks sitting shoulder to shoulder. I’m not about to fight my way through, so we head next door to the tiny Thai house where Christmas lights hang year-round.

Saeng Thai House is cozy and perfect for two-person parties. With maybe 10 small tables, you’ll probably never find a family or reunion of friends there, which makes it all the more special to me. It’s intimate because of the size but feels more like grandma’s kitchen than other spots like Mi Sen that can feel a little too sterile.

Saeng Thai doesn’t serve alcohol but has a BYOB policy. We consider a quick beer run but settle on a hot Thai tea. No drinks tonight. Our Basil Pad Thai arrives still steaming, and soon, along with the rest of the patrons, we’re in silence, devouring.

The matriarch appears from the back of the kitchen, scans the faces for satisfaction, and gives her orders. A moment later she’s disappeared in a billow of smoke, back into the kitchen. I can’t help picture my own grandmother standing over the table, making sure my cousin gets enough gravy or my sister gets sweet potatoes.

Though there are hipper spots and fancier menus with cocktails we can’t pronounce, Saeng Thai feels like home. And on a February night in Portland, sometimes that’s what you need.

Hideout on Congress Street

In the basement of the old Roma Cafe, the new Bramhall is an unexpected refuge on Congress Street. We walk from Monument Square trying without luck to avoid the Friday Art Walk crowds as we begin our trek back toward State. I’d overheard at a holiday party that there was a new “secret” bar on Congress. Hoping to find it before the other 30 people who overheard this secret, we agree tonight seems as good a night as any.

“It’s past the Rite Aid but before Salvage. At least that’s what she said.” [In another life, Portlanders used to base their directions on the legendary Roma Cafe, which held court above the rathskeller we’re heading for.]

We baby-step along the sheet of ice that’s claimed the sidewalk and are about to give up after a minor slip when we spot a group of friends heading into the basement of 767. We decide to follow them, casually nodding our hello.

We hang our coats in the foyer and pull open the door, anxious to know just where we’ve ended up. It swings open, and we’re blown in by a gust of cold. Some patrons glare at the shocking chill.

Bramhall is dimly lit with stone walls and small tables. The bar is full, so we take a spot in the center of the room. Behind a giant stone pillar is another area cut off from the rest. Perfect for couples wanting more privacy, but we’re happy enough to have found seats.

It seems to be the spot for pairs and pairs of pairs. Couples and double dates surround us, all engaged in private conversations. It’s nice to see people looking at one another, no alien iPhone glows illuminating their faces.

Bramhall isn’t really a secret, or at least it won’t be for long, but I imagine the crowd it draws will always be those looking to escape the hustle. Couples who can sit and discuss the day without checking emails, the nine-to-fivers who needs a little quiet time before heading home, and every now and then the curious travelers looking for a warm burrow and strong drink.

Jazzy Lady

The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box is my new favorite bar. It’s where I’ll bring friends, family, even enemies just to spend more time there.

Located at 644 Congress Street, you might miss it if you’re not careful. Searching for it myself, I peer into darkened windows until my companion and I are finally pointed in the right direction. We enter a surprisingly large space with a loft hovering above the bar, tall ceilings, and a funky Regency-style mural on the wall. It looks empty for being the talk of everyone in town. I start to wonder if anyone really does know where it is.

Either way, we’re happy. The less the merrier in our book. Our bartender is friendly and offers us antique-framed menus. “How many of these have broken?” I ask, careful not to shatter it myself. “A few. Everything is pretty old and fragile in here.”

We browse over the week’s cocktails that go for $10. I end up choosing a glass of ‘red.’ Another bartender brings a tiny sample to taste, but I admit I can normally drink whatever Trader Joe’s has in a box. Both bartenders laugh and step aside to reveal exactly that. They’ve just run out of bottled wine and have Trader’s on reserve. It’s a perfect moment to introduce ourselves, and we discover we’re meeting Nathaniel Meiklejohn, the Bearded Lady himself, owner of the bar.

We chat a while, he about starting his own spot after working at Local 188 and we about moving to Portland not so long ago. As evening settles, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone keep a calming soulful vibe rolling throughout the bar.

After our first round, we try a beer brewed specifically for the Jewel Box by In’finiti, on the house. We chat among ourselves and between bartenders and eventually promise to be back for their next dance party.

