Among the notable restaurants Bon Appetit editor-at-large Andrew Knowlton mentions in naming Portland the magazine’s “City of the Year” are, clockwise from top left, Chaval, Cong Tu Bot, Rose Foods and Drifter’s Wife.

Jessica Sheahan, who owns the Vietnamese street food restaurant Cong Tu Bot in Portland with her husband, Vien Dobui, wasn’t sure what to expect at dinner service Tuesday night. Their Washington Avenue business has already had a good summer. But it was hot out, and the heat tends to keep customers away.

But just a few hours after Bon Appetit magazine named Portland its “Restaurant City of the Year” and showered praise on Cong Tu Bot, calling it a place “brimming with herbs, heat and soul,” the restaurant had already gained 350 Instagram followers. Reached that afternoon, Sheahan wasn’t yet willing to predict the Tuesday night turnout or the long-term impact of the national recognition on the restaurant’s popularity – and bottom line.

“I feel great,” she said. “It is always nice when your hard work is recognized by people in the industry, and the gatekeepers of the industry. I think it’s going to be great for the city of Portland and the restaurants here.”

For food lovers, Portland is no longer a small side dish – it’s the main course. In its choice of Portland as the 2018 “Restaurant City of the Year,” Bon Appetit called it “one of the most unexpected culinary destinations in the country.”

This is just the fourth time the magazine has named a City of the Year, and Portland, with a population of 67,000, is by far the smallest honoree “by millions of inhabitants,” said Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appetit’s editor-at-large. Knowlton wrote the two-page feature story on Portland that was posted online Tuesday and will appear in the magazine’s September Best New Restaurants issue, which hits newsstands next Tuesday. Past winners were San Francisco in 2015, Washington, D.C., in 2016 and Chicago in 2017.

Founded in 1956, Bon Appetit is a glossy national food magazine with a circulation of more than 1.5 million.


Sam Hayward, co-owner and original chef at the city’s fabled Fore Street, called the news “an amazing honor for the city.”

“It’s great for everybody, and it’s a terrific honor for the people who work so hard in Portland (restaurants) and take such enormous risks,” he said.

The dining room and bar at Drifters Wife, one of the restaurants noted by Bon Appetit as it named Portland its Restaurant City of the Year.

Knowlton is a self-described cheerleader for Maine’s food scene, and especially Portland restaurants. He’s been dining here since he attended Bates College in Lewiston in the late 1990s, and he regularly visits family in Rockland.

Knowlton estimates that he visited Portland 10 times over the past year. He was not judging the city by a specific set of criteria, but Knowlton said he noticed changes in the restaurant scene here during the past year that gave the city a leg up on other potential winners.

“When I was looking at Maine this year, yes, it’s the density of new (restaurant) openings, but it’s also the buzz around people talking about restaurants,” he said. “Sitting at the bar at Little Giant, you’ll hear people talking about a dinner they had at Chaval. Or you’ll hear somebody at Chaval talking about Drifters Wife. Or someone at Drifters Wife talking about Cong Tu Bot. And people at Cong Tu Bot talking about The Shop. You know a town is food mad when you walk around and you hear conversations about food. It happens in New York. It happens in San Francisco. And it happens in Portland, Maine, now.”

The other change he noticed was a diversification of the city’s dining options. The restaurant community has grown beyond pioneers like Fore Street and Street & Co., which showcase seafood and other Maine fare, he said, and now includes more international influences.


“I can go to Maine now and get good Sichuan food,” Knowlton said. “I can go to Maine now and get really good Korean food. I can go to Maine now and get Middle Eastern food. I can go and get a bowl of pho. And I don’t think you could say that, to that degree, five or 10 years ago.”

Knowlton also cited the role of young restaurateurs moving here from places like Brooklyn to “diversify the scene and enrich it and move it forward.”

“That’s what I saw that really put Portland over the top, as opposed to some other cities,” he said.

Hayward agreed with Knowlton’s observations and said he has experienced the restaurant buzz. “I’m hearing it myself when I’m in different stores, or even on the street,” he said.

But he added that he thinks restaurateurs from years – even decades – ago deserve some of the credit for the city’s current reputation as a culinary destination.

“While the article pointed out that much new talent has come into the city and been welcomed and well-received, some of the foundation for what’s happened in Portland over the past few years goes back to people who have been slaving in restaurants for years,” Hayward said. He cited restaurants such as the late Cafe Always, 34 Exchange, Alberta’s and Hollow Reed – all places that were seen as fresh and innovative in their time.


“Even before Street and Co., in the late ’80s,” Hayward said, “there were some restaurants that were very ambitious and tried things and kind of got the juices going in this town.”

When Hayward’s own Fore Street opened in 1996, it led the way on farm-to-table dining in Maine.

David Turin, who opened David’s Restaurant in 1992, said he’s having his “best year ever.” Turin remembers when menus in Portland were more predictable – a scoop of garlic mashed potatoes and some kind of protein – but that has changed, as highlighted by Knowlton’s article.

“You can get a lot of really interesting, different food within 10 miles of Portland,” Turin said.

