Portland has so many amazing, high profile, chronically celebrated restaurants that it is easy to forget those just “pretty good,” solidly reliable places that consistently hit the spot. When you want something as simple as a burger, figuring out where to go can quickly spiral into a bout of existential despair. Do I go to the place that gets mentioned in Food and Wine every year, or to that favorite of Bon Appétit? Am I in the mood for Gruyère, or for a Vermont Chevre? From where do I want my burger to be sourced?
Sometimes—and it’s okay to admit it, food snobs—all that you want is a regular, filthy burger from a place that isn’t exclusively frequented by those who subscribe to high-end food rags. I love all of my friends who are upping the game in the industry, and I frequent their restaurants, but occasionally I want to eat and drink where the decor isn’t too hip and light and the fare is good but not great. I want a few steps above a House of Pizza and a dozen steps below a Beard Award. These are some of my go-to spots when I am struck with that desire.
A quick anecdote before I proceed: When I was producing the web series Food Coma TV, I would get solicited by chefs and owners to come and visit their restaurants all of the time. We were once doing a shoot in a town that will remain unnamed for the purpose of protecting fragile feelings, and we were solicited by a new spot that was trying a little too hard to be something it seemed incapable of being. We took them up on their invitation, but upon realizing the place was a bit of a bummer, we decided to omit it from the episode. I let the proprietor know and he was furious. He threw all of his fellow local restauranteurs—all folks who run the aforementioned sorts of middle of the road joints—under the bus by suggesting that his food was inspired and all of theirs was trash. This did little to ingratiate me to the proprietor—it obviously did the opposite—but it did make me appreciate the not-great-but-consistently-okay folks more than ever before. (You can hear that story in detail, as well as many others related to the production of that show, here.)
- The Armory: This is my favorite place to get cocktails in Portland, and I regularly hear the same from some of the most celebrated people in the business of making great food and drink. It is literally subterranean and it is dark and sort of weird. It feels like the sort of place a 1960s private eye would hang out, or where an on-screen couple might meet for an affair. The decor is odd—there is wallpaper that has books printed on it to create the illusion of a book shelf—and it feels like it is out of another time entirely. The staff, which has been there forever, is amazing and they always remember who you are and what you want, and they serve very old school drinks, which is to say they are huge, tasty, and boozy. Never endure a drinking session without getting the cheese plate, which includes a small cup of pub cheese, crackers, and Snyder’s Honey Mustard Pretzel Bits. [The Armory is located at 20 Milk St.]
- Bayside Bowl: This is probably the highest end place on the list in that it is a fancy bowling alley. It is known for its lanes, of course, but I don’t care so much about bowling; I am in the business of burgers and drinking. For those who have never been here, there is a small dining room and a large bar. Their ingredients are a little higher end than those offered at a typical bar kitchen. Their fries are skinny and delicious, and their wait and bar staff are friendly and have their shit together. Bayside a great place to stop for a simple beer and burger, and they also have mac and cheese. You can add a bunch of different things to the mac and cheese, but don’t do the lobster. Everyone—for God’s sake—stop offering lobster mac and cheese. You are just desecrating the lobster by overcooking it in hot cheese goo. Come on now. Oh, there are also boozy shakes. [Bayside Bowl is located at 58 Alder St.]
- Saigon: It was Maine Magazine food editor and all around indulgent character Joe Ricchio who introduced me to Saigon. Everyone goes there to get pho, but Joe would suggest we go there for breakfast. Do they have breakfast, I would ask. Well, he’d offer, they have chicken wings and pork chops. Done deal. I recently asked Joe about why Saigon appeals to him. He said, “I will admit that, at this point, it’s rare for me to get pho at Saigon. There are so many other things, from marinated pork chops with fried egg to the congee-like chicken rice soup, not to mention the best fried rice and chicken wings in town, that deserve your attention. At the end of the day though, there is no greater simple pleasure than the free bowl of tofu soup, as it never fails to lift the spirits whether your ailment be self-inflicted or not.” In other words, Saigon: It’s good for a Riccho-sized hangover.” [Saigon is located at 795 Forest Ave.]
- Bayou Kitchen: I guess for a lot of people the thought of a place in the north that serves grits might feel a little higher end than it actually is, but what I love most about Bayou is that it is more or less a glorified diner. There is a counter and stools and small tables. I don’t know how their Cajun fare holds up in the authenticity department, but their food is good and their servers are often delightful. I like eggs and andouille and gumbo cooked simply, and find it makes a nice alternative to the thousands of variations of eggs benedict you can find at any breakfast place elsewhere. I hadn’t been to Bayou in a while, but revisited about a week back and was thrilled to find it was exactly as I’d left it, and so its reliability is something I can very much appreciate. [Bayou Kitchen is located at 543 Deering Ave.]
- Rosie’s: So this is the reason I thought to write this piece. After spending 15 minutes trying to figure out where we should get a burger, my wife and I decided to head home before Rosie’s popped into my head. It is dark, sort of dive-y, and very informal. They have an okay beer selection and big, simple, juicy burgers, which is sometimes all that I really want. You can get popcorn, play darts while you wait, and you can watch sports and do all of the things Americans have been doing in bars since forever ago. When we went, the waiter accidentally brought our appetizers and entrés at the same time and apologized profusely. We don’t mind, we told him. Really, no worries. Thanks, he told us. This is why I love places that aren’t so fancy. Little did he know, that is exactly what led us to Rosie’s in the first place. [Rosie's is located at 330 Fore Street.]