I spent a lot of time this past year thinking about all the things I couldn’t do. I’d wager you did the same.

With movie theaters, art museums, sporting events and international travel all on indefinite hiatus, I’d catch myself (far too often) in an online scrolling spiral that led everywhere and nowhere at the same time. For the most part, it wasn’t hard to break out of one of these reveries. But when food photos and menus ensnared me, I’d lose at least an hour, if not an entire evening.

Weirdly, old photos or notes from pre-Y2K meals seemed as evocative and fresh as Instagram snaps from late 2019.

But of course that makes sense. When memories are all you have available to you, it makes no difference if the restaurants you miss shut down last week, last year or last century. During most of 2020, a bowl of pho from Cong Tu Bot was every bit as out-of-reach as a cocktail from the Gem Restaurant & Hotel in Calais or a steak dinner at Valle’s.

With that in mind, why not reimagine this pandemic-inspired pause as an opportunity to look back?

I’ve been the restaurant writer for the Maine Sunday Telegram since early 2016 — a lifetime in critic’s dog-years, but objectively just a blip. I realized my perspective felt too short for a meaningful retrospective. That goes double for the past 15 years or so, when Portland (and Maine with it) kicked its culinary evolution into overdrive. But I knew where to turn.

Since 2005, four other critics have held the position longer than a year: (Nancy) N.L. English (2005-2011), Nancy Heiser (2011-2013), Shonna Milliken Humphrey (2011-2013), James Schwartz (2014-2016), along with two interim reviewers (John Golden and Melissa Coleman).

For some historical perspective and future-facing insight, I reached out to the four long-serving Dine Out alumni to help me look back at Maine’s culinary landscape from the decade (and a bit) covering 2005-2016. In two weeks, I’ll offer some of my own reflections on the past five years and speculate about what’s to come.

The interviews have been edited for length, flow and clarity.

Q: How did you come to be the restaurant critic for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram?

Nancy English Photo courtesy of Nancy English

English (2005-11): I was writing for the Forecaster at the time, and I had written an article about the restaurant that became 158 Pickett Street — Josh (Potocki) and some of the people who went on to start Scratch Baking Co. I’d been eating down there regularly with a colleague, and that became part of my application. I’ve also been co-authoring a guidebook about Maine for almost 20 years, so I had already been to a lot of places on the coast of Maine when I got hired. I had lots of anecdotes, like about people stealing lobster traps, just stories people would give me.

Heiser (2011-13): I was a librarian in Washington, D.C. before we before we moved to Brunswick in 1984. I had been freelance writing in some fashion for 25 years: feature writing, travel profiles, essays, some art. I wrote for local newspapers and Down East magazine, the Boston Globe a little later.

It’s almost embarrassing to say, but I also self-published a cookbook. I needed a way to make dinner fast, so I compiled this book called Seat-of-the-pants Suppers. I did all the marketing, and I dragged it along to bookstores. I sold 5,000 copies all over Maine, into New England, and it was on Amazon.

Anyway, I saw the advertisement the Press Herald ran. It wasn’t run too widely. It might have been a Facebook post. I talked to the Features editor, and he told me they were asking a few people to do a sample review, sending everybody to the same restaurant — I think it was Walter’s. So I went to Walter’s and ordered so many dishes!

The thing is, I’m a competent cook, not a great cook, but I’m a “noticer,” and I think that’s what gave me confidence. I was always asking why a restaurant didn’t break this up, mess it up a bit more so I don’t have to use a fork or knife, or why they’d put a limp something on the plate when the dishes are so beautiful. I mean, I was noticing and criticizing from the get-go. So yes, it fit.

(Several months into Heiser’s tenure, she asked the Press Herald team to find a second critic to share the role with her. The paper hired Shonna Milliken Humphrey.)

Shonna Milliken Humphrey Photo by Jen Dean

Milliken Humphrey (2011-13): I answered an ad in 2011. I had left (after) almost seven years at the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance and was freelancing and consulting, so the timing worked out well. When I later began working full-time at Thomas College, this was the only freelance gig I kept. It was a lot of fun to do.

