Pretense never set foot inside Gilbert’s Chowder House on Commercial Street in Portland. The menus, the flatware and the bottles of tartar sauce are all made of plastic. The floors and tables are covered with linoleum. Above the bar, a wall-hung television is switched on, and a kitschy collection of coastal trinkets (clam rakes, ships wheels, a dip net and – yes – a lobster pot) decorates the walls. If the restaurant were open for breakfast you’d call it a diner, but it’s not. Gilbert’s serves only lunch and dinner, and the selections are the same no matter what time you go: seafood (mostly fried), cheeseburgers, chicken fingers, hot dogs. Oh, and chowder – rich, flavorful, steaming vats of house-made chowder filled with clams or fish or corn or a variety of different types of seafood.

Choose your table (“you can sit wherever you like,” the waitress says as you walk through the door) and try the clam chowder ($4.95 for a small serving), which arrives, not in a bowl or cup, but in a polystyrene container.

When was the last time you enjoyed a robust serving of chowder? (Poet Pablo Neruda called “thick and succulent” chowder “a boon to man,” and I agree.) Too often the versions on menus in New England – especially in New England – are creamy but lacking any flavor, or brimming with so many onions and potatoes that they seem more like vichyssoise before it met the blender than chowder. The clam chowder at Gilbert’s reminds you how satisfying a cup or a bowl can be. There’s a reason you can buy it by the gallon ($61.83 per gallon, should you be so inclined).

The chowder is thick – a plastic spoon can practically stand up in it – hot, creamy and dense with chunks of clams. I dug in once, admiring the broth’s appealing saltiness and deep flavor, twice to taste the tender dice of potato and sweet bits of onion, and once again to savor the generous grind of pepper that spiced the cup. I saw a few other diners crumbling the traditional Westminster oyster crackers into their soup, but I resisted; this chowder needed no chaperone.

To see if the non-clam versions on the menu measured up, I grabbed another spoon and begged a taste of a friend’s corn with chicken chowder ($4.95). It was equally good: velvety, distinctly sweeter than the clam version, but just as fresh tasting and thoughtfully seasoned.

In keeping with the restaurant’s emphatically unpretentious style, a crabmeat roll ($14.95) arrived in a red, plastic basket with a pile of potato chips and a single dill pickle. The crab was cool and looked freshly picked, but, unfortunately, that’s where the good news ended. Unlike the chowders, this crabmeat had no flavor and no apparent seasoning. There was no hint of mayonnaise or lemon or any binder at all – and, really, no reason to finish it.


Every place misses the mark on occasion, so I speared a few of my friend’s fried scallops ($15.95) to see how they tasted. These, too, were a disappointment. Though Gilbert’s touts “fresh Maine seafood,” the bivalves had a distinctly metallic taste and were sweating so much that the fried coating had fallen away, leaving the scallops pale, naked and exposed on the plate. I averted my eyes.

A heaping mound of French fries served with the scallops was much better – crispy and salty on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside and not at all greasy. Gilbert’s serves seriously good fries, right up there in the same league as the chowder. (I wish I could say the same for the kitchen’s onion rings ($3.95), which were good-looking but leaden. Stick with the fries.)

Things had started so well and ended so poorly that I wondered if Gilbert’s was having a bad day or if I’d misordered? So I went back the following week to try my luck again. The chowder was just as fragrant when it arrived at the table, just as satisfying when I dipped in my spoon. And this time, instead of ordering a special from the blackboard, I tried a fried haddock sandwich ($8.95) from the regular sandwich menu. Bingo. The fish, nestled in another standard issue red plastic basket, was tucked inside a toasted bun, with lettuce, tomato, potato chips and another pickle. But this fish was delicious: the coating was golden brown and crisp and glistening with oil, and the large, white hunk of haddock within was juicy, fresh-tasting and screaming hot. I’m not sure why house tradition says a fish sandwich should be served with a slice of melted American cheese on top – it’s a bit eighth-grade cafeteria, but it works (and you can always opt out).

On both visits, the list of desserts posted on the board near the front door was the same: whoopie pies ($2.95) and blueberry crumble ($5.75). Neither one is made here, but the weighty whoopie pie seemed to please the kids in the restaurant, and the crumble is ideal for anyone with a rampant sweet tooth; both the fruit filling and the crumbly topping are extravagantly sugary. (One suggestion for the kitchen: take a few portions of crumble out of the refrigerator before the lunch crush so they have time to reach room temperature.)

There’s a place for an old-fashioned chowder house in Portland. And there’s definitely room for simplicity in the Old Port – especially in an era where pretense often trumps value. (How many times have you left a restaurant wondering if you were paying as much for the overwrought amuse bouche as for the entree?)

Gilbert’s celebrates simplicity, and if you stick to the basics, it’s a good bet. So find your own table. Tuck into the chowder. Try a fish sandwich. Indulge in nostalgia over the plastic basket. Clean up with a few paper napkins.

You won’t break the bank, and you’ll head home simply satisfied.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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