Dale and Janet Day, of Chattaroy, Wash., enjoy lunch at the Clam Bar in late September. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

You don’t have to believe in cursed properties to acknowledge that 199 W. Commercial St. in Portland is a tough place to run a restaurant. Overlooking rusty train tracks and an unlovely deep-water refueling corridor along the Fore River, this low-slung lot populated by a ramshackle kitchen was never going to win any awards for aesthetics.

Perhaps that has been the problem for previous seafood shacks on this site. First there was Benny’s Famous Fried Clams, a serviceable, if unexceptional, shack that sat on this site for decades. I remember Benny’s less for the food (although they had a great lobster roll in the mid-teens) and more for their improvisational attitude toward being open for business from day-to-day (plus or minus a few seasons toward the end where they simply never opened). Then came the Clam Digger in 2018, the location of the worst meal I’ve eaten in the state of Maine, bar none.

All of this to say that I admit to carrying a certain amount of baggage around dining at the dusty terminus of Commercial Street. I’ve frequently looked at whatever tumbledown structure sat in this spot and wondered why nobody seems to have found the right combination of great food and drink to compensate for the rather homely setting. Until now.

Billed simply as the Clam Bar, Garrett FitzGerald’s new fast-casual seafood spot works so well because it refuses to play by traditional restaurant rules. Instead of a single branded business, he introduces three: Clam Bar, Royale Kitchen (an offshoot of his former Old Port brick-and-mortar restaurant, Royale Lunch Bar) and Portland Beer Garden.

Instead of a dining room, he creates several independent seating zones: counter-height barstools along a sleek new wooden deck; a bright, 22-seat sustainably constructed structure called “The Pavilion”; and pastel-painted picnic tables in the open-air center of a miniature food-and-beverage campus. This year, FitzGerald and his team plan to add fire pits and chairs to create a fourth zone to this sprawling compound.

Fracturing one restaurant into three brands and several seating areas refocuses the diner’s attention from the traffic on Commercial Street, redirecting it inwards, towards The Clam’s attractive new structures and decor, like cyanotype artist Tim Goldkin’s enormous black-and-white clamdigger mural that presides over the cocktail bar.


“My idea was to have a variety of things to do in a few different places, and to allow for growth in the future. We can be fluid having more small things here like the Beer Box (the tiny-house-sized Portland Beer Garden where 14 taps and not much else sits),” FitzGerald said. “We can also invite a few more food trucks if we want, so it becomes more of a Congdon’s vibe. One person can eat, another can just have a beer at the Box.”

Me? I chose a spot at a cornflower-blue picnic table to bring my crisp, brown-butter-tossed French fries ($4) and rather questionably named cocktail. As a modern twist on a Mai Tai, The Ladyboy ($11) sounded better on paper: rum, lemongrass syrup, pistachio orgeat … what’s not to love? But this “Drink of the Day” was sugary and about half-an-ounce of lime juice shy of the balance it required. Still, an overall decent cocktail.

The Smashburger at the Clam Bar. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

And that right there was the worst thing I ordered at the Clam Bar. Everything else I tasted was fully up to scratch, from coleslaw that tickled with a smoky, low-frequency buzz of guajillo chile ($3) to chef Sam Keene’s provolone-topped smash burger, a quasi-faithful rendition of a Big Mac ($15). But this sandwich outdoes its fast-food cousin through a duo of juicy, medium-grilled 85/15 ground beef patties and a tongue-prickling sweet chili ketchup.

Perhaps the South- and Central-American flavors that Keene and FitzGerald incorporate into the menu also represent another tool Clam Bar uses to pull attention away from its roadside locale and towards your plate. Good luck trying to focus on anything else but your food while you’re eating tortilla triangles loaded with lime-juice ceviche tuna and cooling crema ($12) or Harbor-Fish-sourced crab slapped into flat, pan-fried patties and dressed with creamy romesco sauce and slivers of mandoline-shaved, quick-pickled fennel ($22).

