I can count a dozen neighborhood bars in downtown Portland, and while each has a niche, few offer the totality of experience found at Dogfish Bar and Grille.

Live local music? Rotating art gallery? Fun drink specials? Two decks for warm-weather enjoyment? Familiar comfort food, but served with flair? Vegetarian options that don’t feel like late additions? Cheap parking next door? The Dogfish Bar and Grille offers all this, as well as the experience of being part of something uniquely local.

It’s easy to miss the Dogfish because its facade is deceptively small. Situated on Free Street, just down from the Portland Museum of Art, the Dogfish is a brick square. (Many children of Portland’s 1990s will remember the space as the rough-hewn Free Street Taverna, and I am told with nostalgia by a friend and former waitress that the black-and-white Dogfish floor is the exact same Taverna floor she used to regularly mop.) Rather than continue the dive-bar experience, though, owner Ted Arcand has created something less hipster-driven and more of a spot for Portland’s art- and music-loving insiders.

With exposed brick, a rich wood ceiling and colorfully painted accents, the space welcomes from the moment its door is opened. Warm and inviting, you immediately want to be inside and out of the cold. Paintings by local artists hang on the walls, and there is enough ambient light to read the menus while still feeling cozy. Miniature succulents (the plant, not the adjective) line the window sill. If there’s live music, even better. On this night, a six-piece old-time string band was singing bluegrass standards, and the volume was perfect. Loud enough to enjoy, yet easy to maintain a dinner conversation.

(Full disclosure: My musician husband has performed at this venue, and he tells me the Dogfish is rapidly gaining a broader regional reputation for attracting musical talent.)

If you prefer quieter atmosphere, the upstairs dining room offers the same exposed brick and local art, but brighter light and a more open space. On warm nights, there are two outdoor deck options.

The specialty drinks are fun. The Doggie Fizzle ($7) is a mix of Stoli Razberi, ginger ale and orange juice, and it tastes exactly like a Sweet Tart candy. The Grey Goose martini ($10.50) is a grown-up option, and for those wanting a cheap fix, bottles of Miller Lite cost just $3.

I was especially impressed with the Rhubarb Pie ($7.50) — local Cold River gin, tonic, lime and rhubarb bitters. The draft beers are almost exclusively local and span the usual suspects, and while the wine list isn’t to die for, it is better than average for a casual, neighborhood bar. Go during happy hour for reduced prices, and non-drinkers take note: Dogfish also serves locally made Maine Root ginger and root beers ($3).

Mussels ($10.99) arrived first, and the Dogfish interpretation was served in a cloudy wine-based sauce with chunks of Linguica sausage and roasted red peppers. Since I am a mussel purist, I found the salty Portuguese sausage and peppers a bit of a distraction. That noted, other palates might love it — it just wasn’t my favorite.

The three grilled beef kabobs ($8.99) were outstanding — presented as skewers with bite-sized beef pieces, redolent with mild Szechuan flavor and accompanied by fried wonton wrappers topped with Asian slaw. Veggie nachos ($9.99) were the safe choice — colorful with red, white, and purple taco chips abundant with cheddar cheese and jalapeno slices. No surprises there, just tasty bar food.

The pork rib eye special ($17.99) with bourbon reduction sauce was seared to a lovely and tender perfection, served with an enormous portion of smooth chive-and-sour-cream mashed potatoes. The kitchen substituted the advertised snow peas with fresh spinach, and while a little disappointing, still delicious! It was home-cooked winter comfort food, and I enjoyed every luscious bite.

The New York strip ($19.99, also from the special board) and its blue cheese and walnut tapenade combined the flavors of tangy ripe cheese with the texture of a nut-filled salad. It was a soft, melting tribute to a fine cut of meat.

Dogfish salads are also worth noting, and the blackened salmon version ($10.99) is huge, with field greens, black beans and corn, red onions, cucumbers and a southwestern-style creamy dressing. Ask, and the kitchen will add avocado slices for a small additional fee. Since salmon is easy to overcook, I was pleased to note the kitchen’s delicate hand with the fish.

Sandwiches are exceptional. I recommend the grilled portabella pita ($9.99) with its balsamic marinated mushrooms and dried tomatoes, melted Swiss cheese and honey mustard. Also, the tomato pesto mozzarella baguette ($9.99) with basil pesto, fresh mozzarella, and tomatoes drizzled with balsamic reduction sauce on a crunchy baguette — add a pickle and side of kettle-cooked potato chips, and yum. The French onion soup (soups are priced daily) was epic in richness, gooey with cheese, and full of flavor.

While I appreciate the potential for chocolate lava cake ($6) to feel like amateur status in many restaurant circles, I still love it as comfort food. The Dogfish version is rich and chocolatey, and the presentation on a stained glass design of syrup with orange and berry windows was terrific.

Peanut butter pie ($6) and cheesecake ($6) were also on the dessert menu — sweet and satisfying. None of the desserts seemed housemade, but the quality felt like they might have been ordered from a reputable baking source, frozen or otherwise.

Surrounded by exposed brick with a window view of pedestrian traffic, listening to mandolin music and enjoying a big plate of comfort food and conversation with a good friend on a cold night, made winter seem almost bearable.

I highly recommend the cozy, midwinter Dogfish experience. But knowing the Dogfish has an entire menu of refreshing beverages and two outside decks to choose from? That makes spring and summer seem just around the corner.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a freelance writer.


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