– Dining reviews practically write themselves when the experience is outstanding, and although less fun (since restaurants do represent a person’s livelihood), they are equally easy to compose when the experience involves a spectacular failure. The creative stumbling happens in the middle, when a meal is “meh.”

Since “meh” does not translate as a technical term in any culinary dictionary, let me explain.

When I review a restaurant meal, I ask questions. Who would be drawn to the menu? What aspects are particularly noteworthy? How does the space compare to competing establishments?

Among my focus group of four very attuned appetites, the answers for White Cap Grille in Portland were unanimous.

White Cap Grille is ideal for pedestrian visitors staying at one of the nearby hotels, timid palates and Old Port office workers seeking a convenient happy hour. It also pairs well with those wanting a familiar mall-side dining experience but with the feel-good benefit of independent ownership.

This is not, necessarily, a bad thing.


Let me repeat that. White Cap Grille is not bad at all, and in a community with fewer choices, I suspect it might even be a stand-out. It’s not bad, but in Portland’s increasingly competitive food service industry, it suffers by comparison. Good is still OK, but it might not be OK — or memorable — enough.

For instance, I was immediately unsettled by the seemingly random concepts. Is White Cap Grille a burger joint? A cocktail lounge? Fine dining? Family style? Pub fare? As a critic, it is tough to gauge White Cap Grille against what it promises, because I did not immediately know. And in an aggressive market, a distinctive elevator pitch is key.

The price point is $5.99 to $24.99, with most entrees in the $18 to $24 range, and this generally signals high-quality casual dining. But the menu’s emphasis on sandwiches (eight different options, plus four burger styles with a separate and elaborate burger assembly menu) and salads (six signature options) at $7.55 to $14.99, had me thinking cafe or pub grub.

The space feels kid-friendly, but then the viognier on the wine list confused me. While it is a favorite dry white wine of mine, it is also rare to see its presence at a family-style establishment. The cocktail list, with light-hearted names — the Honeycrisp, the Tropical Crush — felt like a tiki bar. Beer on tap — Allagash, Shipyard, Sebago, and Tuckerman’s Pale Ale from North Conway — implied a neighborhood watering hole.

Add in elegant-sounding lobster risotto cakes and confit of chicken, and the entire concept felt disjointed.

The other side of the argument is, naturally, that White Cap Grille seeks to please every palate, and that’s a fine idea in theory. But two hours after settling the check, I had to review my photos and notes, struggling to recall what I had ordered, the color of the decor and even the physical address.


(Here is where I insert a free marketing lesson: Category of One, and it is applicable to every business. Figure out the single thing or service that only you do — or that you do better than your competition.)

The downtown brick space is decorated with attractive, contemporary furnishings and fixtures in hip hues and funky shapes. It boasts indoor and patio seating, and the interior high ceilings add a spacious dimension in each of the bar and dining areas — both upstairs and down.

We enjoyed the outside seating, tucked into the farthest nook with plenty of opportunity for people-watching. The service was mostly pleasant and mostly attuned — we repeated requests, and when our servers (plural) were not aware of preparation technique or ingredients, at least they delivered the news with smiling faces. The bathrooms were clean. And mostly, the food tasted OK.

While traveling in an unknown city with zero frame of reference, I would be satisfied with “OK,” but as a resident, I would be hard-pressed to recommend any of White Cap Grille’s menu items as a “must have” when visiting Portland.

The Maine Lobster Risotto Cakes ($10.99) were advertised as “chunks of Maine lobster, roasted red peppers and sweet corn folded into creamy risotto, then sauteed and served with a squeeze of basil aioli.” The small cakes, although described nicely, lacked evidence of significant lobster meat, and had just the vaguest hint of corn amidst very dry risotto. That noted, the basil aioli, although presented in three unappealing plops, tasted lovely.

The other disappointment was the Grilled Portobello sandwich ($8.99). Marinated Portobello mushroom — grilled and layered with roasted red peppers, spring mix and Boursin cheese — arrived exactly as described, but the marinade tasted bitter, and the sandwich’s watery composition quickly became a mushy mess.


The kitchen accommodated a special gluten-free request to cobble sides of long grain rice and veggies into a meal, and the large hand-cut carrot slices and broccoli were among the evening’s standouts. We all enjoyed the simplicity of seasonal vegetables and well-cooked rice.

On the positive side, the substantial Red Beet & Blue Cheese Salad ($8.55) contained marinated red beets over mixed greens with crumbled blue cheese, toasted walnuts and roasted shallot vinaigrette. The roasted shallots enhanced the beet flavor, and this dressing made an ordinary salad taste exceptional. Given its ample size, the salad is ideal for a light vegetarian-friendly meal.

Likewise, the Northeast Family Farms All Natural Beef Burger (No. 3 on the burger menu, $11.99) arrived medium-well as requested and dressed with arugula, caramelized onions and truffle mayonnaise. I chose this burger for its truffle mayo; the truffle flavor was abundant. The burger was also quite tasty.

The reality of the Mussels (full portion $10.99 full; $7.55 half), listed as “sustainable, rope-cultured mussels from Maine’s clean waters gently steamed in white wine, butter, capers, garlic and fresh parsley,” was, again, not nearly as attractive as the menu description.

They tasted fine though — and consistently representative of the other White Cap Grille menu items. Not memorable, not terrible, not exceptional, not too salty, not too bland — just belly-filling fine and as vanilla as the ice cream served alongside the Bumbleberry Crisp ($7) for dessert.

On the positive side, White Cap Grille does offer a diverse menu — each accessible to a timid palate. Nothing feels overly foreign or highly spiced.


Portions are generally ample, the downtown location is convenient, and I am envisioning a large family traveling together with a variety of dietary needs and adventure levels doing quite well at White Cap Grille.

Likewise, if you find yourself in need of an after-work cocktail, White Cap’s convenience factor makes it a solid choice.

These are all good things, but I just wish I could recommend the restaurant with: “White Cap Grille — that’s the place that does such a fantastic “

Instead, I trail off. I trail off, trying to remember what exactly it was that we ordered while glancing in the direction of other, more well-defined Portland establishments.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.


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