Lurking in the shadow of Portland’s knockout dining scene is the city’s equally vibrant, somewhat more seedy, underappreciated drinking scene. Maine is riding high on the wave of the American craft beer movement, so it comes as no shock that tap lines around the city are downright crowded with tasty, small-batch beers. The high quality of the cocktail ecosystem, however, comes as more of a surprise. Inspired bartenders are churning out inventive and tasty cocktails all over town in settings both sophisticated and divey. Many are pouring Maine-made spirits, as distilleries like Portland’s Maine Craft Distilling have boomed in recent years (though not a bar, per se, their tasting room is worth a stop).
If I may lay out my biases, I appreciate a good pub, and that particular New England (and old England) tradition is strong around the Forest City. These five standout bars run the gamut from cozy public houses to hangouts with live entertainment to sleek, see-and-be-seen drinkeries.
With bookshelves lining the walls, overstuffed couches straight out of a study, and antique typewriters strewn about, LFK has a vaguely literary vibe. But don’t let the bohemian atmosphere distract you from the smart cocktail list, overwhelmingly local beer taps, and commendable tapas menu. This place is everything you want in a hangout: a little hip and perfectly comfortable.
Portland Hunt & Alpine Club
Great care went into the five-page cocktail menu and massive spirits list at this Scandinavian-themed bar on the edge of the Old Port. There’s artistry here—the menu credits each cocktail’s inventor—but there’s also a sense of camp, as with the Foxy Boxer, a mix of bitter Italian Frenet liqueur and Maine’s largely reviled retro soft drink, Moxie.
Novare Res Bier Café
One of the country’s best beer bars, Novare Res is bringing back the rathskeller, a simple and ever-so-slightly dingy room with 30 rotating, exquisitely curated taps of world-class imported beer, many of which are rarely poured imports. Both bar and beer garden are often crowded, with good reason—this place is a Portland classic.
The large, semi-circular bar at this Gothic Revival church turned restaurant is worth a visit even if you don’t have dinner reservations. Inspired cocktails like the Holier Than Thou (elderflower liquor, grapefruit juice, and sparkling wine) and the Divinity (calvados apple brandy, rye, cinnamon, lemon, and sea salt) pay homage to the once sanctified surroundings.
A vaguely Irish pub on Munjoy Hill, The Snug is a drinker’s bar, heavy on whisky and microbrews, with a full bar and crackerjack bartenders but no formal drink menu. Inside, it’s all worn brick and warm wooden booths, the kind of place to have an intense debate over art or books, but a little too loudly for it to seem sophisticated.