Portlanders can get a little touchy when you bring up comparisons to Brooklyn. Maybe it has something to do with feeling like big-city egotism just doesn’t translate to Maine. But at night, when you sit down for dinner at Saltwater Grille and look at the sparkling skyline across the Fore River, headlights darting in your peripheral vision back and forth across the Casco Bay Bridge, it’s hard to keep from thinking about New York – even if it’s just to thank a higher power that you’re not there.

The spectacular view not only evokes a sense of being in a large metropolis, it also disconnects you from where you actually are: a remote pocket of South Portland, nearly a half-mile from any major thoroughfare. Add in the restaurant’s beach house contemporary décor, with tongue-and-groove boards on the ceiling and a massive exterior deck that opens out onto a busy marina, and the result is an escapist waterfront fantasy that seems to exist in its own parallel universe.

No wonder the restaurant has built up a crowd of loyal regulars, many of whom have been coming in since Saltwater Grille opened in 2000. And they’re dedicated to more than the view. The regulars have their favorite old-school casual dining dishes on the eclectic, seafood-leaning menu – items like steamed mussels with bacon and bleu cheese ($17), and owner Mark Loring’s signature dish, a lobster fettuccine ($30) – that the restaurant offers because frequent diners demand them. “During the off-season, it’s all the loyal people within a 5 to 10 mile radius who come in day in and day out. They keep us open. I give them the comfort food they’re used to. In the summer, we cater to a broader clientele, and we stretch our legs a little, bring in new techniques and flavors,” said executive chef Dave McGuirk, formerly of Hawthorne in Washington, D.C.

When he took over the kitchen in September, 2015, McGuirk made some other changes to the restaurant, updating kitchen protocols and modernizing the sourcing of ingredients, moving to fresh, local suppliers wherever possible. He even – very slowly to avoid upsetting the regulars – began to introduce some improvements to the dated menu.

One change is a malt aioli dipping sauce that Saltwater Grille now serves with its Cracklin’ Calamari ($16), a legacy dish that is otherwise the same as it has been since the restaurant’s first dinner service 16 years ago. Served with chopped red onions, Parmesan and a lackluster balsamic vinaigrette, the crisp, deep-fried and battered squid was middling bar food on its own. But with McGuirk’s rich and piercingly sharp aioli, full of garlic confit and a little smoked paprika, the calamari became something worth ordering again – although next time as a main dish, because the portion was enough to feed four.

Large portions are apparently another thing that has not changed at Saltwater Grille, as noted by our then critic, who described leaving behind “a good two-thirds of our entrees on the plate,” in her three-star review from 2005.


The shore dinner ($35), another oversized evergreen, prepared seafood shack-style, also had its ups and downs. Among the downs were tough blackened shrimp and masa-encrusted spicy clams, which in addition to tasting too much like garlic powder, were fried so long they had the texture of crispy pieces of latex glove.

Contrast that with the ups: light and well-executed French fries and McGuirk’s addition to this plate, a Guinness-battered, panko-encrusted fillet of haddock that tasted of turmeric, lime juice and malt vinegar. Stupendous.

Even when McGuirk’s own dishes don’t turn out perfectly, they are still significantly better than many of the menu’s old standbys. One example is his smoked mozzarella and mashed potato pizzetta ($18), first quickly grilled to give it a terrific dark bottom crust, then topped with bacon and thin slices of Angus ribeye and finished in the restaurant’s pizza oven. Texturally excellent, this dish just needs a tweak or two: With so many smoky, meaty ingredients, all other flavors get lost.

Or perhaps his tart lemon-cranberry panna cotta ($9), presented in a small mason jar that has been unappealingly drizzled with chocolate so that it is impossible to touch. While the panna cotta was both too cold and too thickened, giving it a consistency similar to an aerated cheesecake, it was refreshingly tart, with great astringency from the cranberries – and ultimately hard to resist finishing.

When everything comes together for McGuirk, as it does in his seafood pappardelle ($28), his talent is unmistakable. A perfect pairing for the barnyardy Tohu pinot noir ($34), this rich pasta with shrimp, mussels and lobster meat is remarkable because of its intense, but never overpowering, layers of flavor. Every bite offers spice and subtle heat from soft knots of chorizo, along with white wine, garlic and shallot. Just a few tastes and you can see that, when he is given the freedom to employ all of his creative skills, McGuirk is capable of producing food that is a match for Saltwater Grille’s distractingly gorgeous scenery.

What’s standing in his way? That Mesozoic-Era menu, full of bar food and snoozeworthy standards that McGuirk doesn’t feel comfortable altering. “I don’t have an ego when it comes to the menu. I kept most of the popular dishes the same when I changed it, because I didn’t want to upset the regulars. I want them to have a fall-back,” he said.


But by not making use of its executive chef’s proficiencies, the restaurant holds itself back, in a time warp of sorts. Even with the small changes McGuirk has managed to sneak through in his tenure at the restaurant, the place still feels forgotten and out of step with the region’s dining scene. That feels like a lost opportunity, especially with its built-in advantage: a phenomenal position on the waterfront. Saltwater Grille ought to be a huge draw for locals and summer tourists alike, a destination for its food as well as its view. And it has almost everything required to become just that. All it needs now is a tiny dash of ego – but only a dash. After all, this isn’t Brooklyn.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:


Twitter: @AndrewRossME

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 1:54 a.m. on Oct. 17, 2016 to correct Mark Loring’s first name.

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