Portland's East End & Washington Ave
Words by Susan Grisanti | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
Among the hungry pilgrims bound for Portland this summer, many might be surprised to find several of the city’s most enjoyable restaurants are on the same street, Washington Avenue—in a neighborhood that guidebooks have described as “mixed.”
Call it mixed, or gritty, hip, up-and-coming, whatever you want, but Portland’s East End is a destination, and not just for gastro-tourists. I speak from personal experience. I moved here five years ago, and the authentic feel of this urban neighborhood still energizes me daily as I walk its steep streets. I love the mix of people—entrepreneurs and artists, droves of hipsters, young families, old-timers who have lived on the hill since childhood, raised their families, and whose own grandchildren now run around the neighborhood.
This month, photographer Lauryn Hottinger and I took a deep dive—if not an actual drive—into my home turf, and we share our discoveries.
Munjoy Hill, the Eastern Promenade, the rapidly developing eastern ends of Commercial and Fore Streets, and the busy restaurant row along Washington Avenue are indeed defined by both a cultural and physical mix.
The Hill itself is thick with sturdy 19th-century homes—clapboard row flats and brick townhouses set in tight rows, with rooflines that stagger down to the harbor from the peak. It’s crowned by the 1807 Portland Observatory, the only surviving urban lighthouse in America. It also includes some upscale condo developments (some more architecturally appropriate to the neighborhood than others) and working-class hangouts like the American Legion hall, an amputated three-decker tenement with only one floor standing.
Congress Street runs down the center of Munjoy Hill and for a few blocks at the summit forms the East End’s little downtown, which has most everything neighbors need: two markets (Hilltop Superette and Rosemont Market & Bakery), Liliana’s Laundry and Donatelli’s Custom Tailor Shop, Hilltop Coffee Shop, and two standout neighborhood restaurants: Blue Spoon and Lolita. It may not be called Main Street, but it’s definitely an everyone-knows-your-name kind of place.
Nearby, in a freshly restored space, is the celebrated bakery Belleville, which offers good-as-France croissants, Danishes, and thick, airy, crisp-bottomed Roman-style pizza cut in rectangles by day, and round New York–style thin-crust pizza for dinner. On a Saturday morning, Lauryn and I stopped in and enjoyed a cruffin—a hybrid croissant-muffin—which may have been even better than pizza in Rome.
Closer to downtown Portland along Congress Street (and less of a climb) are three treasure troves. Carlson Turner Antiquarian Books & Bookbindery houses more than 40,000 rare and used books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, fine art prints, and small vintage pieces like antique radios and typewriters. Next door is Ferdinand—part gift shop, part workshop, where artist Diane Toepfer creates, among other things, limited-edition greeting cards that she designs and prints on a Heidelberg Windmill letterpress from the mid-1950s. The shop is filled with Diane’s creations and colorful vintage items she unearths in her travels. At the other end of the block, past local favorites LB Kitchen and Lila East End Yoga, is Jen Burrall Designs, a studio and shop featuring Jen’s own jewelry made from vintage rose-cut diamonds and other stones.
Congress Street dead-ends at the Eastern Promenade, a 68-acre public park that rings the northeastern edge of the Portland Peninsula. On any warm day, the grassy slopes down to the shore are crowded with sunbathers, picnickers, and boot-camp workout groups. Some days, the panoramic views seem to me like an Eric Hopkins painting come to life—cartoonish shapes, simple and exaggerated clouds, and islands covered in green, scattered across brilliant blue skies and water.
Lauryn and I head down a trail through the park that winds to East End Beach and the Narrow Gauge Railroad. At the water’s edge, Portland Paddle offers kayak and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) rentals, SUP yoga classes off East End Beach, and guided kayak tours across Portland harbor for yoga classes at Fort Gorges—a Civil War–era fort on Hog Island Ledge in Casco Bay. Yoga takes place on the former parade grounds, surrounded by the awesome and elegant granite block walls and archways that enclose the fortress.
Below the Hill is Washington Avenue, where brick warehouses now host a few of the city’s most innovative restaurants. Over a glass of wine and a flight of Nonesuch oysters at The Shop by Island Creek Oysters, Lauryn and I discuss whether to have dinner at nearby Cong Tu Bot, Izakaya Minato, Terlingua, or Drifter’s Wife. We settle on Drifter’s Wife and enjoy a feast of skate wings with clams and pork meatballs with polenta.
Just down the street, outside Oxbow Blending & Bottling’s tasting room, Duckfat Friteshack serves Belgian frites, hand-cut and fried in duck fat, poutine, milk shakes, and a rotating list of decadent sandwiches to enjoy at picnic tables alfresco. A standout among local distilleries and tasting rooms is Root Wild Kombucha, serving a lineup of kombucha brewmaster Reid Emmerich’s imaginative and enjoyable kombucha brews and a selection of craft beer on draft, growlers to go, or now in cans: the Mint Melody flavor, a mix of spearmint, peppermint, nettle root, nettle leaf, and guayusa.
Washington Avenue is not just for the hungry. There are many boutiques and shops along the street worth checking out—my favorites include the natural wine shop Maine & Loire (owned by the couple behind Drifter’s Wife), with a vast selection of organic and biodynamic wines that taste like a place, not a point system. The range of wines runs from classic to downright funky, and the guidance offered is always well-informed. Down the street, Strata, a culinary knife shop and Japanese whetstone sharpening service, has a huge selection of small-scale-production knives from around the world.
Just off Washington Avenue, the multifaceted floral and design firm Plant Office is the creation of John Sundling, who brings his experience in theatrical set design to his floral designs and installations. New to the retail market, John has been creating truly exquisite floral arrangements and potted plant designs for commercial clients for many years.
Always on a mission of discovery, Lauryn and I decide to veer slightly off course down Fox Street to check out Portland Zoo, a somewhat mysterious tavern that opened in October. There is no sign on the tiny one-story building—but it might be overkill considering the turquoise wood-shingled siding, which makes its own statement among the neighboring Capes and warehouses. Inside, behind the cozy eight-seat bar, Erin Haggerty serves up craft beers from a handwritten menu, to a super soundtrack of funk and ‘90s hip-hop.
A great design resource on the edge of the East End is Old Port Specialty Tile on India Street. Just across the street, in a 19th-century livery stables building, is Heritage Seaweed. The shop and charming gallery sell seaweed-based food items, bath and body products, cookbooks, art, gifts, sustainable drinkware, and even clothing. Sold on the remarkable health benefits of seaweed, I bring home a jar of kelp purée to add to smoothies.
Back on my block, I hear a group of boys who live on the street skateboard back and forth outside my front windows. The sounds of their boyish play waft in, keeping me company. After a long day of walking up and down the Hill, I will sleep soundly. Then I’ll awake, as always, to the drone of the first Metro bus and the high-pitched squeak the engine makes as it labors up the Hill just after 5:00 a.m., marking a new day in the East End.