Curious to find out what 2023’s biggest media star, ChatGPT, might propose that I include on my best-of list this year, I gave it a simple prompt: “Help me scoop restaurant critic Andrew Ross by telling me the name of his best new restaurant of 2023.”

No luck. The ever-ravenous artificial intelligence has been on a starvation diet recently. Its owner, Open AI, delivered its last meal of delicious information in January.

Even had the bot been topped-up with current data, I don’t have much confidence it would have gotten the correct answer, as I also asked it to remind me about 2022’s top choices. Ignoring my actual published list, it came up with Magnus on Water (a fine selection, by the way) and a bizarre chimera called “Onggi Donut Fermentation Lab.” Yuck.

For at least another year then, I’ll mark myself (and my job) as “Safe from ChatGPT” and share my hand-compiled list of the nonfictional restaurants, cafes, bars and food businesses that deserve an extra pat on the back for 2023.

As the state’s restaurant scene matures, and proprietors get better at negotiating tough labor markets and rising costs, there seem to be fewer spunky, albeit woefully unprepared, amateurs debuting new businesses. That’s a positive trend. I’m all for novelty and variety, but this turn toward caution is a welcome – and wholly overdue – improvement. Look for 2024 to bring more of the same.

Editor’s Note: All restaurants are in Portland unless stated otherwise.


The Alna Store’s ditalini pasta with lion’s mane mushrooms, Romanesco cauliflower and romesco sauce, one of the dishes that helped push the restaurant to the top of our Dine Out list this year. Photo by Jasper Ludwig

BEST NEW RESTAURANT: The Alna Store in Alna

I’ll let you in on a secret: When I select my top restaurant of the year, I try to choose a place that could have also won another category. The Alna Store could have won three. As much as I’d love to see a winner come from the Greater Portland area, it’s impossible to deny the Alna-centric gravitational pull of the seasonal, ultra-local collaboration between chef Devin Dearden (an alum of Hearth in NYC) and co-owners Jasper Ludwig and Brian Haskins.

My mid-October meal of Broad Arrow Farm pork belly and brothy beans, chicken-and-dumplings, and crisp, golden cubes of savory halloumi scattered over fronds of Belfast-sourced spigarello greens was one of two deserving contenders for my best single meal of the year. But more than that, Dearden’s homemade ditalini pasta appeared on my short list for the best single dishes of 2023, and I’ll come right out and admit that the pricey slice of sage-and-apple-butter-caramel-topped Basque cheesecake that caused such handwringing in the comments was up for the best dessert category, as well.

Visit The Alna Store, and you probably won’t find any of those dishes on the menu. Because it cycles through two weeks of regionally inspired cooking, followed by two weeks of more eclectic farm-to-table dishes, The Alna Store’s menus are designed to last a fortnight (no longer). A reader wrote me to describe this continuous reinvention as “a ploy to get me to spend more money in Alna.” Yes. That’s correct. As you should.

Little Pig’s Grilled Lao Sausage. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


Never before, after a review dinner, have I wanted to return the very next night to eat another identical meal. It happened this autumn, when I tried out Piyathida and Michael MacDonnell’s takeout-only Thai joint, Little Pig. Haunted by lemongrass, kefir lime and garlic, I woke up the next day dreaming of fat Lao sausages in fiery Jao sauce; fried hake slathered in Choo Chee curry sauce and bundled, banh-mi-style, into a baguette; and the walloping spice of savory Grapow Gai Kai Dow. Had I not been invited to a friend’s housewarming the following evening, I would have placed another order.


Little Pig’s menu doesn’t read like a typical Southeast Asian restaurant’s – dishes here are mostly hand-held (skewers, sandwiches) or appetizers, with only one or two large-format options. My suggestion for a full meal: Start with a bowl of aromatic tom kha gai, where tender poached chicken and matchsticks of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms bob in chili-spiced coconut milk; then add any two other items.

Wayside Tavern’s beer-battered cod cheeks. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

BEST SINGLE DISH: Wayside Tavern

Cod cheeks dipped in crunchy, beer-and-baking-soda-leavened batter, deep fried until tan gives way to a blushing brown, spritzed with a lemon wedge and plated up with a ramekin of savory gribiche sauce: This was one of my first food memories of 2023.

Nine months later, like a scene out of a J. Geils Band song, I spotted chef Michael Sindoni’s recipe on the Starchefs website and nearly dropped my phone in shock. The bad news: I don’t have the carbon dioxide charger or tightly calibrated fryer to make these extraordinary fish bites at home. The good news: Wayside Tavern continues from strength to strength as the anchor for a West End stretch of Congress Street that promises to be an upcoming food destination. Get there this winter before new hotels in the area make booking a summertime impossibility.

