Christened at the height of 1927 Prohibition as part of the Eastland Hotel, the original Top of the East was called the Sun Parlor and conceived for well-heeled guests taking morning tea and lunch. (Interesting note: The hotel itself was named as a result of a public contest that yielded 100 dollars in gold to the winner.)
Twelve floors up, situated on the highest level of what is now the Eastland Park Hotel, the lounge affords a panoramic view of the city and surrounding area, and this view spans all the good stuff: Casco Bay, the waterfront, architecturally impressive rooftops and a glimpse of Mount Washington. At night, it is the city skyline, backlit and twinkling for miles.
Nestled in the arms of this grand dame of Portland’s hotel history, the Top of the East is less a standard hotel bar and more a local gem and date place. The view, the cocktails, dim lighting, sensual music, and discreet and attentive service atop a hotel full of private rooms suggest this lounge might be the right spot for all manner of rendezvous.
While Portland is among the country’s best-fed areas, there are few locales that offer the Top of the East’s old-school cocktail lounge ambience. The lobby of the hotel is wide, and the massive chandelier dangles hundreds of little crystals in a happy welcome.
Ride the elevator up, take a left and go up a few a more steps, and there is the lounge. Windows encase almost the entire perimeter, and the view is exquisite. Soft music is piped in, and the bartender encouraged us to choose any open seat. Two leather couches faced the windows, but otherwise it was a circle of small tables with chairs positioned to enjoy the vista of city lights.
Cocktails ($9 to $13) include hot and cold varieties (including some made with local favorite Cold River vodka). In contrast to the specialty cocktail list, the wine menu is a bound book, and by-the-glass offerings span Barefoot Moscato ($6.75) to Castello Banfi Proprietor’s Reserve Sangiovese ($16.75). Bottles are priced at $22 to $295, with most of the 80-some choices falling in the $30 to $40 range.
Spirits abound as well. The spirit menu is not openly priced, but it includes at least six standard labels in each category. When I asked, costs were cited from $6 to $20, with a few as high as $80.
My glass of Freemark Abbey cabernet sauvignon ($16.25) was outstanding, and once tasted, it became clear why this wine is a smooth, drinkable Napa Valley darling. The wine was wonderful, but the martini ($10) was the clear winner, mixed dirty as requested with its minuscule ice shards and two fat, briny olives enhancing the flavor.
The coffee ($4) served in a tall, handled glass cup was a solid, respectable choice as well — not quite French-press intense, but strong as if made from a quality drip machine. For those wanting to combine flavors, the Espresso Martini ($12) is a sweet and velvety option, served with three espresso beans floating as garnish.
Unfortunately, that’s where the outstanding stopped with regard to the meal itself. I wanted to love the food. I really wanted to love the food. I was dressed up in fancy clothes and enjoying the beverages immensely, so when the Shrimp Cocktail ($11) arrived as four previously frozen shrimp lying limp and thawed on a plate with a little cup of jarred catsup and horseradish sauce, I dismissed it as a fluke.
The salads — Strawberry and Spinach ($10) and Apple and Walnut ($10) — sounded terrific with basil balsamic dressing and bacon balsamic dressing, respectively, but upon tasting, I had the distinct feeling that I could have created something similar at home from the Hannaford produce aisle. They weren’t bad salads at all, but both the spinach and field greens seemed shaken from a plastic bag.
In the apple and walnut variety, the crisp Granny Smith slices tasted appropriately tart against the walnuts, but the tomatoes were colorless and hard. The sweet strawberries in the spinach were a nice contrast to the salad’s sharp feta cheese, and the grape tomatoes provided a pleasant acidity, but the dressing tasted suspiciously like the Newman’s Own I keep in my refrigerator.
Then came the Pan Fried Lobster Cakes with Lemon Aoli ($12) — five nuggets of soggy breading, slightly burnt, with no hint of lobster flavor and served on a too-large plate that only emphasized the dish’s inadequacies. The lemon aioli was a squirt of mayonnaise and wedge of lemon.
On the other hand, the Scallops Wrapped in Bacon ($12) were lovely. The six sea scallops were tender and substantial, and the thick-cut bacon achieved the hard-to-attain balance of crisp and chewy. They were served with the same interpretation of lemon aioli — mayonnaise with a lemon wedge — and as I dragged a scallop through the mayonnaise, I wondered if my love of the bacon scallops was legitimate or if they just looked good against the presence of other, underwhelming choices.
This is when I accidentally knocked over that glass of cabernet. I shattered the glass and splashed red wine across everything: The table, my coat, the chair and the floor. It was a spectacular explosion, and while I was mortified at the time, in retrospect, I am glad.
This is when the excellent service really showed. The server was at the table in an instant, picking up the broken glass and doing a great job of making me feel better. “Not a big deal,” he said, asking if I was OK.
As I toasted my clumsiness with the epic dirty martini still being savored, I noted incongruities not immediately apparent upon arrival. The menu — I was given one that included both lunch and dinner items — was worn. There was an apologetic lack of pomegranate juice for a Pomegranate Martini ($12). The presentations were tired. Some of the food was overcooked.
Nothing was exactly unpleasant, just incongruous upon close inspection.
The wonderful server recommended the cheesecake ($7) for dessert, and it was tasty. Creamy with hints of vanilla on a graham cracker crust, served with a few wild splashes of raspberry syrup. The Chocolate Cake ($7) was tasty, too, heavy and rich — served on the same splashes of raspberry syrup.
Honestly? None of the food was terrible. It was fine. But for the price? When you have an iconic and panoramic view of Portland’s night skyline and your hair is fixed up in celebration mode? I wanted more.
The Top of the East is an immediately impressive locale, visually. The service from the staff, even during glass-shattering clumsiness, was top-notch. The mixed drinks were heavenly, the wine list is respectable, and the coffee is good. Top of the East does beverages and service exceptionally well.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a freelance writer.