Toward the southwestern end of Commercial Street’s sprawling throng of boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops and endless options for watering holes, is the Salt Exchange. The restaurant is filed away on a long block with other storefronts and can be surprisingly hard to spot even on a bright day.
But as the sun fades and the retail shops close, the Salt’s sea foam green sign and painted peripheral shed a superior light. While Three Dollar Dewey’s Ale House is right next door and other local dive bars rock out with cover bands most nights, the Salt Exchange stands graciously away from the main chatter of the street.
Admittedly, I was skeptical about Salt’s bar scene or even its drinkable offerings the first time I stopped in. The restaurant doesn’t usually come up as an option for grabbing a cold one. Plus, as a Munjoy Hill resident, the tourist-dense stroll down Commercial Street is less than desirable. My experience with some of the aforementioned dive bars has regularly curbed my Old Port appetite.
But the Salt Exchange hooked me right from the beginning. A host greeted me immediately and once I was seated at the local, artist-made cherry bar, I had a drink list and food menu within seconds. And I wasn’t alone. A few businessmen were enjoying drinks and appetizers, and two parties of three had just sat down to dinner in the dining area in the next room. There’s also a more casual corner off to the right of the bar where two people were lounging on a sofa and armchair.
Salt’s “concoction” list (a.k.a. cocktail list) changes regularly with the seasons, and the prices didn’t give me sticker shock as some drink lists do. All house cocktails were less than $10. I had a hard time deciding but went with the basil sparkler: Orleans apple bitters, basil-honey syrup and sparkling wine, served on the rocks ($8). The apple and honey flavors popped nicely with the wine, but I couldn’t detect much basil, which was disappointing. If the drink were called “apple-honey sparkler,” I wouldn’t blink an eye.
While sipping the honeyed sparkler, I noticed one side of the drink menu had a long list of special deals. For one thing, happy hour is from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday (half price on select wines, beers and mixed drinks). And during the same time period you can get appetizers for $6 (normally $10). Not bad at all.
Plus, for First Friday Art Walk, Salt Exchange extends its happy hour deal and has a “casual spirits tasting,” a live jazz band and new local art to enjoy. I was so impressed with the current artwork displayed on the exposed brick wall that I got out of my seat and walked around for a few minutes. Francine Zaslow’s “Food Cycles Series,” a collection of black and white photographs, was stunning and contributed fittingly to the restaurant’s mission to serve local cuisine.
The daily and monthly specials were listed on the menu, but the bartender took the time to tell me about them and with enthusiasm encouraged me to come back for First Friday. “We have a blast in here on Art Walk nights!” he said.
To boot, the Salt Exchange boasts one of Maine’s largest selections of bourbon and American whiskey. A bourbon sampler is always available.
Now into its fourth year, I see the Salt Exchange standing its ground on the boisterous brawl of Commercial Street’s bar and restaurant scene. Not an easy feat, I should think. For those looking for a more subdued (and dare I say, savvy) place to kick back in the Old Port, the Salt Exchange is the ticket. If nothing else, they’ll win you over with hard-to-beat service.
Claire Jeffers is a freelance writer.