The Salt Yard Cafe & Bar at the Canopy by Hilton on Commercial Street in Portland serves dinner in a casual seating area rather than at tables. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Is it weird that we never made it to the dining room?” one of my dinner guests wondered aloud as we exited through the Canopy Portland’s front doors and walked back toward our cars.

Well, come to think of it, yes. Four of us had just finished a full dinner, including cocktails, appetizers, main dishes and dessert, and it all happened in a snazzy, high-ceilinged hotel lobby reimagined by Portland design collaborative Ealain Studio as a showcase for Maine artists and designers.

“I’m not sure if it was unexpected or weird, but I’m glad we went with it. And I’d do it again,” I told my friend. More than that, I plan to keep dinner at Salt Yard Bar & Café in reserve as a tourist-season backup, because nobody seems to know this spot is even here. From what I’ve seen from my recent meal and a few late-night peeks into the space, most evening visitors pass through the Salt Yard Bar space without a second glance, heading instead to the elevators that take them to Luna, the hotel’s rooftop cocktail bar.

If a micro-menu of tapas, pricey drinks and a full-frontal view of the Portland Fish Exchange are what you’re after, then by all means, hit that button and exit on the sixth floor. But if you’re hungry, or just want a sofa seat facing a multi-panel display of captivating encaustic panels by Maine artist Dietlind Vander Schaaf, stick to the lobby.

Somewhat confusingly, tables in the Salt Yard Café dining room aren’t available to diners at night. “That space is set up to grab breakfast or lunch,” sales and marketing manager Brett Bussin said. Instead, there are 40-odd seats in what the management team calls the “flex space” that comprises the hotel’s airy ground floor.

“We’ll set you up anywhere you like,” Canopy’s “bar ambassador,” Katrin Miller (formerly of Sonder & Dram in Lewiston), directed us when we entered, gesturing welcomingly to the lobby’s multiple seating zones, everything from high-backed armchairs to the island of bar-height seating we selected.

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Salt Yard’s Moxie Old Fashioned, made with Old Port Bourbon, Moxie syrup, orange bitters and Liquid Riot’s Fernet Michaud. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Echoing the hyper-local design brief for the hotel, Miller’s well-structured and varied cocktail menu also takes inspiration from the state. The Moxie Old Fashioned ($19) is built on Old Port Bourbon, Liquid Riot’s Fernet Michaud and a sticky syrup of concentrated Moxie soda. I’ve tasted a few other Moxie cocktails, but Miller’s is far-and-away the best of the bunch; it makes a feature of Moxie’s eclectic herbals rather than attempting to mask them.

That same theme plays out in one of the few remaining cocktails from Salt Yard Bar’s debut drink menu from 2022, a list featuring drinks inspired by each of the state’s 16 counties. In the Northern Lady ($18), a gin-enhanced riff on a Pisco sour, rose-and-cardamom syrup and a stark white rose foam are intended to evoke the rugosa-spangled coastline of York County. But rose is a dangerous ingredient. Add a petal or a thorn too much, and you wind up not on the cliffs of Ogunquit’s Marginal Way, but in potpourri or fancy soap territory. A miss, sadly.

In the Bougie Betty ($14), a nuanced, finely executed champagne cocktail made with Carletto Prosecco, Miller incorporates botanicals through bitters-infused sugar cubes shaped like flowers. On a school night, this is an excellent pick, both for the relatively low ABV of the drink as well as its slow-unfurling complexity. This drink also stands up well to the hefty Salt Yard Burger ($22), with the tang and fizz of the sparkling wine offering a counterpoint to the savory, bacon-and-aioli-topped, Pineland Farms-sourced beef patty.

Salt Yard Burger with bacon, sharp cheddar, shaved iceberg lettuce dijon aioli and a bread and butter pickle. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

I asked executive sous chef Jason Putnam (Big Tree Hospitality, Central Provisions) about his choice to steer clear of the ubiquitous and all-too-trendy smashburger on his upscale, New American menu. “Nope. No way,” he said. “There’ll be no smashing here.”

