I know the place just opened a few weeks ago, but it may be time for a name change. The Ugly Duckling, in Portland’s West End, is neither gray nor clumsy, as in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. From the cheery pink door that welcomes you inside and the cute pink lightbulbs once you’ve crossed the threshold, to the imaginative, expert food, it’s undeniably a swan. The place oozes charm and professionalism.

On a midweek late morning in February, the cafe was hopping with (mostly young) people scrolling smartphones, tapping computer keyboards, engrossed in novels and merrily conversing with friends while they sipped coffee and tucked into the excellent pastries and breakfast and lunch sandwiches. A steady stream of people came in for pick-up, too. To-go orders are packed in bags with the doodled duck logo, which, like everything else about The Ugly Duckling, is smart and fun. (No surprise, given its parentage, husband-and-wife team Ilma Lopez and Damian Sansonetti of the nearby, highly regarded Spanish-French Chaval.)

As I sat at the big horseshoe-shaped counter that dominates the former printer’s shop (there are also a few tables), the staff was efficient and friendly, solicitous but not annoyingly so. That’s especially welcome in a time when I’ve resigned myself to middling service (or worse), well-aware of the perennial challenges of labor shortages in the restaurant industry.

Though the menu is small, focused and reasonably priced, I still had trouble choosing. Did I want the Fluffer Nutter peanut butter and chocolate eclairs ($7)? Yes! Very much so! Ditto the canelés ($3.50), an eggy, caramelized French pastry I fell hard for some 15 years ago and don’t recall seeing in Portland before.

A chocolate and vanilla trocadero, eating in progress. The flavor of the brioche-based sweets changes every day. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Eventually, I settled on “our famous trocaderos” ($3.50), a brioche bun filled with – on the morning I was there – chocolate and vanilla custard and topped with crushed cake crumbs. The flavors change every day. (The day before I was there, a creme brûlée version won Maine Restaurant Week’s Incredible Breakfast Cook-Off.)

I balanced it out with the Yinz Breakfast Sandwich ($6.50), a fried egg, chipped ham, Yinzer sauce (a mix of ketchup and mustard, as it turned out) and American cheese on a homemade English muffin. Salty, messy, sharp and oozy – two-napkin food, for sure – the sandwich is the platonic ideal of diner comfort food. Order coffee with it for a pleasantly bitter counterpoint.


My sweet was not that sweet, and not that large, either, which in my book is perfect. Just enough of a treat, not so much that you feel tired and overstuffed the rest of the afternoon. Also, the minimal sweetness let the flavors have the upper hand.

My order took 10 efficient minutes to arrive. While I waited, enjoying the buzzy, happy hum of a café in full swing, I looked around and took in the clever decorative touches in the bright, light-filled space. There’s the autographed photo of the late Betty White, who seems to be surveying the premises from a prominent shelf on the back wall; the Star Wars lunch box; the whimsical owl planter; the brightly colored childlike crucifixes; and Ugly Duckling cake mixes for sale ($8) with this appeal in pink magic marker: “Take Me + Bake Me.”

Later that afternoon, I emailed about my meal with Gillian Britt, who runs a food and arts-focused PR firm in Cape Elizabeth. “If you didn’t order a trocadero, you’ll have to go back,” she wrote. I did. But I have to go back anyway. In addition to baked goods and breakfast items, the menu includes pastrami on rye ($8.25) if you’re looking for lunch.

Outside the Ugly Duckling, on Danforth Street in Portland. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

About that name? Lopez said she named the cafe for her children, her 9-year-old daughter and 17-month-old son. She said she wanted to show them “that you cannot measure yourself up against anyone, that you are you. The duck story? The whole time he thought he was ugly. But the whole time he was with the wrong crowd, until one day he saw himself in the mirror, and he realized he was a swan.”

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