Susan Scully, left, and Janine Bisaillon-Cary have a glass of wine together at The Continental on a Thursday evening in February. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

With Brexit now four years in the rear-view mirror, you’d be forgiven for wondering why a new booze-focused bistro inspired by Irish and British pubs would be named The Continental.

Perhaps it’s in honor of the 1950s CBS television program all about teaching retrograde pickup techniques to an audience of aspiring Casanovas. (Or its recurring “Saturday Night Live” parody starring Christopher Walken as a sleazy creep’s creep.) Then again, maybe it’s a nod to the classic 1930s Astaire & Rogers song about locking lips on the dance floor – the first-ever composition to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

As it happens, the real story is both more personal and considerably less straightforward. Co-owner and general manager Mike Barbuto explains: “I’m a guy who has a nostalgia thing sometimes. Before we took it over, I was walking by the building with my dog, and I was conjuring up ideas of how we could make it cool, and I started thinking of the old airline,” he said. “When I was a kid, I visited a friend whose older aunt and uncle had a place in New York City, in this high rise with wall-to-wall carpet and all these black-and-white photos of him and his wife on the walls. They were shots of Moscow, Berlin, all in these huge frames, lots of shadows, a very European, late-’60s mood. I know it’s kind of vague, but that’s how we got to The Continental.”

Barbuto and co-owner Kevin Doyle (they’re also partners at CBG, Nosh and the recently opened Nosh Taco) extrapolated from their original conceptual starting place, adding large-format monochrome prints of Boston-area restaurants to walls papered in a rich navy, gold-filigreed pattern. Against rows of brown Naugahyde benches and rustic, barn-style tables, the dining space and bar certainly do feel retro, but in an uncanny way that seems to belong to no specific place or era. More than anything, the vibe reads as a hodgepodge, not unlike what you’d find in someone’s home.

From left, a Belhaven beer, a Negroni and a pint of Guinness at The Continental. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The same loose focus applies to cocktails, which include anything you can name (or offer a recipe for) from memory, but with no specific menu to guide you. Servers do help with ideas, but even a short list of classics would represent a step forward. On a recent weekday visit, my dinner guest and I ordered a well-priced, well-made negroni ($9.50) and turned our attention to The Continental’s eight draft beer options, including two nitro taps. Here’s where the intentionality behind the beverage program really lives. Barbuto’s carefully chosen selection of European, mainly “pre-IPA revolution”-style beers, showcases a clear food-friendly perspective.

“Our crowd here skews a little suburban and a little bit older,” he said. “I didn’t want to do too much, and when we had some false starts with cocktails, I figured my attention would be better focused on getting away from anything too flashy and just picking great European-sourced or European-style lagers and beers that go with this specific food menu.”


Case in point: New Hampshire-based Schilling Beer Co.’s Alexandr ($8), a pale, Czech pilsner-inspired lager with a midrange ABV (5.0%) and a turbo-charged maltiness. It’s the kind of beer that practically reaches out, grabs your server and places an order of fried potatoes for you.

My guest and I went with the flow (so to speak) and sipped our lager alongside The Continental’s take on boxty ($10), a shredded potato patty similar to a hash brown, a Swiss rösti or an Ashkenazi Jewish latke. Here though, boxty are formed more like Irish potato cakes, with rice flour added to the mix, creating a dense, crumbly texture like a dry dumpling. Not great, even with a schmear of the accompanying herbed sour cream.

The chicken schnitzel with Hungarian butter, braised cabbage and fingerling potatoes. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Another disappointing dish was the chicken schnitzel and braised red cabbage ($22), a poultry-based twist on the superb pork version that head chef Branden Tobin serves at CBG (where he also oversees the kitchen). The story was different out in the borderlands where Libbytown, Rosemont and Oakdale intersect, however. The Continental’s take featured tender, soft shreds of cabbage, but the schnitzel itself was a bitter, overfried and under-seasoned disaster.

Much better was Tobin’s buttery, icing-drizzled bread pudding ($9), a cubist reimagining of the fridge-emptying classic. Here, the dessert is assembled like a free-form Lego structure from blocks of sweet, toasty Big Sky Bakery croutons soaked in a gooey custard base. Or his shepherd’s pie ($22), a dish of savory, slow-simmered New Zealand lamb meat blanketed by pillowy mashed potatoes. Served at nuclear temperatures, this dish taunts you with aromas of onion and parsley, daring you to dive in quickly but deny your instincts. Protect your tongue.

Continental’s pub salad, made with Bibb lettuce, hardboiled eggs, pickled onions, beets, cucumbers and creamy tarragon dressing. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

You’ll need it for the best dish I tried at The Continental: a generous, exceedingly appealing pub salad of pickled beets, onion, jammy hard-boiled eggs and robust Bibb lettuce, all drizzled in a tangy, creamy, house-made tarragon dressing ($13). When I asked Barbuto about the salad – a menu item perhaps better suited to a bistro – he wasn’t surprised I’d ordered (and adored) it.

“We sort of realized when we were planning to do steaks, shepherd’s pie, potatoes, we needed something. Where are the vegetables? Now that it’s there, we must do 15 of those salads every night. Maybe it’s because it’s the only green thing on the menu,” he said. “And that reminds me of one of the things that really does surprise me: We are selling a lot more food than booze. I always thought of it more as a pub plus food, a place you could come in for a pint after work, and then go home for dinner. But people are taking it more as a restaurant. This is my neighborhood, and OK, if people want it to be a neighborhood restaurant, we’ll modify our approach. Honestly, I think that’s great.”


All of which is to say, it almost feels too early to be writing this review. Even though our standard, three-month grace period for reviewing new restaurants elapsed in November, The Continental still feels like a fledgling, one deep into a transition of purpose and function.

I also agree with the wisdom of the crowd in this situation – Barbuto and Doyle have turned a grotty corner store into an attractive food-and-beverage business (with ample parking, a Portland-area rarity). Why shouldn’t patrons want to stay for a pint of lager as well as dinner?

After all: To drink, while you’re dining, it’s continental. Very continental.

Mike Barbuto, co-owner of The Continental, serves drinks at the neighborhood pub on a recent February evening. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

WHERE: 170 Brighton Ave., Portland. (no phone).
SERVING: Daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $10-16, Entrees: $16-27
NOISE LEVEL: Cabot Cove jail
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
BAR: Beer, wine and liquor
BOTTOM LINE: In practice more gastro than pub, The Continental is a visually appealing neighborhood restaurant and bar that is slowly … very slowly … figuring out what it wants to be. With that uncertainty come growing pains. Some dishes, like dry boxty (Irish potato pancakes) and tragically overfried chicken schnitzel, should probably be revamped or ditched entirely. Others, like crisp, sticky bread pudding; better-than-average lamb shepherd’s pie; and a knockout pub salad with eggs and tangy pickled beets deserve pride of place on this nominally Irish/British menu. As for booze, The Continental is already firing on all eight of its draft tap cylinders, with a traditional selection of European-style beers (nothing too boozy or overhopped). For the moment, it’s a great place for a pint, and if head chef Brendan Tobin’s work at CBG is any indication, the menu will catch up soon enough.

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

Contact him at:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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