You have to adjust your eyes as you descend the stairs into the subterranean recesses of Bramhall, a “modern speakeasy” located just off Congress Street in downtown Portland. It’s dim and grottolike down here, with candles illuminating the tables and industrial light fixtures casting a faint glow onto the brick walls. You may have to adjust your expectations as well, for this is a bar with a restaurant menu – as opposed to a restaurant with a bar menu. The small selection of appetizers includes the predictable (a mezze plate and a trio of cheeses) and the pubescent (Frito pie – about which more later), and entrées are currently limited to burgers, sandwiches and salads.

Still, through the darkness comes a gleam of light: The food at Bramhall is simple, affordable and tasty, and the atmosphere is both relaxed and inviting. This speakeasy may not be fancy, but it certainly is fun.

“Sit anywhere you’d like,” a friendly waitress calls out from the bar where she’s reading. A banquette along the wall is your best bet: It’s quite comfortable. The restaurant’s wood-and-metal stools, on the other hand, resemble medieval torture devices – only smaller and less stable. With Bruce Springsteen singing on the stereo, and the scent of beer in the air, the room has the feel and fragrance of a college ratskeller. (The employee who typed the menu was either an English major with a sense of humor or a freshman who skipped Intro to Spelling: Three cheeses, offered solo or with cured meats, are described as “artesian.”)

Start with the mezze plate ($10) – a wooden board, actually – covered with piles of salty hummus, whipped feta, baba ganoush, a spoonful of house-made tomato jam and a small bowl of pickled vegetables. Slathered onto one of the crisp rounds of crostini served alongside, the toppings are bracing and fresh-tasting, ideal accompaniments for a glass of Allagash White or Drouet Sauvignon Blanc. The whipped feta is good; it’s cool and velvety and melts on the tongue, and so is the peppery baba ganoush, which glistens under a drizzle of olive oil and has the mild, earthy flavor of roasted eggplant. Best of all are the pickled vegetables, a medley of red peppers, cauliflower, carrots and celery that are sweet and sour and crunchy at the same time. “I like the contrasts,” a friend says.” Sometimes mezze are mushy, but this platter shows off and retains the different textures. A fine beginning.

Frito pie, once unique to the Southwest but now going national, turns out to be chili, melted cheese, pickled jalapeños and scallions layered onto corn chips and served (for grins) inside a foil Fritos bag. If you like salt and spice when you’re having a drink – or pine for the snacks at a Super Bowl party – you’ll like it. A wisp of steam rises from the bag when you reach inside and use a chip to scoop into the beef chili. It’s surprisingly meaty and satisfying cloaked in melted cheese, and the tiny slices of jalapeño brighten the dish and add a welcome flash of heat.

The baked Cubano sandwich ($10) on the menu appealed – Niman Ranch ham, Swiss cheese, mojo sauce and mustard on ciabatta – but the waitress raved about the braised pork and suggested we try that instead.


She was right. Served on a dense onion roll and covered with pickles, the shredded pork was tender and juicy and dripping with fat. The spicy barbecue sauce was delicious, and so was the cole slaw offered on the side of the wooden plate, thinly sliced cabbage and carrot bound in a light, mustardy dressing.

The Bramhall burger ($11), a 6-ounce patty and also served on an onion roll, was good and pink on the inside, just as requested. But it paled next to the pork. (Next time, I’ll try the chicken confit BLT [$10] or the California smoked turkey sandwich [$11] made with meat from North Country Smokehouse in New Hampshire and topped with havarti, avocado, bacon and lettuce.)

“Our menu right now focuses on sandwiches and burgers,” said owner Mike Fraser, who opened the restaurant with his business partners after nine years waiting tables and working behind the bar at Fore Street. “But we just bought a rotisserie and we’re working on new additions … I want to start serving porchetta, and we’re also thinking about offering rotisserie chickens and maybe roast beef.” Fraser credits his friend Jason Loring, co-owner of Nosh Kitchen Bar and of Slab, with helping to develop the menu.

Service at Bramhall can be “relaxed” (most customers are contentedly nursing beverages, not eating meals), but the staff is unfailingly polite. When the waitress came back to check on us, we asked about dessert. She grimaced and apologized. “We don’t have dessert at the moment. We did have Izzy’s cheesecake but … Would you like another glass of wine instead?”

Bramhall is not a lot of things. It’s not a high-end dinner destination. It’s not a pricey tapas bar. It’s not particularly quiet and it’s not light and airy. But it is friendly. It is approachable. It is pleasantly laid back and even romantic in a low-light, slightly secret, no-one-will-ever-find-us-here kind of way.

Neighbors in the West End have plenty of places to go for dinner and a drink, but Bramhall is a good spot to try for drinks – plus a little dinner.

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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