By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009
A onetime tent city and longtime blue-collar enclave, Portland's Munjoy Hill neighborhood has become a hot spot in Maine's biggest city. Taking up the eastern portion of the peninsula, the area has shops, restaurants, galleries and a theater, but it doesn't have the bustle of Old Port, the sumptuous mansions of the West End or the museums of downtown's Arts District. Translation: It's just you and the locals in a vibrant, eclectic neighborhood. And while there's snow still on the ground there, Munjoy Hill's density of sights, shops and dining spots offers plenty of opportunities to pop in someplace warm.
The first permanent European settlement in Portland was in the 1630s on Munjoy Hill. Almost since its founding, Portland had to fight to survive; it was burned down four times and only once by accident. On July 4, 1866, some kid (or so it's said) set off fireworks in a boathouse, sparking what was the biggest fire in U.S. history until Chicago ignited five years later. Roughly 10,000 people in the city lost their homes, though only two people died. The flames burned out before they ruined Munjoy Hill, and it was there, overlooking Casco Bay to the east and the charred city to the west, that thousands of homeless Portlanders lived in tents until they could rebuild.
The neighborhood, which officially starts east of the Franklin Arterial, one of the city's main north-south roads, has no Starbucks but at least four independent coffeehouses, echoing the "Shop Local: Keep Portland Independent" stickers in many of the city's shop and restaurant windows.
The main drag, Congress Street, runs east-west across the peninsula and is home to two of Munjoy Hill's landmarks. The 86-foot-tall, octagonal Portland Observatory (138 Congress St., 207-774-5561, http://www.portlandlandmarks.org/observatory) was built in 1807 by the enterprising Capt. Lemuel Moody to let ships communicate with the harbor, thanks to Moody's telescope. (He charged a fee, of course.) A group called Greater Portland Landmarks runs a museum, shop and tours of the tower from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day. Climb to the top to look out on the city and the bay.
The St. Lawrence Arts Center (76 Congress St., 207-775-5568, http://www.stlawrencearts.org) is a Queen Anne-style building that was erected in 1897 as a Congregationalist church. It fell into disrepair in the 1980s when its congregation dwindled, and the sanctuary was so damaged that it was torn down last year. However, after a long restoration, Parish Hall opened as a performing arts venue in 2001, and its resident company, Good Theater, stages six shows a year; other times, the center hosts concerts, comedians and the occasional clothing swap.
Another neighborhood venue is the North Star Music Cafe (225 Congress St., 207-699-2994, http://www.northstarmusiccafe.com), which opened in 2007 and features performances -- music, poetry or comedy -- seven days a week. The bar area has a coffeehouse vibe, with fair-trade tea-sippers and a soup-sandwich-salad menu, featuring North Star's signature rice and beans.
The cafe also serves breakfast; Portland is a breakfast town, with great bagel shops and egg-slingers and creative chefs churning out interesting, hearty breakfasts all across town. And Munjoy Hill has some winners.
For a light fuel-up, start out at the side-by-side Hilltop Coffee Shop (90 Congress St., 207-780-0025, http://www.hilltopcoffeeshop.com) and Rosemont Market & Bakery (88 Congress St., 207-774-8129). Hilltop's rustic-modern decor, including a salvaged-wood bar and local ironwork, and sunny front window make its few tables prime real estate. Next door, the four-year-old Rosemont Market sells fresh-baked pastries and breads and, for later, cheeses and meats from local farms with names such as Smiling Hill and Maine-ly Poultry, plus sandwiches, soup, produce and a wide variety of $10-and-under wines.
For brunch, the Front Room (73 Congress St., 207-773-3366, http://www.thefrontroomrestaurant.com) has you covered: It serves brunch daily from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Chef Harding Lee Smith opened the cozy restaurant in late 2005, giving Munjoy Hill residents a reason to stay on the Hill to eat: divine gnocchi with spinach, bacon and eggs ($8) at brunch, and goat cheese salad ($8) and lamb shepherd's pie ($15) at lunch and dinner. Check out its Maine beers on tap; the bar stays open nightly till 11.
Foodies love Portland for its top-notch restaurants, including Fore Street, Evangeline, 555 and Hugo's. But more budget-minded diners do just fine in Portland, too. Case in point: Hugo's chef, Rob Evans, opened the casual Duckfat (43 Middle St., 207-774-8080, http://www.duckfat.com) in 2005. What's with the name? The crispy Belgian-style fries are cooked in 25 percent duck fat. They come served in a white paper cone or, for pure decadence, in a bowl, dripping with gravy and cheese curds: the Quebecois favorite, poutine. Add beignets for breakfast and milkshakes for dessert, and Duckfat's soups, salads and sandwiches look practically abstemious.
At lunchtime, grab an Italian (a salami and provolone sub with peppers, pickles, onions, olives and oil) and browse the unexpected culinary delights at Colucci's Hilltop Market (135 Congress St., 207-774-2279): cookie sheets of just-baked raspberry crullers, deli cases of charcuterie, plus beer, wine and snacks.
Get your tea and entertainment, too, at Homegrown Herb & Tea (195 Congress St., 207-774-3484, http://www.homegrownherbandtea.com). Although some tea shops are Zen-calm, this one packs a little excitement every time owner Sarah Richards scales the counter to reach for an herb stored at the top of the apothecary-style set of drawers lining one wall of the narrow shop. Richards mixes each infusion by hand, sometimes grinding herbs in a mortar, sometimes dropping whole spices (star anise, cinnamon sticks) into a teapot or to-go cup of such brews as Hair of the Khan (for hangovers) and Aphrodi-Tea. Homegrown also sells locally thrown pottery, handmade journals and about 150 kinds of bulk herbs.
The shops in Munjoy Hill are surprisingly varied. A few blocks on Congress Street house such stores as thrift shops with high-chairs on the sidewalk and establishments offering high-end housewares. Munjoy Hill has become a design mecca of sorts; textile designer Angela Adams (273 Congress St., 207-774-3523, http://www.angelaadams.com) has her studio and showroom there. The Maine native's brightly colored, graphic-print wool rugs are sold at Neiman Marcus and Design Within Reach, but the shop on Congress Street is her only stand-alone store. It has her latest designs plus popular classics: cotton and wool rugs ($54-$1,950), paper goods, glassware and handbags in the front room, her collection of retro-modern furniture in the back. Adams's Maine-inspired designs include a green-and-blue pattern called, fittingly, Munjoy.
Still locally focused but no less whimsical, the housewares, accessories, handbags and furniture at Eli Phant (253 Congress St., 207-253-8000, http://www.eli-phant.com) are made by more than 40 artists, crafters, designers and producers, many of whom hail from Maine. The cheery storefront, which opened last May, has displays of silk-screened pillows, prints and textiles ("rock-paper-scissors"-design throw pillow, $40); quirky pieces (felt wine rack, $40); and eco/ironic items such as cereal-box-cover notebooks ($6) and key chains cut from old street signs ($10).
On the east end of Munjoy Hill, a long, grassy slope leads down to Casco Bay. On the Eastern Promenade (a.k.a. the Prom), locals romp with dogs and kids, while bikers, joggers and amblers follow the trail that hugs the shoreline on the East End of Portland and passes the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum and a collection of decommissioned rail cars. The trail is part of a citywide network that connects the city to nature preserves and neighborhoods outside downtown Portland (Portland Trails, 207-775-2411, http://www.trails.org), and it ends at the Maine State Pier, in Old Port.
Visit the museums, stop in the fish markets and commune with the crowds in bustling Old Port, but don't be surprised if you feel pulled back to Munjoy Hill . . . and not just for the milkshakes.