Duckfat’s Cauliflower panini. Almost 20 years on, the restaurant is as good as ever. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“You want to propose here?” one of the two 20-something men seated next to me asked, swiveling like a hula hooper on his wrought-iron-and-wood stool.

“Chloe is from Portland, dude,” the other replied, fiddling with the flowers on the table – eucalyptus, rose, baby’s-breath – he touched them all before explaining his logic: “She loves it here. I fully see us moving here. So there are really only like two places that make sense to do this: Portland Head Light or here.”

“Iconic places,” his friend assented, nodding and taking a hefty pull on his house-made streusel-sprinkled cinnamon roll milkshake ($10).

I’ve eaten at Duckfat and its sister, the Duckfat Frites Shack, more than a dozen times since it opened 19 years ago. But never did I envision the cozy, wood-toned storefront on Middle Street as a place where I’d ask someone to get hitched. Still, the more I thought about it, the better the idea sounded.

If you’re trying to connect the mental dots between hot, crisp Belgian-style fries punched from potatoes grown at Fryeburg’s Green Thumb Farms, then dunked into bubbling duck fat (what else?) and dusted with salt ($8/$12) and holy matrimony, hear me out. This may be a little bit controversial.

The poutine at Duckfat. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Fries are not what makes Duckfat one of the best restaurants in Portland. Nor is their over-the-top Québecois sibling, poutine ($14/$17), here structured around Pineland Farms cheese curds and insanely rich house-made gravy whose intensity gets a turbo-charge from “Duck Love,” the leftover oil from confit duck legs.


Don’t get me wrong: Those fries in any format are not only fantastic, they are one of the menu’s must-order items. But fries aren’t the only source of this Middle Street institution’s outsized appeal. Not even close.

“Everyone thinks about fries and panini when they come here,” my server said when I asked her about dishes she could recommend to my guest and me. “But I can’t tell you enough how good the rest of the menu is. Order anything. You can’t go wrong. OK, maybe don’t order an Oxbow (Farmhouse Amber, $8) and a side of sauce, but you know what I mean.”

Challenge accepted. Naturally, I knew better than to forgo fries. I also understood that a sandwich was de rigueur. But where I’d normally zig toward the Duckfat grilled cheese on Night Moves sourdough ($14) and a bowl of creamy, intensely herbal tomato fennel soup ($5/$7.50), I zagged hard and ordered a salad. So did my guest. Have you ever ordered a salad at Duckfat? If not, correct that mistake, pronto. They’re phenomenal.

Duckfat’s Green Goddess salad. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Always a sucker for tarragon, I ordered the Green Goddess ($13), an open-hearted portion of green-leaf and little-gem lettuces quenched with herby, buttermilk dressing and sprinkled with a crunchy dukkah made with pepitas, white sesame seeds and coriander. As special as my salad was, my guest’s Duckfat Caesar ($16) was better. The kitchen starts with a traditional romaine base and layers it with tender, pink slices of applewood-smoked duck breast dry-rubbed in cumin, sage and black pepper, and finished off with a shower of shatteringly crisp sourdough breadcrumbs.

Undaunted, I tried again and ordered something vegan: a Thai-inspired panini ($15) stuffed with thick planks of cauliflower marinated overnight in mint, garlic and cilantro, then charred on the plancha, strewn with lemongrass-scented pickled mustard greens and bundled into a sunchoke-purée-slathered sandwich roll from Botto’s Bakery. A mouthful to describe and a mouthful to eat, but holy cow, was it great. Dishes like this are reminders of how chef/co-owner Rob Evans won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast in 2009, back when he ran the kitchen at Hugo’s.

“We have our staple menu that we always try to keep improving on, but in the off-season for the past couple of years, we’ve been trying to bring our game for the locals, creating what we call Duckfat 2.0,” co-owner and front-of-house maven Nancy Pugh said. “We’ve been getting more experienced, and more talented chefs come through our kitchen since COVID, people who really care about food. And we’re working with them differently. Rob (who is also Pugh’s husband) has been working with them on specials, bringing in things like fish, escabeche … stuff we haven’t done, but stuff that speaks to them.”