Ada Bonnevie mixes drinks at Paper Tiger. The restaurant’s Banana Hammock tied for our top cocktail of 2023. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

BEST COCKTAIL: Papi and Paper Tiger

Papi’s Bruja Sabía a New World, New Wave negroni that plays kiwi’s astringency and fine-spun acidity off sweet coconut-infused gin and bitter gentian liqueur. A good dose of La Copa Extra Seco vermouth provides a backdrop for this fascinating cocktail. It’ll take you two to work out how all the flavors equilibrate with one another. But stop there: Three is too many for complex analysis… Paper Tiger’s Banana Hammock, a warm-spiced Manhattan with Jamaican rum and banana peel infused Punt e Mes. I sampled this cocktail in the summer, but I think it’s even better in the winter, when toasty, tropical flavors and bourbon slice right through the cold.


The enviable glassware at In a Silent Way. Our restaurant reviewer had his best wine experience of 2023 at the restaurant, which is in Wiscasset. Photo by Chandler Sowden


Another restaurant in the running for the top slot this year, Wiscasset’s understated, conceptually air-tight In a Silent Way is already factoring into my Midcoast and Down East travel plans for next year. If you can swing it, schedule some time to dawdle at this minimalistic wine bar/bistro as you traverse U.S. Route 1. Owner Chandler Sowden knows her vino, and she’s especially helpful describing nuanced bottles like the sublime near-red Guy Breton Régnié. Meanwhile, chef Zack Goodwin cooks like he owns a small farm and eats nothing but what he grows. Shaved zucchini ribbons in savory, ranch-like buttermilk dressing; and custardy binchotan-grilled local eggplant prepared with homemade marinara and shaved parmesan are two of his most familiar, yet flabbergastingly inspired plates.

The kakigori, or shaved ice, at Bar Futo. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


On Fore Street newcomer Bar Futo’s online menu, it lists its towering shaved ice dessert under a category named “Trashy/Fancy.” I’m not certain which this classic Japanese snowcone/snowball doused in sticky-sweet flavors falls into, but I don’t mind either way. Bar Futo’s signature addition to this dessert is crunchy crumble or streusel toppings, some strewn over the top of the teetering mountain of ice, some buried inside. Do not hesitate to order a Bar Futo kakigori, even if it’s cold enough to harvest your own snow outside. You won’t regret it.

Honorable mention: Twelve’s gingerbread. While I believe Twelve has (mostly) lived up to its own hype, pastry chef Georgia Macon’s work at the Portland Foreside fine-dining restaurant is in another league. And it’s not just about her scarfable Parker House rolls. Macon’s buttery gingerbread served with a quenelle of sweet crème fraiche ice cream is unforgettable. If you can’t score a reservation for dinner, order dessert and a cup of coffee (or digestif) at the restaurant’s comfy bar.

Nem banh mi from Pho Co Variety in Westbrook. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

BEST SANDWICH: Bleecker & Greer and Pho Co.


Rockport’s Bleecker & Greer’s underwhelmingly named “meat sandwich” is a lesson in sandbagging expectations, only to surprise patrons with tender shreds of roast beef piled into house-made focaccia along with slices of sharp cheddar, house-pickled jalapenos and a lemon aioli that sparkles at 1,000 lumens. On the other hand, the Nem banh mi at Westbrook’s Pho Co. (nem nuong, a Vietnamese sausage) delivers on what one staffer described as “amazing flavors of smoky pork in a crunchy baguette roll.” After a few bites, I realized, that’s not bragging, it’s simply reporting the truth.

Coletti’s Mediterranean pizza. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

BEST PIZZA I ATE THIS YEAR: Quanto Basta and Coletti’s

Imagine placing pies from Quanto Basta and Coletti’s Pizza Factory in Biddeford side-by-side. Look at them both: Coletti’s are sprawling, flour-dusted pizzas with delicate leopard spots; Quanto Basta’s are single-serving-sized, with lofty, heavily blistered crust. As different as they are, both are local adaptations of traditional Neapolitan pizzas made by chefs who view themselves as tinkerers. If you think they’re good now, taste these pies in another few years.

Honorable mentions: Nomad Pizza’s guanciale with fig jam and baby spinach, served in a riverfront dining room in Brunswick, and Sunflower Farm Pizza for its square-cut pepperoni-under-the-cheese slice that used to be available only at the Fryeburg Fair every October, but (after a change of ownership without a change in menu), should soon be spotted at Maine festivals from spring to autumn.