The Jewel Box isn’t trying to be the new hot spot in Portland but rather a peaceful haven for locals. For that reason alone, it may soon find itself busy every night.

A Friendly Brew

After a day of work, sometimes it’s best to ditch the frills and head to Sebago for soft pretzels and beers. With 5 p.m. behind us, coworkers, friends, and couples join for happy hour on the corner of Fore Street at Franklin Arterial. The Brewpub is one of the larger restaurants in the Old Port so there’s always room. We take a booth near the back, each of us facing TVs. Not the most romantic, but there are nights when all you need is the company and can omit any conversation. We’re apparently not the only couple with that idea, because the majority of people are watching ESPN as 1990s pop/rock plays around us. Our $5 pretzels arrive piping hot, providing another reason for silence. Nothing wrong with taking a break and simply being. We’ll soon be home with chores to do and dinner to make, but for now we can sit in a bar and pretend we’ve got nowhere else to be.

out & about in
darkest winter

We’re gallery hounds. This evening, we’re at a Photo A Go-Go event at The Bakery Photo Collective in a giant gallery that’s part of the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook. Photo A Go-Go is an opportunity for local photographers to get together, network, and enjoy an evening of celebrating their work. Local artists donate photographs to be auctioned off, and the money raised goes back to the Collective. We arrive to a packed gallery of photographers and their families, friends, and fans. Everyone looks great, and it’s refreshing to see people out and about in the dark of winter. A live band plays as we move through the gallery, deciding which photography we’ll bid on. Fil’s work is gathering a small crowd, and we can’t help but watch for their reactions.

Beers, snacks, and the exhibit jump-start our Friday night. We’re energized by the huge photography community and pumped to get back into our own creative work.

Around 7 p.m., we head back to Portland to celebrate with dinner in the West End. We’d been to Caiola’s ages ago for a wedding reception and were happy to find that it’s now only a few blocks from where we ended up living. The restaurant looks much smaller than it really is, but the coziness of the front dining area draws us in, even without a warm welcome from anyone. When we arrive we’re told we can either wait for a half an hour for a table or take two seats at the bar. We choose the bar and sit next to a group of women who appear to have been going at some dirty martinis for a while who either don’t notice us or have decided to ignore us. Either way, we make ourselves comfortable. I order a glass of wine and Fil a beer to accompany our chicken marsala and lamb chop with roasted Brussels sprouts.

Caiola’s is a great restaurant for a small family dinner or double date. We wonder if it would be welcoming to a lone diner as we enjoy our dinner and drinks. We don’t stay for a nightcap and head to Ruski’s instead.  

by Olivia Gunn

Exploring the Outliers

The personality of Portland is defined not
just by its center, but by its edges.  

December 2015

By Olivia Gunn

Elsmere Douglas Merriam

As with any city, those who live in the midst of it all often disregard surrounding areas as after-dark prospects. We choose the bar that feels like home, the cafe with the biggest brunch, and we all know you’re either going to Brian Boru or Bull Feeney’s on Saturday night, don’t lie. But after a while things can get a little monotonous. Like plain potato chips–they taste really good and you’re not stopping anytime soon, but you wouldn’t have minded a little French onion dip. Well, lately, I’ve been craving a new bag of chips or some of that dip.


Elsmere BBQ and Wood Grill has been on Fil’s radar since we moved here. “It’s a barbecue joint. And they cook everything on wood. You could get a salad.” His descriptions of such divine decadence never persuaded me, but being as his “boys” are visiting, it’s decided that we’re headed for barbecue.

Elsmere resides on Cottage Road in South Portland in a converted garage/laundromat. We arrive for dinner and the guys are immediately gaga for the giant neon sign behind the bar that reads “Ray’s Auto Radiator and Body Shop.” I’ll admit, it’s a cool touch, but I’m starting to feel like Betty to Elsmere’s Veronica. We take a booth and order up a round of beers, brisket, and nachos. While we wait for the food, the guys are sucked into the two-player Mrs. Pac Man arcade game. It’s almost as if they’re in college again, and listening to three guys relaxed and reminiscing, I admit that Elsmere is the perfect choice and the grilled salmon salad isn’t half bad.

