“When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute,” Albert Einstein once famously explained. “But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than any hour.” His point? “That’s relativity.”
In the relative world of dining, that’s also Silly’s. It is relative because while the James Beard Foundation may never laud Colleen Kelley’s creative culinary efforts, it’s OK. We will. Silly’s consistently wins local recognition — for service, sandwiches and desserts. For Cajun, pizza, vegan cooking and, most recently, “Taste of Portland.”
If there was an integrity prize, I suspect Silly’s would win that too. Colleen and sister Michelle do not just talk the local talk, they walk it in silly style. Those bumper stickers? Local printer Dale Rand. Ice cream? Made in Skowhegan. Banking and payroll, coffee and bread sourcing — every possible aspect of Silly’s is locally led. Even the used frying oil powers biodiesel cars.
From its roots as a walk-up counter wrap joint to its current incarnation as maybe the most unique casual dining experience in Greater Portland — most lately with an expansion into the building next door — the Kelleys have created something to be proud of. And it goes the other way too — we are proud of them.
In warmer weather, outside tables are flanked by rainbow fencing and positioned beneath a canopy of twinkling lights while flowers grow from a clawfoot bathtub.
Inside, year-round, Silly’s is all about kitsch. Feathers, beads and Elvis memorabilia decorate the walls. Devotees send photos from all corners of the world. I once watched Colleen quietly box up an elaborate care package to a local soldier serving overseas, just because it was the right thing to do.
It is this Kelley family reputation for consistency and integrity that put me among the first in line to sample the Silly’s with a Twist experience.
What makes Silly’s with a Twist different? Simply put, liquor and late-night hours. It’s the same wild Silly’s menu, but served with adult beverages in a cozy, firelit-bar atmosphere. Cozy, but still undeniably silly. Twist’s ceiling is painted bright purple, and a leg lamp straight from “A Christmas Story” sits in the window.
With 44 gluten-free and 24 vegan menu items, as well as a seemingly infinite number of options for meat and carbohydrate lovers, Silly’s aims to offer something fun and festive for every palate.
The epic menu is filled with puns and in-jokes, such as the Birdhouse in My Soul ($9.95) with roasted turkey breast and avocado pulp served open-faced on toast, or the Viva Las Vegan ($12.95) with jerk-seasoned tofu and mango basil coleslaw. Silly’s appeals to both creative spirits and tight budgets.
Because the menu is extensive, here is a short list of items to try. (Full disclosure: Like many locals, I have regularly eaten from the Silly’s menu for the better part of a decade, and never experienced an off night. It’s just not how they roll.)
Fried pickles ($5.75) are thin slivers of dill pickles breaded and served crunchy with a side of spicy mayo. The Rings of Fire ($5.75) include the same thin-sliced, deep-fried concept, but with jalapeno slices — flavorful, but not nuclear. The Giddy-Up Piggy ($7.95) is a poutine-like twist with hand-cut fries covered in bacon and horseradish cheese sauce.
When eaten at the cushioned bar stools in the peachy twilight, as music from the ’80s plays loud enough to reminisce but soft enough to hear conversation, the fun food elevates an ordinary Friday to an evening of food worth remembering.
You will want to try a burger ($8.95) and upgrade with buffalo-flavored or sweet potato fries for an additional $1.25. Maybe a pizza as well, like the XTC ($9.50) with creamy basil sauce, feta cheese, pepperoni and spinach.
But foodies take note: This is not a typical burger palace. Both the Mythos ($14.95) and its marinated lamb pieces with chickpeas and feta, and the Bowling for Tacos ($11.95) with flaky whitefish on mango, basil and roasted garlic coleslaw, will satisfy any taste for delicate flavors. The Chicken in a Boat ($9.50) includes rice noodles in peanut sauce, cheese and chicken, harmoniously rolled in a tortilla and deep-fried chimichanga-style. (Tofu in a Dinghy is the vegan version, sans chicken.)
For weekend brunch lingerers, order the Silly’s Bloody Mary. The vegan option enhances the house-made hot sauce, while the traditional version is all about Worcestershire. Both contain enough horseradish to eat with a spoon, and this is a good, good thing. Silly’s uses Gilbey’s vodka, but even with a lower-grade vodka, the drink tastes top shelf.
And speaking of top shelf, have you ever wanted to try an expensive wine without spending a car payment on a full bottle? Silly’s with a Twist sports a brand-new, elegantly polished cuvenee, all decked out with higher-end wines to sample by the glass.
For oenophiles on a malbec kick, I enjoyed (from the chalkboard, not from the cuvenee) an inexpensive Tomero that, when paired with the night’s special pigs-in-a-blanket appetizer, tasted like a much more luxurious wine.
This juxtaposition nicely illustrates Einstein’s relativity point. So does this: Silly’s proudly serves Tang and Kool-Aid in Mason jars. I encourage you to try either, as both are just as sweet and silly as you remember. (If you feel brave, ask for red Kool-Aid with a splash of vodka. Try it. It’s good.)
And where else in town can you find Japan’s Hitachino Nest white ale? It costs $7, but in addition to the happy owl on the bottle label, it is a light, wheat-led, citrus-filled treat for beer lovers.
Save room for dessert from the three-layer, scratch-made rotation of cakes ($4.95) — my favorite is the chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream.
(Fun fact: If chocolate buttercream frosting is allowed to age overnight, as Silly’s is, the cocoa flavor only intensifies and improves.)
As a terrific union of beverage and dessert, the Silly’s milkshakes ($3.50 or $5.25 for rice/soy versions) are the stuff of legend. Guinness? Peanut Butter? The South of the Border’s avocado and limeade combination? Silly, for sure, but it is impossible not to smile.
There’s not a speck of academic pretension, but if you want to feel happy and leave with a full belly, Silly’s with a Twist is a genius option.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”