I’ve calmed down a bit since the early years of my food obsessions, when I’d make complex itineraries packed with more places to eat than even Louis XIV could handle in a single day. (The time I made Dan eat a slice of Cheeseboard pizza in Berkeley immediately before a multi-course tasting dinner at Chez Panisse remains an infamous moment in our relationship.) But Portland, Maine has become so food-centric in the past few years that picking and choosing among the restaurants per square mile has become an exercise in shrewd planning.
As I noted, you could spend a day or two on one single block of Middle Street and not lack for options! The next time you’re in Portland, whether you’re planning ahead or flying by the seat of your pants, make time for a meal—or maybe even multiple meals—at Central Provisions.
Perched on a corner building that stretches between Fore Street and Wharf Street’s brick and cobblestone alley, the slim, bi-level spot divides itself between a convivial upper-level restaurant and an even more lively downstairs bar. Planked ceilings, glossy wood banquettes, and exposed brick walls keep it cozy in the warmly lit space. Cooks crank out plates in the open kitchen, swiftly but methodically placing dish after dish onto the L-shaped counter for servers to whisk away.
There are no traditional divisions between starters, entrees and sides on the menu: whether you’re choosing raw, cold, hot, or hearty, every dish is a self-contained unit, and it’s up to you to decide how much you want to take on. Likewise, the lineup of plates doesn’t restrict itself to a culinary focus: the menu runs the gamut from all-American staples like an Italian grinder, stuffed with mortadella and capicola, or luxurious specials like cured foie gras with uni (still a steal at $12 a plate).
Fair warning when judging how much you’ll want to/be able to eat: even though the CP team calls each item on the list a “small plate” and emphasizes the sharing aspect, the portion sizes are crazy generous. Unlike many restaurants of this genre that rack up the bills by downsizing the amount of food they send out with each course, Central Provisions gives you almost more than you can handle.
So if you want to keep it simple with a bacon cheeseburger and coleslaw (“a New England staple,” the menu reminds us) for lunch, you’re more than welcome. You can split a king’s ransom of halved soft-shell crab in creamy curry, a sizzling plate of bone marrow, or a pile of whisper-thin Benton’s ham slices if you’re so inclined. Add a fat, glazed brioche cinnamon roll at lunch or brunch to sweeten the deal.
Or if you want to do as I did and dig into a bowl of raw beef salad, with tender steak strips tossed in a spicy-salty-sweet Sriracha sauce with handfuls of whole peanuts, scallion rounds, onion slices, and cilantro leaves, you won’t be steered wrong. Though you will be a little sweaty by the time you reach the bottom of that deceptively deep bowl.
Downstairs, you can still order from the upstairs restaurant menu, with counters edging the room as an easy way to balance plates and glasses in this SRO spot. (Unless you can snag a stool at the wide bar that dominates the space, that is.) During lunch hours, it handles overfill from above with aplomb, but late at night, it turns into a destination in its own right. The Wharf and Fore corridors have a raucous, rowdy reputation, but the Central Provisions bar is a haven for people like us who are out for a little more civilized carousing. The bar becomes a delightful mess of menus, beer cans, cocktail swizzle sticks, and flung-down napkins, but the vibe stays friendly and welcoming.
Take a gander at the house cocktail list, including shareable punches, or just grab a glass of prosecco on draft alongside taps featuring the best brews from both Maine and abroad—Rising Tide‘s Spinnaker hefeweizen, Waypoint porter, or limited-edition gose make a diverse little Portland beer trifecta. Work your way through a few drinks while scooping handfuls of house-made corn nuts (the easiest way to this classic snack-lover’s heart) until you’re tossed out into the street at 1:00 am.
Central Provisions, 414 Fore St., Portland, ME. 207-805-1085. Open daily for lunch/brunch and dinner. No reservations accepted.