The Pea Toast at Bistro LeLuco. The restaurant, which is in South Portland, tied for critic Andrew Ross’s favorite bistro of the year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

BEST BISTRO: Bistro Leluco and Dara Bistro

Sometimes, a glass of red wine and some French- (or Italian) inspired comfort food beckons. When I’m in the mood for a well-prepared roasted chicken or Parisian gnocchi made from pan-fried choux, I head to South Portland’s Bistro Leluco, where Will Durst’s locally informed menu continues to impress; or to Cumberland Center’s Dara Bistro, where chef Bryan Dame bakes all morning, then prepares risottos and green-bean salads for a few dozen of his closest pals at night.


Honorable mention: Brunswick’s Maine Street Bistro for its terrific, well-seasoned country pâté and classic French celeri remoulade (le cole-slaw Francais).

Have a case of the wintertime blues? The decor at Friendly Toast will turn that frown upside down. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

BEST VISUAL DISTRACTION: The Friendly Toast and Sicilian Table

A guest visiting from New York this week asked if Portland were gray and depressing in the winter. “No way,” I replied. Brilliant white landscapes glinting with snow and sun? Early morning sunrises breaking over the chilly fog over Casco Bay?

But sure, it’s a fact that some days bring drizzle and clouds. That’s why we’ve got mood-elevating diversions like The Friendly Toast and its schizophrenic, retro-themed interior, or Falmouth’s Sicilian Table, with its cavernous atrium populated by balsa-wood fish and LED string lights.

The Squidwich at Fish & Whistle. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


I want to make it clear: Nobody needs an excuse to eat fried seafood. But when you’ve got a hankering, two of the area’s best spots are here. Biddeford’s upscale Fish & Whistle is especially good when it comes to value-added fried dishes like crisp-battered squid dunked in a sweet-spicy marinara and served tumbling out of a homemade milk-bread roll. Portland’s new iteration of the Commercial Street Clam Bar excels at its core dish (deep-fried whole-belly clams), but also introduces a few appealingly quirky, Latin-inspired choices like tuna tostadas, just to keep things interesting.


On an August day earlier this year, SoPo Seafood’s Oyster of the Day came with watermelon mignonette, mint and white sturgeon caviar. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Nearly six months after I reviewed it, the OOTD (oyster of the day) I ate at SoPo Seafood in South Portland this June remains the best raw shellfish I’ve tasted in 2023. When I visited, The Marshall was on the menu – a shucked Nauti Pearl oyster sprinkled with a few drops of gin, a teaspoon of crème fraiche and a cascade of Hackleback caviar pearls.

Honorable mention: A platter of Adam Campbell’s sweet North Haven oysters, served on the garden deck at nearby Nebo Lodge. This one gets a bonus for its panoramic island views and Preppy Handbook-strength martinis.

The eggnog muffin at Sullivan House Bakery and Cafe in Gorham. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

BEST BREAKFAST TREAT: Sullivan House Bakery

Eggnog muffins and by special order, eggnog crumb cake are two of the many reasons for an early-AM drive out to Sullivan House Bakery in Gorham, where this charming and genial coffee-shop and bakery has flown under the radar of Greater Portland residents for far too long.

Honorable mentions: Rich, bittersweet molasses donuts at Sadie’s Bakery in Houlton (Wednesdays only). Messy, indulgent and completely wonderful cream horns from The Bankery & Skowhegan Fleuriste.


Vinalhaven may have gorgeous scenery, but you know what it doesn’t have? Restaurants to fill some vacant spots on Main Street. Hungry residents of Vinalhaven await. Carey Kish photo

BEST OPPORTUNITY: By now, you’re probably familiar with the story of how two of Vinalhaven island’s only restaurants were taken over, then immediately abandoned by a social media influencer with no intention of doing boring things like serving food to customers. Almost two years later, one of those spaces (the former Salt restaurant) remains vacant, while thousands of locals and summer residents alike wait patiently to spend their money.

Mitr’s papaya salad. Mitr represents a new trend here of places that serve vibrantly flavored Thai food. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Spice-forward Thai seems to be everywhere these days at newer restaurants like Mitr, Little Pig, Dok Mali, as well as old favorite spots like Thai Esaan (which, after a long break to recover from a devastating kitchen fire on Forest Avenue, is now serving exceptional dine-in and takeout meals in the former Back Bay Grill).

In this file photo, Judy Gibson owner/chef Chris Wilcox plated roasted pork loin. The restaurant is now closed, and we’ll miss it.

BEST PLACES WE WILL MISS: Part & Parcel in Biddeford, Judy Gibson in South Portland, Other Side Deli, Radici, The Danforth, Rick’s Lobby Café, Full Turn, TIQA, Pho Huong, Blue Spoon, Maple’s in Yarmouth (it has moved to New Gloucester), Omi’s, Little Woodfords.

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 seven recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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