Giving diners more control over the doneness of their burger is a decision I applaud, despite the overcooked breast on another sandwich I tried, the Nashville Hot Chicken ($19). Here, though, the heat from the crunchy, incendiary breading and the undercurrents of garlic and pickle brine were enough to prove that – if that buttermilk-brined chicken breast is pulled from the fryer in time – this sandwich has all the elements to make it a standout.

Another dish with unmet potential is the chopped salad ($15), a version of the retro Hollywood classic that Putnam and his team assemble from crumbled blue cheese, North County smokehouse bacon, iceberg lettuce and a single, roasted hydroponic cocktail tomato. What’s holding this dish back is the deluge of terrific, house-made roasted garlic ranch that covers it. Nobody enjoys a droopy, gloppy salad, no matter how appealing its individual components might be.

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I don’t think the kitchen has an overdressing problem, though, as our Cronut Sundae ($12) demonstrated. Perhaps nomenclature is more to blame. Here, cubes of croissant dough are fried like doughnuts, tossed in cinnamon-sugar and plated with whipped cream, syrupy preserved cherries, and a fantastic chocolate ganache. But why “sundae” when there’s zero ice cream in the bowl? I’m still not completely sure.

Miller and Putnam both explained to me that the dessert is supposed to evoke memories of carnival-style fried dough (and possibly deep-fried ice cream). I certainly got the nostalgic odors of frying oil from the dish, but with little whipped cream and no ice cream to soak into and soften those rigid blocks of cronut, eating it becomes a dentally precarious chore.

Elsewhere on the menu, frying is a highlight. Take the bar snack portion of chickpeas, fried crisp and tossed in a warming, savory, garam-masala-inspired spice mix of Aleppo pepper, cumin and cinnamon ($6). My guests and I devoured them by the crunchy handful.

Korean Loaded Fries with bibimbap sauce, cheese curds, pickled daikon and cilantro. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Or best of all, Putnam’s sweet-spicy, ad-libbed and cross-cultural poutine, listed on the menu as Korean Beef Loaded Fries ($16). Gooey cheese curds melted across a double-fisted portion of McCrum french fries from Washburn, homemade pickled daikon radish, grilled strips of local shaved sirloin dunked in funky bibimbap sauce? Yes, absolutely. Snag a forkful with all the components, and your brain’s memory centers for steak-and-potato dinners will start lighting up, not exactly sure what they’re tasting, nor where they’re eating.

And that’s OK. It’s rare to find an Old Port restaurant with creative, well-balanced cocktails and a head-turner of an interior. It’s a little unexpected, maybe a little weird, but you won’t be sorry if you order a drink and a snack and just go with it.


RATING: ***1/2
WHERE: 285 Commercial St., Portland, 207-791-0013, saltyardrestaurantandbar.com
SERVING: (Dinner) 2-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday
PRICE RANGE: Snacks and appetizers: $6-16, Mains: $15-22
NOISE LEVEL: Contentious Monopoly game
VEGETARIAN: Few dishes
RESERVATIONS: No
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: From the outside, much of the waterfront development taking place in Portland’s Old Port looks identical, especially the blocky new hotels along Commercial Street. But the Canopy Hilton Portland Waterfront (say that 10 times fast) has made good on its promise to situate itself within the design context of its host city and state. It has done so partly through decor that incorporates work from local artisans, as well as through Maine-themed food and beverage options at its ground-floor restaurant, Salt Yard Bar & Café – a restaurant without a dining room. The lack of a dedicated evening dining space is not a liability when you’re able to sip bar ambassador Katrin Miller’s inventive, generally well-composed cocktails. Her Moxie Old Fashioned is a knockout and works well as a pairing for a bowl of poutine-like Korean Beef Fries made with Maine potatoes, or a delightfully messy Salt Yard Burger made with Pineland Farms beef.

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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: andrewross.maine@gmail.com
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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