Run of The Mill

“You have Downeast Cider on tap? Keep ’em coming, my friend.” We’ve found ourselves at Run of the Mill Brewery in Saco after passing through the historic town on a Sunday cruise. The giant Mill bears a long wooden bar in front with plenty of tables and dining seating throughout. The manager, Rebecca, happens to be behind the bar when we arrive, and after posing for a photo with the taps, offers samples of Downeast Cider to the other patrons.

Two ladies sit beside us and happily accept the ciders. “These would be perfect for a sunny day.” I assure them that Downeast is perfect on any day. Farther down the bar, two friends in wide-frame glasses and band t-shirts order the Sample Paddle–a flight of seven 3-ounce brews on tap–and ask for a deck of cards. A minute later, two men in leather jackets and bandanas make their way to the bar and order shots of Patron. We’re a real mishmash of folks here, but oddly enough, it just works.

Fil and I finish our ciders and I’m tempted to order a growler for home, but seeing it’s still early, I worry the stuff won’t make it back to Portland.

We agree that Run of the Mill will now be a regular stop when family and friends are visiting, and we plan our next trip. On Thursdays and Saturdays there’s live music, and I can only imagine the giant bar must feel very small those nights.

Leaving with a half of a burger and a happy buzz, I’m ready to explore Saco. If we stay long enough, maybe we can make it back to the Mill in time for happy hour.

The Frog & Turtle: Westbrook

It’s drizzling, but the rain adds some ambiance to our night drive. We scan the FM for the perfect song, but after “Bette Davis Eyes” and a painful attempt to get through some pop-country, we settle for our go-to album, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. We can always rely on Rhiannon. What a gal.

The Frog & Turtle isn’t packed by any means. There are tables and room at the bar, so we take two stools. The lights are low and cast a warm glow on vintage bar decor: beer posters, neon signs, and, yes, frogs. The bar’s authentic, welcoming, familiar.

It’s 50-cent wing night, so we order a dozen of the barbecue and tangy tangerine with a side of poutine and two Brooklyn Lagers. The musicians are setting up to start their ‘blues jam session’ at 8 p.m.

More locals trickle in, and soon the bar is full, the tables are chatty, and the patchwork band starts the night with “Down Home Girl.” A sign-up sheet lies in front of the band for any musician in the crowd to join. It soon becomes clear we’re witnessing a weekly tradition as patrons call out one another’s names, hug as they pass tables, and jump up to join in on “The Weight.” A few babes take note of Fil snapping pictures and are quick to shimmy up in the hope of their 15 minutes. One woman dances her way around the stage all the way to the door and bids us farewell with a quick jiggle.

By the end of our second round, we’re wishing we were only a walk away from State Street, but it’s time to head home after the first set. We need to leave before the band plays a Stones song or we never will.

Spring Point Tavern:

It’s among the ranks of all our dive-bar greats–Ruski’s, Sangillo’s, Mama’s, and Amigo’s–yet Spring Point Tavern (SPT) stands alone. It stands alone in time, in manner…in South Portland.

“We met on Tinder, and he’s in the band,” says a girlfriend. How often do I hear this? It seems nowadays all of my friends are meeting the night’s Prince Charming on Tinder, and these ‘meetings’ lead down many dive-bar rabbit holes.

Five of us pile into the Subaru and are off on another Tinder adventure. Why so many along for a first date? Because your friends are never quite sure whether the guy is a wacko, a fraud, or even a man for that matter.

The bar is a small bunker on Pickett Street very close to SMCC, though it’s not likely you’ll see many students there–always a plus in my eyes. SPT is more welcoming than most such joints, and it seems there’s always something going on, from the Superhero Lady Arm Wrestlers to screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Tonight it’s reggae, and the SPT vets are grooving.

After the first beer, half of our crew decides to ditch the spot and head back into the Old Port, but I’ve promised to stay, and stay I do. I sit at the bar alongside my good friend as she tries for eye contact with her mystery man. “Does this look like that guy?” She shows me a picture. I can’t tell. Half of his face is covered with a Red Sox cap. “Sure does.”

By 11 p.m. I might as well be drinking alone, as a somewhat possessive woman has dominated the conversation. I’ve got a bull’s eye on my back and must fend off the preying males. (“I’m not from here.” “Sorry, I don’t speak English.” “I’ve got bird flu.”) I eventually make the choice to leave. “Let’s go, our ride is here.”