The managing editor and I talked about a new direction for the role. Less straight-up, technical, “here are your stars” critic and more of a food-based feature essay writer. That approach appealed to me, both as a writer and a reader. I submitted a sample — I think it was for the then-Bintliff’s, and the editor liked the style. My intent was always to show readers what they might experience, as well as to learn new things — fun facts, techniques, etc. I wanted to make restaurant dining accessible, and I wanted to give space to lower price points. Very rarely did I ever actually criticize food. Looking back, I might have had the gig longer if I was more aggressive with criticism. But food is a subjective thing, and a restaurant is/was someone’s livelihood, so I tried to frame the experience as objectively as possible.

Schwartz (2014-16): I moved here from Washington (D.C.) and commuted for a few years as I finished up my job. I was Vice President at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I had originally been the editor of their magazine. And I’d had other Washington jobs: I worked for the Washington Post for 12 years, and I’ve been an editor for magazines for Time, Inc.. But after a couple of years commuting, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore, so I became a consultant to the Trust and had extra time on my hands.

It was a friend who actually told me that the paper was looking for a restaurant critic. When I was at the Post, I would sometimes sort of help Phyllis Richman, who was the food critic, so I wrote a note to Peggy (Grodinsky, Press Herald Food and Books Editor), sort of introduced myself, and she thanked me for writing, saying, ‘We’ve got a lot of applicants, but do a test review for me,” and I did. I still remember the test review was for Petite Jacqueline when it was on Longfellow Square.

Peggy got back in touch, and she and I talked about my food background as an avid home cook and an avid eater, and I had a general idea of the way I thought I wanted to handle it. So off we went!

Chicken with Meyer lemon-honey mustard, biscuit bread pudding and asparagus salad with avocado oil at Earth in Kennebunkport in 2017. Former restaurant critic Nancy Heiser loved the atmosphere, the service and the ambience. “It felt so genuine,” she said. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Q: Tell me about your impression of Maine’s food scene when you started.

English (2005-11): I moved to Portland in the 1980s. Into the ’90s, Congress Street had lots of empty places, and into the early 2000s, restaurants were still really struggling to take hold. It was a long period when it was difficult and a struggle.

We had a thing of not going for six months after a place opened, and in fact there were some restaurants that vanished before that was even over. It wasn’t unusual.

Nancy Heiser Photo courtesy of Nancy Heiser

Heiser (2011-13): Long before I started, our big lament used to be that there were very few ethnic restaurants. We have a great food scene for lobster rolls, we have steaks, we had the abiding classic places like Local 188, Back Bay Grill, Fore Street and Street & Co., but then, the sea change. And my goodness!

Suddenly, it was all different: small plates, Mexican, ethnic things happening and adding spice to those classic underpinnings. I’d be in Boston, several other places, even abroad, and I’d be out and say, “I could do just as well in Portland, Maine.” 

Milliken Humphrey (2011-13): It was Fall 2011 when I was hired, and the food scene was booming. Looking back, it seems like this weird little golden age of food in Maine. I think it might be connected to the spike in social media. Chefs were not afraid to experiment, and customers were not afraid to share opinions. I remember everyone seemed worried about economic sustainability and how many restaurants the region could possibly support long-term.

Schwartz (2014-16): Well, I’ve got to be honest with you. Everybody here, and then gradually the national press, all kept talking about Portland as such a fabulous restaurant town. My conclusion was that Portland is a really small town, and we are blessed with a nice collection of restaurants, certainly a growing collection of restaurants. But it’s not Paris, it’s not New York; there are not countless places, but there are a surprisingly good number of places to choose from.

And across Maine, there were more mid-range, good restaurants than in many other places — a very good middle ground. There are a couple of high-end restaurants in the state, but many of the most enjoyable food experiences in Maine are, in my opinion, in the mid-range, and I like that a lot.

Q: What were the most talked-about restaurants during your tenure, and what memorable restaurants opened then?

English (2005-11): Hugo’s had been taken over by Rob Evans in 2000 or so, and that was a revelation, even five years later, people were still talking about getting one giant scallop on the plate and being blown away by how it could taste.