Knowlton couldn’t assess the potential economic impact of this national recognition. Being named City of the Year in Bon Appetit may well make Portland even more of a destination vacation spot, he said, but more important, it should attract “the right kind of tourist,” he said, “the food-centered ones who will not just walk down Commercial Street and call it a day.”

Observers of the local economy also said the impact of this kind of national recognition is hard to quantify, but they expect it to boost interest in the city. Culinary tourism is “certainly a growing part of our brand,” said Justin Costa, chair of the Portland City Council’s economic development committee. Portland’s restaurants are “a major part of our identity, and any exposure we get helps bring more people into the city,” Costa said.


Lynn Tillotson, president of Visit Portland, seconded that, saying the designation of “Restaurant City of the Year” is “a huge value and absolutely makes us more of an attractive destination.”

This kind of accolade, Tillotson said, means more when it comes from a credible source like Bon Appetit, as opposed to an advertisement. In 2009, when Knowlton described Portland in Bon Appetit as “America’s Foodiest Small Town,” the moniker stuck. “Even back then, it just had legs,” Tillotson said.

Portland competed for City of the Year with 33 other cities that Knowlton researched for Bon Appetit’s “Hot 10” list of America’s Best New Restaurants. Last week, the magazine announced that it had included two Portland restaurants – Drifters Wife on Washington Avenue and Rose Foods on Forest Avenue – on its list of 50 finalists for the Hot 10, which will be announced in the same September issue. Portland restaurants have been on the Top 50 list before, but only Central Provisions, in 2014, has made the cut to the Hot 10 – a designation that Knowlton said can be great for a restaurant’s business.

Chef/proprietor Chris Gould of Central Provisions agreed with that, noting that business at the restaurant has tripled since it received the Hot 10 designation. He predicted Portland is bound for a similar windfall with the City of the Year honor. And he added that the news will help everyone, including restaurants that weren’t specifically mentioned in Knowlton’s article.

“I would definitely say it has a huge impact on tourism in the city,” he said. “Pretty much the biggest reason people travel in this day and age is to eat and drink and hang out. So if you’re named the best city in the country to do that, it definitely puts a dot on it.”

Drifters Wife co-owners Peter and Orenda Hale said they can’t yet tell how their restaurant’s nomination for the Hot 10 last week has affected business. The Drifters Wife has been in its new, larger space for only six months, and it had some growing pains over the spring. But the national attention, Orenda Hale said, has been “a great thing.”


“We absolutely are excited about it and are appreciative of it,” she said. “I’m sure it has brought people in who otherwise wouldn’t have come in.”

The Portland restaurants that stand out to Knowlton, such as Drifters Wife, are those that are “not just good for Portland, they would be good in any city.” At the same time, he said, they’re unique to Portland. The bagel at Rose Foods, for example “is better than any bagel that I’ve had in recent memory in New York City. And that’s not hyperbole. There’s a craftsmanship that goes into those bagels that is noticeable.”

And “the curated wine and food experience at Drifters Wife is amazing,” he said. “I’ve told them many times that I wish they would open a place near me, because that’s the wine bar of my dreams.”

Cong Tu Bot is “fun and rambunctious and reminds me of a place that could be in Brooklyn,” Knowlton said. Ilma Lopez, co-owner of Piccolo and Chaval, is “one of the country’s best pastry chefs,” he said. “I think she’s super-talented.”

And Knowlton has a soft spot for Jordan Rubin, aka “Mr. Tuna,” who serves sushi from food carts around the city, including a diver scallop hand roll “that might as well have been served in L.A. or Tokyo.”

Portland has received national praise for its food and drink scene in the past. In 2015, Travel + Leisure called it one of “America’s 20 Best Cities for Beer Lovers.” That same year, Men’s Health magazine voted the city among “The 10 Best Places to Live Now,” citing a number of factors including “a host of innovative yet unpretentious farm-to-table restaurants.” Many of the city’s individual chefs, restaurants and bakeries have received glowing media attention.


Certainly, the number of restaurants in Portland has grown significantly over the past 20 years. In 1998, just 27 Class 1 restaurants were licensed in the city, defined in part as those that sell at least $50,000 worth of food annually – places such as Back Bay Grill, Fore Street, David’s, Sapporo and DiMillo’s. By July 2018, that number had grown to 113, with another seven licenses pending. The number of restaurants with Class XI licenses, the other major restaurant category for the city, also grew dramatically, from 14 in 1998 to 53 in July 2018.

“I’ve heard Portland people say there are too many restaurants, there are not enough people to go around,” Knowlton said. “Sometimes I think Portland people don’t realize how good they have it.”

True, some Portlanders think the numbers are not sustainable, that the city’s restaurant “bubble” must eventually pop.

To Hayward, it’s not a bubble. But that doesn’t mean the city’s restaurant scene is all rosy. He worries about a possible economic downturn, continued difficulties in the restaurant labor market and rising food costs. And he notes that most restaurant staff can’t afford to live in Portland.

“That’s an ongoing issue and may put some kind of brake on restaurant development in the future,” he said.

For now, though, he and other restaurateurs in the City of the Year are celebrating, and their immediate worries, Hayward said, center around “longer lines, and more frustrated people calling up for reservations.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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