“Oh, there you are. I thought you were in the bathroom this whole time.”

We’re both anxious to leave, but it’s nothing SPT has done wrong. In fact, it did everything a dive bar should, namely keep this girl off Tinder.


It’s almost 8 p.m., and neither one of us is about to volunteer as cook. After two weekends of holiday hosting, I’m ditching the June Cleaver guise, tweaking our “Mediterranean diet” and going straight for beer and pizza. We’ve tried just about every place from Otto and Pat’s to Slab and Bonobo, and though each has its very own charms, tonight we’re flying low. We don’t need to run into anybody who knows somebody who might know one of us and have any inclination to chat. This is Portland. You know how it is.

We google “pizza outside of Portland” and arrive at Ricetta’s. It’s not exactly what we had in mind, bearing a closer resemblance to the Colosseum than the four-tables-and-a-bar joints we’re used to, but considering the Olive Garden could have been one of our options earlier, Ricetta’s is a step up.

We choose a table close to the bar and away from the families, though their jolly laughter does brighten our moods. It’s a quick decision for two Downeast Ciders, an anchovy Caesar salad to share, and the 14-inch Buffalo Pizza. “Best one in town,” the bartender assures us. “My future son-in-law is a buffalo connoisseur. He’s had everything buffalo everywhere and still says ours it the best.”

The food arrives, and we start in on the main attraction. My first bite is glorious and I won’t blame mere hunger. This is the first specialty pizza I’ve eaten that isn’t a soggy glob of cheese and fancy toppings. It’s served on thin, crispy crust with gorgonzola cheese. Oh, my gahhh! It’s good, folks.

We head back home with the leftovers in time for our Sunday night movie and a fight over the last piece.


It’s 11:30 and there’s still time to make it to Samuel’s for the Sweet Thai Chili wings. We arrive to find Bill and the others sitting at two tables. It’s their weekly night out after the night shift at WGME. The news tonight? A hilarious mishap with a news truck and a skunk. Unfortunately, the skunk was not the victim.

The bar is louder than most nights, but that’s expected for Samuel’s Wednesday wing night. It’s a cozy dive at the edge of town and the perfect stop before the drive home. It’s never packed like the Old Port bars, but you’re never drinking alone. There’s usually someone happy to strike up a conversation on sports, the weather, or the meaning of life, you know?

With classic rock and country hits playing in the background, we share our events of the week and compare battle scars. It’s our favorite mid-week treat. You can never go wrong with friends, wings, and beers. At last call, we decide it’s time to leave. You never want to overstay your welcome at a bar like Samuel’s. Better to be short, sweet, and to the point. Just like those Sweet Thai Chili wings! 

by Olivia Gunn

Good Old Fashioned Holidays

As the holidays approach, downtown becomes a festive destination.

November 2014

By Olivia Gunn


Desserts are a perfect ending to any meal or night on the town. But if you happen to eat dessert first, fear not, The Bar of Chocolate has happy hour.

I’ve come to meet up with a college friend for chocolates and cocktails. It’s the start of happy hour, and drinks and desserts are all six dollars. She orders a cosmo, and I take a risk with a key lime pie.

Before we get into ‘Olivia and Emily: A College Memoir,’ our drinks arrive and we’re ready to order sweets–chocolate berry torte and raspberry cheesecake. Stop, I know. Did I fall on the cobblestones and end up in heaven?

My key lime pie cocktail tastes like a slice of perfection, and the crusted rim is just the detail I was looking for. Emily can hardly finish her cosmo and asks for a glass of water. Not only are the drinks sweet, they’re strong.

The bar starts filling up as a group of bros waltzes in. They shy away from sitting nearby, and it’s clear they were just as intrigued by the promise of chocolate as we were.

We finish up our catch-up, pay up, and agree that this hits the spot. What better way to analyze exes, bad parties, and stupid mistakes than with dessert?

Sparkling new oasis

“What’s that place?”

“I’ve been there.”

“Okay, what about that place? That place looks good.”

“We’ve been there.”

“Oh, well, there’s–”

“Been there, too.”

You can imagine how hard it’s become for our friends and us to find a new spot that pleases everyone. Tonight we make our way from Ruski’s in the West End down Congress, through Old Port, and end up on the East End, for some an uncharted territory.