Clam Bar’s signature fried clams, with fries and slaw. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Clam Bar is cautious about making any radical changes to certain seafood shack classics, though. Any unconventional tweaks to these dishes are confined to condiments, like chunks of fresh tomatillo in the tartar sauce that accompanies both fish & chips ($20) and the restaurant’s namesake plate, whole-belly fried clams.

“I mean, my dude, you have to order the clams,” the server behind the counter urged when I asked him for suggestions on what to try. “That’s the thing we’re going to be known for when the next generation writes our history,” he said with a rumbling chuckle.


I know he was kidding, but I’m inclined to agree. A 1-to-2 ratio of rice flour to seasoned, gluten-free all-purpose flour gives the clams a delicate, peppery crunch. Keene and his team also know their way around a fryer, pulling the clams at their golden juiciest. And at $19 for a pint, $22 for a platter with coleslaw and fries, The Clam’s prices are competitive with local shacks that offer quite a bit less.

“We always remember that we serve two markets. The first is our blue-collar local crowd who’ve been in Maine forever. I’m in that crowd. They know their fried clams, they want them at a good price and they probably also remember Benny’s, and those are some big shoes for us to fill,” said FitzGerald, a Bar Harbor native who moved to Portland six years ago. “Also, this is Portland, a major food town. We have to be able to provide something fresher than normal, like clams we source from Ipswich and Harbor Fish Market, and maybe some food that’s a little more interesting than just fried seafood.”

That’s exactly what FitzGerald and Keene have done. I know better than to wager on the success of any restaurant in this tumultuous economy, but Clam Bar has achieved something remarkable in its top-to-bottom physical, culinary and conceptual makeover of a scrubby little lot. I’m already looking forward to coming back between now and the Christmastime conclusion of The Clam’s extended season. I can picture how a dusting of snow might make the 120-seat mini-campus look like an indoor-outdoor ski-resort restaurant at the base of the slopes descending from Danforth Street. With string lights and fire pits, it will sparkle. It might even be pretty, here on this neglected stretch of Commercial Street. Who would have guessed?

It may be on the unlovely, industrial section of Commercial Street, but you don’t want to bypass The Clam Bar. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

RATING: *** 1/2
WHERE: 199 W. Commercial St., Portland. 207-805-1763. clambarportland.com
SERVING: Monday & Tuesday, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Thursday to Sunday, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $9-12, Entrees: $15-26
NOISE LEVEL: Commercial St.
VEGETARIAN: Few dishes
BAR: Beer, wine, cocktails
BOTTOM LINE: If you’d told me at the beginning of 2023 that I’d eat one of my favorite summer meals on the lonely, industrial end of Commercial Street, I would have probably laughed. But now that his modular compound of sustainably built OpBox buildings has been finished, Clam Bar owner Garret FitzGerald is having the last laugh. FitzGerald (of Bar Harbor Lobster Co. and Royale Lunch Bar) took the former site of Benny’s and turned it into an appealing dining destination. At The Clam, you’ll find 14 Maine beers on draft in one little hut called the Portland Beer Garden, as well as lunch and breakfast dishes in the summer-seasonal Royale Kitchen truck. But the star here is the Clam Bar itself, a mostly traditional seafood shack with a menu that showcases Maine seafood and chef Sam Keene’s Latin-inflected recipes. Crisp-fried whole belly clams are exceptional here, and most other dishes are at minimum, very good. Try the romesco-and-shaved-fennel-topped Maine crab cakes, the brown-butter-tossed French fries and the unexpectedly tasty tuna tostadas, a ceviche-style appetizer served on tortilla triangles. It’s open until at least Christmas, so you have plenty of time left this year to enjoy a most unexpected Commercial Street bright spot.

The Clam Bar’s crab cakes. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: andrewross.maine@gmail.com
Twitter: @AndrewRossME 

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