One of the things that gives me the holiday blues is when I pick up a magazine to read its “Best Restaurants of the Year” edition, only to discover that what they really mean to say is “the best restaurants that opened this year.” I don’t believe that new automatically means good. So this is not that kind of list.

What follows are my top picks in several categories that reflect what I saw, smelled and tasted over the past calendar year in Maine. Some come from fine dining, and some from little takeaway spots across the state. But all of them represent food memories that have stuck with me – some of which I hope will linger far beyond the closing hours of 2016.

The marinated bluefish at the Drifter's Wife, 63 Washington Ave., Portland.

The marinated bluefish at the Drifter’s Wife, 63 Washington Ave., Portland.

Best restaurant

Drifter’s Wife, Portland. Inspired by their passion for natural wines, Peter and Orenda Hale have created something unique in a bright, yet cozy storefront in the former Nissen Bakery building. It started with their wine shop, Maine & Loire, at the back of the space. Then, this year, they launched the second phase of their project: Drifters Wife, a wine bar with a broad, but discerningly composed list of many of those same natural wines, available by the bottle or glass.

What makes Drifters Wife unusual is that it possess two equally admirable strengths: its wine and its food. The fulcrum of this balance is chef Ben Jackson’s extraordinary skills with a few induction burners and a small oven, from which he produces some of the most captivating dishes I have eaten in Maine. Like glistening and flaky hake with hardy, housemade sauerkraut, parsnip puree and salted hake, all based on a flavor profile inspired by Hungarian hangover remedies. Or beef tongue that has been marinated in a spice bath for 24 hours, cooked low and slow until it just barely holds together, then sliced thinly, on the bias, and served in its own concentrated broth with bitter puntarelle greens and farro.

It is also impossible to get tired of dining at Drifters Wife. It re-introduces itself anew with each visit, thanks to an evolving wine list and a menu that changes every week, and sometimes even every day. If you haven’t been yet, go.


"The food we serve here at The Lost Kitchen reflects me and reflects this part of Maine," chef-owner Erin French says.

“The food we serve here at The Lost Kitchen reflects me and reflects this part of Maine,” chef-owner Erin French says.

Best single meal I ate

The Lost Kitchen, Freedom. In a converted mill, off the beaten path in Freedom, Maine, chef Erin French makes magic for 40 people a night. After you have bought a bottle of wine downstairs, at the shop run by her mother, a team of servers and French, herself (there is little distinction here between front-of-house and back-of-house) deliver simple, seasonal appetizers like delicately salted late autumn baby carrots and glossy grilled sourdough bread slices to each table.

Everyone in the dining room eats at the same time, after French stands at the threshold of the dining room, clinks a wine glass and, like a kitchen griot, shares the story of the evening’s menu – a menu that changes by the day. The atmosphere and communal, personal service makes you feel like a guest at a dinner party, but one with superlative food, like a delicate carrot soup poured at the table around three loose, steaming mussels, an insanely decadent fried, confited duck leg that practically volunteered itself off the bone, and seared scallops with thick, savory, almost polenta-like parsnip puree. At $95 per person before wine, tax, and tip, it is not cheap to eat at The Lost Kitchen, but it is worth every dollar and every minute on the road to get there.

HONORABLE MENTION: A carbohydrate-fest of a breakfast at Palace Diner in Biddeford that included their nearly weightless, lemony flapjacks and a slice of salted brown butter banana bread.

Best single dish I ate

Octopus a la plancha with “Purgatory” beans, kale stew and sage oil at Primo in Rockland. It probably helps that I ate this as part of a reunion meal with a good friend, in a toasty warm dining room, on one of the coldest nights of the year. But there is no denying that chef/co-owner Melissa Kelly knows how to grill seafood as well as any Iberian, and knows how to pair it with exactly the right accompaniment – even if it is Italian. In this case, a thick, Laziale stew of tiny white beans and kale, simmered with bay leaves and sage.


HONORABLE MENTIONS: Hardwood-smoked, spice-rubbed barbecue spare ribs at Hot Suppa! in Portland, and deceptively plain-looking, but floridly complex and spicy khao mun gai at Thai Esaan in Portland.

Trays full of freshly made pastries at Ten Ten Pié on Cumberland Avenue in Portland.

Trays full of freshly made pastries at Ten Ten Pié on Cumberland Avenue in Portland.

Best baked good

Korvapuusti from Ten Ten Pié in Portland. Atsuko Fujimoto is an ultra-competent baker who creates superlative versions of just about everything she attempts, from sesame-sprinkled hamburger buns, to macarons, to hand pies. But my favorite of all the wonderful things she has baked this year is her version of korvapuusti, Finnish cinnamon rolls, with golden, cardamom-scented dough scrolled around a sweet, buttery cinnamon filling, and sprinkled on top with crunchy white pearl sugar.