Oh, and Bresca, and that’s somewhere I went twice, on my own dime. I loved it. It’s another of those revelations that makes you just ask: Why on Earth is this thing with charred bread and an egg so good? It was so inventive, so wonderful.

Heiser (2011-13): It was an incredible time, because you have places all over. Certainly Tao is on that list. Gather opened then, too. Earth at Hidden Pond, which I’ll come back to, but it was my major five-star restaurant — just top-grade.

Milliken Humphrey (2011-13): Let’s see. Eventide. That was fantastic. I remember a conversation with one of the owners about the ridiculous one-upmanship that often happens in the food and beverage industry. It was something along the lines of who eats the most parts of the most animals cured in the most ways and in the most unique combinations. It was also the first time I’d sat down with so many varieties of oyster to really experience the physical differences and learn about how oysters develop their flavors.

The now-closed Outliers opened in what, for years, was a dive bar with an airplane on the roof. That was an outstanding menu, and I remember their garlic scapes. I had so many good meals there. I was able to visit David’s Opus Ten when it first opened. The short-lived Spread by Jung Hur on Commercial Street. (I suspect his urban concept was just a bit ahead of its time.) Gogi on Congress, which was a weird-but-great Korean taco place. Kushiya Benkay with the skewers. Standard Gastropub in Bridgton, too, was new when I started. I went to a bizarre, massive new buffet restaurant by TJMaxx, too, which served soft shell crabs and frog legs.

James Schwartz Photo courtesy of James Schwartz

Schwartz (2014-16): Down by the border in Kittery Foreside, Anju Noodle Bar, which was this fabulous, absolutely tiny place, well off the beaten track for most people, and they just had it going on, with absolutely delicious, wildly fresh food with exquisite flavors. And I really admired them for making a go of it, because you’re taking a leap when you get into that business, and they were doing such a wonderful job, with a core group of believers patronizing the place.

In the same vein, I loved, loved Suzukiya, which opened up on Munjoy Hill. It was sort of basic and had just a couple of different items on the menu, but it was one Japanese guy making his own ramen noodles. But it was impressive, so good and very fresh. I loved it. I thought, “This is what ramen is supposed to taste like.”

Then near the tile store and Miccuci’s, the two guys who originally had a food truck opened East Ender. Now they had a great hamburger! I remember going there and thinking how it was very American, but one big step up from tavern cuisine. At that mid-range price, they were cooking sort of a notch above everybody else. And a great burger is an asset for any city. Totally enjoyable, hearty, yet still high on the comfort-food scale.

Q: What were your favorite restaurants to write about?

English (2005-11): Bresca. I remember just being so impressed by her (chef/owner Krista Kern Desjarlais), that she could have thought to use something bitter like char as a counterpoint to an ingredient like fatty pancetta. Yes, Bresca is very high on that list.

The now closed Bresca, on Middle Street in Portland, in 2012. “That’s somewhere I went twice, on my own dime,” said former restaurant critic Nancy Heiser. “I loved it.” Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

So is Evangeline, which was over the top and a production in its own way. I felt like I was being put to the test by the pros, like I was in the spotlight, trying to say something intelligent. But I really liked it.

Otto, also. Initially, it was that one little place at 576 Congress, and that fantastic mashed potato and bacon pizza that was so unique. I remember that we were all very excited about it. And then it became enormous!

Heiser (2011-13): I have two. One is Earth at Hidden Pond. The atmosphere was great. It was new, everything including the service was tremendous and it felt so genuine. That was amazing. The other is a place where the food was to-die-for, and the service, too, was a place on Deer Isle called El El Frijoles, a joke in Spanish — a version of “L.L.Bean.” I was up there doing a travel story for the Globe, I confess. But when I went, this young-ish couple who did Tex-Mex from California, and it was just five-star from start to finish, and I never would have expected it. Deer Isle is also a crazy-beautiful place.

Also: Bandaloop, in Kennebunkport (now in Arundel). Not a five-star meal, but damn good, and the revelatory aspect for me was its superb use of vegetables.