Diners at Duckfat earlier in March. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Evans has historically gotten most of the credit for Duckfat’s menu and its knack for nurturing talent in the back-of-house. When this paper last reviewed Duckfat in a 4-star review in 2014, it was Evans’ work that pulled most of the focus. Yet I’d like to make the argument that Pugh’s development of an unflappable, omnicompetent front-of-house team has been every bit as important to the restaurant’s ongoing excellence and financial success.

“Our service is some of the best in town, and when you walk in the door, you should be able to see that after almost 20 years, we’re not getting old and tired. For me, it’s about care. We actually care about our team. We’ve been working with a healthy communications person on ongoing training for our staff. We’re teaching them a skill set that every person will be able to use after they leave us. They leave being better at work and better people outside of work, too,” Pugh said.

“But more than that, in the summer with the crowd out front … if you wait for 2 hours for fries – I wouldn’t, but god bless you if you do – the last thing you want is to get to your table and have an angry server. That’s not what this ride is about. They want to be there, and our staff want them to be there. You can feel that.”

I know I did. On the day I visited, staff were attentive, confidently in charge of the space and knew their stuff. When I asked what went into the homemade cherry phosphate ($5), a tart, well-balanced beverage that Pugh told me is based on a hundred-year-old recipe from a culinary history of old-school soda jerks, my server delivered nearly verbatim the same answer Pugh did when we spoke over the phone: “Lots of cherry juice, sticks and roots, but it’s the cherry bark that gives it an intense cherry flavor.”

Duckfat’s Mocha milkshake. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

I don’t normally pair a beverage with a beverage, but as we finished our meal, my dinner guest and I kept swapping back and forth between the cherry phosphate and the mocha milkshake ($9). Whizzed up from a potent extract of Tandem Coffee Roasters beans, chocolate and gelato from Gelato Fiasco, this is a milkshake to write home about. Pair it with an extra shot of that same coffee concentrate ($1.50 extra) for a slurpable affogato-like experience.

As I set my milkshake glass down, our neighbor pointed to my glass and asked the fiancé-to-be one final question before the pair dismounted their butt-numbing bar stools. “So how are you going to do it? Hide the ring at the bottom of a milkshake? In the donut cone? In the poutine?”


“Gross. No,” his friend said. “I’m going to do it before we eat. We’re going to get a glass of that sparkling blueberry wine (Bluet, $14) and I’m going to do it the old fashioned way. Ring box and knee. Maybe even right here,” he said, gesturing to a square of open space next to the lectern-like host stand. “Seems like a good place to say ‘I do’ and then crush some food.”

I’m not sure how Chloe feels, but I like this man’s priorities.

Duckfat’s justly famous fries. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

RATING: ****1/2

WHERE: 43 Middle St., Portland. 207-774-8080

SERVING: Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

PRICE RANGE: Fries and small plates: $5-17, Salads & sandwiches: $13-22



VEGETARIAN: Some dishes


BAR: Beer and wine


BOTTOM LINE: In summer, at the height of tourist season, there are only two places so thronged with out-of-town visitors, I won’t even consider them as dining options. One is Duckfat. (The other is Eventide, also on Middle Street). But off-season is a different story. Visit midweek for lunch or after 8 p.m. for dinner, and you’re more likely to score a table or solo spot at the long stretches of wooden bar-height seating. But don’t misunderstand: You’ll still encounter crowds. Not bad for a restaurant coming up on its 20th anniversary next year. Sure, some of the appeal comes from Duckfat’s co-owner, James Beard Award winning chef Rob Evans. But alongside stellar gelato-based milkshakes, luxuriously gravy-drenched poutine and well-composed salads with house-made add-ons like smoked, spice-rubbed duck breast, there’s another attraction: the service. For that, co-owner Nancy Pugh deserves credit. Pugh has made it her mission to train and develop her front-of-house team with evidence-based leadership tools most restaurants neglect. Staff at Duckfat are affable, efficient and capable of defusing customer tensions and crankiness. The restaurant’s menu changes slowly (partly to ensure your faves are always available), but Duckfat’s employees keep the business at the very top of Portland’s dining scene, nearly two decades on.


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:

Wild Cherry Phosphate at Duckfat. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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