If you had a bird’s eye view of the Portland peninsula, Five Fifty-Five restaurant would be almost exactly in the center. Fortunately, in this case, at the heart is a good place to aim – for food and drink, that is.
On the corner of Congress and Oak streets, Five Fifty-Five is closely surrounded by a typical Portland culinary explosion: Mexican, Thai, Indian, Greek, Eritrean and across the street, Nosh churns out its famed bacon-dusted fries.
On this busy strip of Portland’s main artery, Five Fifty-Five stands somewhat subdued – understated. Black and cream-colored molding frames the windows against a red brick building, and from the inside, wooden blinds are often down, but not drawn, which adds to the restaurant’s outward modesty.
But modest it shouldn’t be.
It seems every year Five Fifty-Five receives another award or accolade – Chef Steve Corry voted best chef in 2011 by the Maine Restaurant Association; Five Fifty-Five voted most romantic restaurant and one of the best places to get brunch in the entire country – and that’s just a small sampling.
In short, the food is good here.
What about the drinks and the bar scene?
To start, the bar isn’t necessarily called a bar; it’s the Point 5 Lounge – a separate room from the dining area and open kitchen. There are about 10 seats at the bar and another 20 or so in the same room.
The bar stools are neatly arranged at an angle, as if cajoling you to come, have a seat.
The bar countertop is a dark granite that contrasts nicely with the warmer colors in the room – caramel-colored light fixtures, wooden chairs and tranquil blues and yellows throughout. Atop the granite are porcelain “milk carton” vases filled with red winterberries, and the bartender is busy shining glasses, folding napkins or shaking drinks.
Reservations are suggested, but not required, for dinner and there’s usually open seating in the lounge or at the bar.
This is the type of place to come for an anniversary, a splurge just because, or a guaranteed quiet evening with a friend.
Once seated, a loose menu attached to a shiny copper clipboard is placed in front of you (the loose menu suggests that the menu often introduces new wines, cocktails or other tastes) with the title “drinks, wines and beers from around the world.”
The contents consist mostly of Five Fifty-Five’s wine list, which is so extensive it’s longer than most college thesis papers – there’s even a table of contents.
Luckily the wine list is organized into useful sections, such as “oenophile’s delite,” a weekly staff list highlighting non-traditional wines by the bottle. Then there’s the “bang for your buck,” “worth the splurge” and “tried and true” sections. Given the length of the wine list, this is probably the most ideal way to help a patron feel a little less intimidated.
There are six cocktail choices ranging from $9 to $13 and they rotate seasonally. The fall cocktails – hot buttered rum, cinnamon margarita, coriander-jalapeno martini and Maine cidercar – seem to be keeping with the seasonal theme.
The cidercar, $12, is served in a martini glass, with a ripe slice of apple floating on top as a garnish. Tart and zesty, with an autumnal hue, it’s a good choice for a brandy buff. And as part of Five Fifty-Five’s partnership with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, a percentage of the proceeds from the cidercar goes to its sustainable seafood program. Drinking brandy never felt so charitable.
While you’re sipping a seasonal cocktail, even if you have no plans to eat, ask for a “bites” menu. This is Five Fifty-Five’s bar snack menu and it’s worth a read. (On Thursdays there are $1.55 oysters and drink specials, if you’re feeling particularly reserved about spending too much money.)
The bites menu ranges from stuffed-fried olives (pickled pepper and mascarpone) for $6, to mac and cheese (hand-rolled torchio pasta, artisanal cheese blend, $11) and possibly one of the richest burgers on the peninsula (but not the most expensive at $15).
Whether stopping in for a drink, a bite or a full-blown meal, Five Fifty-Five will undeniably provide a peak dining experience.
You won’t feel bad showing up in less-than-formal wear, but you won’t be out of place all gussied up.
From the glassware to the menu, and the ambiance to the service, a night at Five Fifty-Five will make you feel as though you’re at the heart of something really, really good.
Claire Jeffers is a Portland freelance writer.