On the way up Munjoy Hill, we pass Mama’s Crowbar, which only takes cash, and The Snug, a spot our friends wish to avoid, and wind up at the top. “Lolita?”

“Looks too good to be true…”

From the crisp exterior, Lolita has the glow of your own mama’s kitchen if she had a fully stocked bar. Yes, please! The four of us shuffle in, our cheeks rosy from the chill, and take the remaining seats at the bar. It’s about 7 p.m. and all tables are reserved, but the bartender welcomes us with the wine and cocktail menus.

“What’s your favorite red?” He suggests the Lagrein; it’s Italian, dark, but subtle and light.

My companions order Old Fashioneds that arrive on icebergs rather than rocks. The boys are quite impressed and decide they need to invest in an ice maker and pick. 

Lolita is a tight squeeze with little standing room, so if you find seats you’re lucky, but if there is a wait, it’s worth it. After two rounds, we head back into the chill with warmed, flushed faces knowing Lolita will always offer a cozy seat in the East.

The Play’s The Thing

We’re 10 minutes late, parked three blocks away, and my pumps were a really bad idea. “Why didn’t you just park at the apartment? I could have changed my shoes.”

“Why did you wear those shoes?”

Parking. The task that has brought a  sudden storm cloud to many happy couples’ evenings. It’s the argument that always arises when running late for a show, dinner, or party. Tonight it’s Portland Stage’s production of Brighton Beach Memoirs that may be interrupted by the Olivia and Filipp show.

We rush to the box office, my feet blistered and cramped, to find they do permit late seating. “Oh, thank you, we’re so sorry.” The attendant nods and with a disapproving frown hands us the tickets. “We’re not usually late.” She smiles at my obvious lie.

We climb the stairs, which by this point might as well be Katahdin, and make our way to the back of the theater. There are few empty seats, but the theater is small enough that even from the back row you can see the entire stage perfectly.

By intermission, all is well between us again. Leave it to Neil Simon to bring about hugs and apologies. Something about sharing a laugh with over 200 people keeps the tension at bay.

The line for coffee and cakes is long, but we’re headed out afterward, so we enjoy the people watching instead. It’s a well-dressed audience; one woman even wears an evening gown. Portland’s theater scene may be small compared to the lights of Broadway, but no one can claim we don’t have city class.

The show warrants a standing ovation from some; audiences more and more often feel this is expected of them, but it isn’t. Though this performance was very good, unless you are entirely moved and literally swept to your feet, a standing ovation is not required. We notice several older couples who know this and once everyone has been re-seated, we rise and leave behind them.

The walk back to the car is much less painful, and with the promise of a foot rub and a “You were right,” the drama ends and the curtain drops on that argument.

Piano Break

After spending the afternoon at Longfellow Books, Sherman’s, and Yes Books Christmas shopping for the perfect titles to give our loved ones–a Thoreau for Ilya, Lily King’s Euphoria for Jill, and the latest Olivia the Pig for little Paige–we’re ready for an evening all about us. The Old Port is perfect for holiday shopping, but when you’ve got family in every state and two continents, you soon learn to simplify the giving experience. “Books. We’ll do books this year.” 

After our list is checked, we’re ready to give ourselves the gift of a break and soon find ourselves at MJ’s Wine Bar in 1 City Center. The giant, marbled bar is nearly empty but for the young woman and her man sitting at the very end. She wears a fitted red dress and he’s more casual in t-shirt and jeans. The few other patrons sit far apart, one couple on the couch keeping close and an older man opposite them with his first glass of wine.

For a minute we’re strangers, but we approach the couple with friendly hellos. Colleen recognizes Fil and me and she introduces us to Jared. She’s performing tonight as part of MJ’s weekly event, “88 Keys and a Lady In Red.” Each Wednesday, she and two other female vocalists trade off singing jazz favorites.

Colleen’s pianist, Kyle Friday, arrives and she saunters to the piano. As we sip Malbec and snack on cheeses, Colleen swoons us with renditions of Billie Holiday and Etta James.

The sounds of Colleen and the piano beckon more lone drinkers into the wine bar. Soon we’re all sitting in silence, comforted by the wine and sultry lullabies. It’s the perfect Wednesday night for the season, to warm up with a bottle of red and some of the sweet sounds of Portland. 

by Olivia Gunn