HONORABLE MENTION: Yarmouth-based Night Moves Bread + Pie’s malty and moist country sourdough, made from local wheat and fresh-milled rye (available at The Farm Stand in South Portland).

Best cocktail

Owner and head bartender Nathaniel (Nan’l) Meiklejohn’s noir-themed L.A. Story at The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box in Portland. It’s a dark cocktail with rye, cardamaro, walnut liqueur, sherry and intensely bitter Elisir Novasalus that gives the drink a bite alongside some herbal sweetness.


HONORABLE MENTION: Portland Hunt & Alpine Club’s Roman Stinger, made with dry vermouth, Campari, lime and agave syrup.

Biggest shock closing

The Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick. We’ve heard of going out on top, but this is ridiculous. Just shy of a month after garnering praise from Food & Wine magazine, as well as a well-deserved four-star review in this paper, Ben Goldman and his team shuttered the farmhouse restaurant for good.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Rossobianco in Portland. Almost exactly three months after opening, Vinland’s David Levi seemed to have all the kinks ironed out in his modern Italian restaurant on Bramhall Square, when he suddenly pulled the plug to reboot the business. Levi plans to open a newly named restaurant in the same space this February. Waterman’s Beach Lobster in South Thomaston. After 30 years and a James Beard award, we’re very sad to see the Manahan sisters retire.

Biggest disappointment

When it opened this summer inside a historic brick-and-granite building known as the castle in Deering Oaks park, Tiqa Café & Bakery was perfectly positioned to become part of the Saturday experience of visiting the Portland Farmers’ Market: Spend an hour shopping for flowers and tomatoes, and when your feet start to hurt (or when you’re loaded down like a burro with berries and basil), walk to the end of the market for a sandwich or dessert. But Tiqa rapidly became a victim of its own success. Crisis-level understaffing led to interminable wait times for food – I stood for nearly 40 minutes one Saturday, waiting for a cashier to remove a slice of baklava from a case and put it on a plate.


Bosque Negro, a triple chocolate brownie dessert with charred vanilla ice cream and pickled cherries at Local 188 restaurant.

Bosque Negro, a triple chocolate brownie dessert with charred vanilla ice cream and pickled cherries at Local 188 restaurant.

Best dessert

The Bosque Negro at Local 188 in Portland, with its sweet-savory combo of a triple chocolate brownie, charred vanilla ice cream and puckery pickled cherries. Pat Tubbs’s festive, painterly presentation makes this dish look like something right from Señor Guillermo Wonka’s factory.

HONORABLE MENTION: The Caprese gelato at Solo Italiano in Portland – an after-dinner take on a sweet, tre colore salad, with one scoop of aromatic basil gelato and one scoop of berry-sweet tomato sorbetto, all tied together with fresh whipped cream in place of mozzarella.

Best side dish

(TIE) Brussels sprouts with tangy fish sauce vinaigrette from Pai Men Miyake in Portland. Tunisian carrot puree with cumin and lemon from Lolita in Portland.

Best lunch


(TIE) A warming bowl of Hakata-style ramen from Suzukiya in Portland, the charred escarole with almond vinaigrette (technically an appetizer, but large enough to eat on its own) from East Ender in Portland.

HONORABLE MENTION: A bento box from Ten Ten Pié in Portland, especially if it comes with the extraordinary shiso-flavored potato salad.


Best pizza

The thick, puffy take on Sicilian pizza at Slab in Portland.

HONORABLE MENTION: Rose’s Italian Restaurant in Windham.

Best burger


The rapturously messy Dirigo Burger, served on a housemade potato roll from Dirigo Public House in Yarmouth.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Standard Gastropub in Bridgton, Woodford Food & Beverage in Portland and the Palace Diner in Biddeford.

Best spot for a romantic dinner

(TIE) Piccolo in Portland, Salt in Vinalhaven.

Best lobster roll (high season)

Bite Into Maine in Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth.


Best lobster roll (year-round)

Eventide in Portland.

Best place to wander if you’re not sure what you want to eat

It’s still not much to look at, but you’re bound to find something tempting on Washington Avenue in Portland, where in quick succession, you’ll encounter a diverse array of excellent dining options from traditional Eritrean and Ethiopian stews at Red Sea, vegetarian-friendly comfort food at Silly’s with a Twist, small-batch barbecue at Terlingua, updated and upgraded red sauce classics at Roustabout, refined bistro food and natural wine at Drifters Wife, and, if you’d rather sip your meal, a smoothie from Flying Fox Juice Bar.

Andrew Ross writes the Dine Out Maine column that runs each week in the Audience section of the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at and on Twitter @AndrewRossME. Find this story online to see which restaurants Ross gave four stars in 2016.


Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: