48 Hours In…South Portland
April 2010 | By Chelsea Holden Baker | Photographs by Amanda Kowalski | Illustration by Karen Gelardi
Portlands best-kept secret
Every April (but this year on March 27th), Southern Maine Community College hosts its annual International
Food Festival, “A Taste of the World,” on its beautiful waterfront campus. The school’s cooking and culinary arts program creates global cuisine complemented by ethnic dishes from
local restaurants, student stories, African film, and a silent auction that benefits the President’s International and Multicultural Student Scholarship
Fund. It’s a lunchtime feast and learning experience in one. smccME.edu/foodfest
The town of South Portland calls itself “Maine’s most invisible city.” The jetport and the mall are certainly noticeable, and when the Casco Bay Bridge goes up during rush hour, everyone’s reminded that the city is also a major oil port. But SoPo pride is built on smaller things: staying power, entrepreneurial spirit, picnics, greasy spoons, morning bagel rushes, iconic ice cream cones, a free sandy beach, and—like Brooklynites boast to New Yorkers—the best view in the bay.
The municipality is increasingly conscientious about open space, so much of the harbor is yours to enjoy. The Greenbelt Walkway, for instance, is a scenic 5.7 miles, skirting the water and hugging the state’s oldest strip mall: Mill Creek plaza, which is now host to summer concerts, Art in the Park, and a lively winter skating pond. The flavor of the shipping yards where real-life Rosies riveted 236 Liberty Ships during World War II still feels in tact through the working waterfront of marinas, the Coast Guard outpost, and Portland Pipeline. The town also contains the forty-acre Hinkley Park, with two ponds. Dogs run free there, which is a common (but often controversial) theme in eastern SoPo.
First of all, let’s address the mall area: We’ve all been there. We’ll be there again. If you have kids in tow, there’s a surprise nearby. Beneath the shadow of planes landing at PWM is Maine Gold & Silver. Gold bullion and rare coins are sure to inspire sorting through spare change jars at home for buffalo nickles and wheat pennies. The family-owned business also has estate jewelry including popular deco styles and century-old pieces. When you’re hungry, forgo the common chains and try Jewel of India on Western Avenue. With two young children themselves, the owners are conscious about kids’ taste. They’ll love the Aloo Paratha.
While there are plenty of hotels around the airport to pick from, the real way to treat yourself to South Portland is to stay at the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, just a short cruise down Route 77. With a restaurant, lounge, spa, and a multi-million dollar renovation to match the view, “Inn” is an understatement. They welcome dogs at no charge—which suits the pet-friendly character of the peninsula. Staying at the inn puts you nearly on top of Crescent Beach State Park and Two Lights State Park, which is synonymous with The Lobster Shack at Two Lights (it opens March 28).
If you’re more in the mood for a quiet in-room picnic than a meal out, there are two places on Cottage Road in South Portland that specialize in gourmet-to-go: The Buttered Biscuit and Terra Cotta Pasta Co. Terra Cotta is totally Italian, from house-made Stromboli and flatbreads to a vast selection of fresh pasta. On Fridays and Saturdays there are samples of nearly everything, from cheese to pan-seared ravioli and tiramisu.
Scratch Baking Co. bagels are so popular there’s a one-dozen limit so that no single customer will be responsible for a neighborhood riot. A sort of Maine morning bun, the blueberry brulée swirl stands out among what seems like hundreds of selections. If Fido is in tow, buy him a home-baked dog biscuit, cross Willard Square, and peek into & Unlimited. It’s a sweet portrait studio that specializes in furry friends. It’s next door to Willard Scoops, which starts serving Mount Desert Island Ice Cream in April, for those who don’t have multi-generational loyalty to Beal’s Ice Cream or Red’s Dairy Freeze.
At this time of year, it’s best to be a dog lover when taking your coffee on a walk to Willard Beach, a public beach that allows canines at all hours until April 30. If you’d prefer a
sit-down breakfast, rival bagels are to be had at 158 Pickett St. Cafe. While recommending the cafe, Bon Appetit called it “scruffy.” Yes, they fly a pirate’s flag outside of the old boatshed that houses the restaurant, but they also serve the best bagel sandwiches around, and Pop-Tarts for adults that they dub “cherry turnovers.” They’re really so much more, and truly tart.
If you’re after R&R, Soma Massage and Wellness is worth a visit. There are Saturday yoga classes as well as a wide variety of treatments including acupuncture and reflexology. The hamlet where it’s located, the Knightville neighborhood, is also home to Smaha’s Legion Square Market. Opened in 1939, the Smaha family still runs the small grocery with Tiffany blue tin walls and white tin ceilings. Because they price everything at cost plus 10% (except alcohol, cigarettes, and milk), it’s the only place we know of that you can find the Portland Press Herald for less than the 75¢ cover price: it’s 63¢. Also on the block is Verbena (tag line: Eat Right Now), a fresh upstart serving a creative, rotating lunch menu of healthy soups, salads, and sandwiches that they update on the website each day.
If you’re in the mood to hang out on the harbor, pick your spot: from the breakwater’s Bug Light to the Portland Harbor Museum and the Spring Point Ledge Light to Fort Preble, there are plenty of places to fly a kite or enjoy a real Italian—which in this neighborhood can only come from DiPietro’s. Across the street from the market is the Front Room Gallery of rotating shows. As you follow Cottage Road, there are also occasional treasures to be had at the Cherished Possessions consignment shop. For a more curated collection, go just across the border of Cape Elizabeth to Tara Home and Gift (which is in a stately house befitting Scarlett O’Hara). Regardless of the provenance of the name, most of their furniture is antique English pine, along with many interesting items, from sculptural glove-stretchers to kitchen collectibles like breadboxes. You’ll also find Artascope Studios on the same drag, which offers workshops for teens and adults in everything from metalsmithing to printmaking. They also host private parties.
If you’re planning a celebration, whether birthday or graduation, South Portland also takes the cake for event space. Joe’s Dockhouse is a spin-off of Joe’s Boathouse where they serve New England favorites in a private setting looking out at Fort Gorges. Saltwater Grille also fits the bill with a slightly more upscale atmosphere. It’s also a great place to enjoy a cocktail on a couch with a view of Portland Harbor.
Of course there’s evening entertainment too. South Portland is home to The Portland Players, Maine’s longest-running community theater, as well as Lyric Music Theater, both of which have shows through spring. Although it’s easy to miss by sight, the must-do dinner option in South Portland is David’s 388. It’s the excellent and more intimate, experimental, and affordable off-shoot of David’s in Portland. Four stools at the chef’s counter let you in on the action. However, if you’re after local flavor, try the Bridgeway Restaurant. Someone will direct you to one of the local bars, like the legendary heavyweight, the Griffin Club.
If you did find your way to a neighborhood bar near Bridgeway, then you’ll want your breakfast from a greasy spoon. One option is the back-alley Q Street Diner, but the place with personality is Uncle Andy’s Cafe, where they seem to be serving Americana for breakfast. Many remember Uncle Andy’s as a bakery, but the diner incarnation does not disappoint: you’ll experience a barstool classic, complete with a friendly greeting from Dennis, the cook and owner. If you’re the mild-sporting sort, another must-mention in South Portland is the South Portland Municipal Golf Course. Built in 1931, the nine holes are a classic beginner’s course at a very reasonable price—less than $15 to play. There’s also a quiet driving range if you’re the type that enjoys hitting things to relax.
Finally, you can’t talk about South Portland without talking about its veritable mascot, Red’s Dairy Freeze, which opened early this season. The iconic red and white facade has screamed SoPo since 1952. Mark your calendar with a reminder that the strawberry harvest happens in June. There’s about a ten-day window when Red’s puts the local fruit into the mix for what’s possibly the best cone you’ll ever have. If you go, take a picture for posterity. You’re sure to be smiling.