Milliken Humphrey (2011-13): I approached the gig as a feature writer. What could people expect? What would they see, hear, and feel? In that respect, I liked writing about places where I could learn new things. How corned beef got its name (the hunks of salt were called corns) or why lemon juice mellows the taste of some oysters. The best Thai soup for cold symptoms. Where to go if I wanted to disappear (the Amory Lounge in the Regency Hotel basement) and where to go for a birthday splurge. For non-alcoholic beverages? Walkable from the ferry? Someone visiting Maine for the first time. Who could achieve a perfect sear on a scallop? Those things interested me much more than anything else.

Schwartz (2014-16): The Lost Kitchen was just starting to get a little bit of recognition when I went up there, and I was wowed not just by her, but her commitment to flavor and freshness, and she’s also just a fabulous personality. And I love the fact that it was all being done by this woman who had been through a heck of a lot, had a young kid, bought a house she was restoring and was mapling in her spare time. Then she opens up this crazy restaurant that was only going to be seasonal, in the middle of nowhere, and it was attracting this following! That was a great joy.

I also really liked it when the Press Hotel opened, and their restaurant (Union) turned out to be fun, and a real surprise. I tend to think of hotel restaurants as disappointing, and this one was bright, had good food, and celebrated great Maine ingredients and growers.

Diners at MK Kitchen in Gorham in 2015. “A business analyst likely would have said that this is not the right place to open a restaurant, that you need to be downtown. But I like that he said no,” said former restaurant critic James Schwartz. “Sort of like the Kevin Costner quote, you know, if you build it, they will come. And they did.” Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

What changed on the food scene in Maine during your time as the critic?

English (2005-11): During my time, it happened more in Portland than in the rest of the state. On the rest of the coast, things were more friendly to the amateur for a while — someone thinking they might want to make muffins and open a restaurant, so they’d just give it a whirl, and it might be great. In Portland, things were moving the other direction, getting more and more professional, with people coming in from around the country. It wasn’t the local talent so much. In my 2012 edition of the Maine Explorer’s Guidebook, from the end of my time at the paper, if I open it to the Portland section there are 22 restaurant entries there. They were excellent places to dine out. By 2019, there were 35 entries.

Heiser (2011-13): Small plates, which is something I also wrote about for the Globe. I love the concept — it really appeals to me because I don’t have a huge appetite, but I like to taste around. Places like Bar Lola, which has since closed, were really just a revelation.

Milliken Humphrey (2011-13): Every week, it seemed like something new was opening or expanding. At that point, what would likely be considered innovative in another area of the country was a bit dull here in Maine. Truffle mac and cheese, seared rare tuna, and lobster linguine are objectively delicious, amazing meals, but then along came Eventide with a lobster roll in a bao bun or Gogi on Congress Street with a Korean short rib galbi taco. And not just the fusion trend. Suddenly you could get raspberry-filled doughnuts fried to order in Westbrook or sunchokes at Local 188. Authentic pho with the tendon and meatballs at a half dozen spots. At the time, a lot of food lovers were in a bit of a head spin because there was just so much choice. That’s what I remember.

If a friend asked for a restaurant recommendation, it wasn’t just a matter of “ok, go here for seafood and go here for pasta” because there were a dozen options, depending on a dozen other qualifiers. Something as simple as fries would have me asking “Do you want twice-fried, proper Belgian, crinkle cut, shoestring, hand cut, done in duck fat, spicy, as poutine, or with unique condiments? And what sort of atmosphere would you like to enjoy the fries?” I actually recall that conversation. It was, in retrospect, a little ridiculous.

Schwartz (2014-16): In my time, many people were taking the plunge to open up, so places were opening where there had formerly not necessarily been restaurants. There was a sense of opportunity.

This is also when Country Living or Town & Country or one of those magazines started recognizing the Portland food scene. You had the sense that Boston and New York chefs who couldn’t afford real estate in those cities recognized they could probably afford to open something here. Kind of like the way Broadway shows used to go to Hartford or Philadelphia or Boston beforehand to try things out. I got the sense the same kind of thing was happening on my watch.

I also liked the fact that people were sort of breaking traditional geographic molds. So the guy who had been the chef at Inn by the Sea (Mitch Kaldrovich), he and his wife (Lisa Kaldrovich) opened MK Kitchen in Gorham. A business analyst likely would have said that this is not the right place to open a restaurant, that you need to be downtown. But I like that he said no. Sort of like the Kevin Costner quote, you know, if you build it, they will come. And they did.

Gogi on Congress Street in 2011, now closed, was “a weird but wonderful place,” said former restaurant critic Shonna Milliken Humphrey. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Q: What’s your impression of how the food scene has changed since you stopped writing for the paper, and what do you predict for the future?

English (2005-11): I think it’s incredible. It has gotten better and better. I’m very grateful that I can pop into Central Provisions for a spicy beef salad, or that I don’t have to think twice about finding wonderful fries in a bunch of places. Things used to be pretty mediocre in a lot of places, especially on the coast. But things aren’t so mediocre here at all anymore.

The pandemic has forced us all into this need for familiar and comforting foods. Those are such powerful money-makers for restaurants that I can see them becoming more established.

But I also feel like there will be a stronger and stronger sense that know that we know we can eat well, we should. If you’re going to enjoy something indulgent, it should be really well made. I have faith we will be able to do that. It’s not everywhere yet. The countryside is still so dependent on Sysco trucks with frozen vegetables, which is sad when the countryside has such beautiful vegetables. But it will come.

Heiser (2011-13): This is not an original thought, but I predict outdoor dining will continue and maybe expand in the warm and even shoulder months, to allow more room between tables. People may be reluctant to sit shoulder to shoulder in crowded bistro-style settings. It remains to be seen.

I myself have trended away from meat as a central protein and try to have more legume- and vegetable-centric meals and seafood in my diet. This is from a health as well as a climate-conscious standpoint. I’d much rather have a well-executed vegan meal than a fancy steak. If I were to wish a post-pandemic trend, I’m hoping restaurants will cater to customers who want delectable climate-friendly food: sustainable seafood, vegetarian and vegan meals, and continue and extend the use of local products.

The now-closed Outliers in 2013. “That was an outstanding menu, and I remember their garlic scapes,” said former restaurant critic Shonna Milliken Humphrey. “I had so many good meals there.” John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Milliken Humphrey (2011-13): A lot of places have closed. It’s a nostalgic, sad thing to know that 555, Grace, Evangeline and Cinque Terre are gone. Same for Havana South and The Merry Table.

Another thing that has changed is the broader community awareness of an establishment. For instance, it would be difficult for me to write as glowingly about a restaurant if I knew the chef who made my food — now in jail for murder — was then abusing a partner. I also would have passed on writing so happily about a restaurant run by a person on the sex offender list. Both were undeniably amazing culinary experiences, but I would have declined them. It’s a balance and a larger conversation about where art and vocation stop and a person’s values and choices begin. I don’t have great answers, but I would not have done those assignments.

I suspect we’ll see takeout become a regular thing, and because of that, menus will adapt a bit to accommodate more items that can withstand 30 minutes in a container.

I would bet money there will be a broader array of non-alcoholic craft cocktail options, too. Possibly THC-infused desserts? Some neat aquaculture things are happening with seaweed, and I know people are trying to figure out how to make those invasive green crabs more inviting.

I listened to a radio piece about the growing popularity of insect-based proteins, too, in places like New York. I think plant-based options will continue to expand — and rapidly so. I also like the idea of restaurants with an entertainment factor — like the new axe-throwing place that serves BBQ.

It’s really hard to tell. I suspect French standards will always have a place, as well as fried comfort foods.

Schwartz (2014-16): I am absolutely convinced it’s going to bounce back. I don’t think it’s going to look the way it did before, and that’s fine. We have to accept the fact that we’re going to be living and moving in a different world, and some people are not going to dip their feet back into the pond again; many will, and they’re going to have great success. But it’s going to take a little time for people to feel comfortable with eating communally.

Also, you’re going to see more people doing what Erin (French, chef/owner of The Lost Kitchen) did, opening a restaurant in their neck of the woods, whatever that happens to be, and sourcing locally. If someone is opening a restaurant in Camden, they are not going to be getting their bread from Standard Baking Co., and they’re not going to be getting their microgreens from a New York-area grower. They’re going to be doing it with local farmers. I think people are going to be even more local, if that’s possible.

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