As much as I’d like to pretend time hasn’t marched on (by, say, neglecting to post anything recently), in fact, it only makes the changes seem more acute, the time more compressed once you finally take stock.
Just one measurement: Restaurants.
In two favorite cities — so different, yet so alike — the food scenes are exploding, nearly as much as the dear old ATL. In Asheville, NC, and Portland, Maine, Bill and I can barely keep up with the onerous tasks of seeking out the best and the newest. Let’s start with Portland:
So many old favorites are still on point, and still serving up some of the best food anywhere. Fore Street (still our top pick), Miyake, Street & Co., Becky’s Diner and Eventide Oyster Co. (we had to try to stop ourselves from eating lunch there every day) are as awe-inspiring as the first time we tried them. New discoveries included nearby Cape Elizabeth’s Inn by the Sea, Central Provisions (just after our return, Bon Appetit named it as one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country) and an epic meal at Hugo’s — our first since our first trip six years ago. From the swordfish with shishitos and lobster toast to the mad-chemist coffeemaker, it was a refined and joyous experience, thanks in part to the staff. Now part owners, they clearly love their work, and they love showing you how it’s done as you sit at the counter. I’m not usually a fan of counter- or family-style service, which seem to be the rage these days, but here it works — the chairs are comfortable, the space your own, except when you choose to interact with others. For cocktails, we also liked the Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, LFK at Longfellow Square and the North Point, near the old Port. Harraseeket’s Lunch & Lobster, in Freeport, filled our eyes, ears, nose and throats with everything you might expect of a dockside lobster shack on a gorgeous Maine August day. In Freeport, I also dropped in one of my favorite shops, Maine native’s Jill McGowan, specialist in great white shirts and well-fitting jeans (and what else do you want to wear, ever?). The shirts (this is the one I bought this time) and dresses are her own designs; the jeans and some other garments are US made and carefully curated by others, including my new favorite Levis and Raleigh Denim (the label reads “Made by Non-Automated Jeansmiths”). I also found this great handmade, hair-on calf leather purse at the small shop Kurier, by a former McGowan employee, now making her own charming leather goods. A bit further north, in Kennebunkport, the Cape Arundel Inn helped remind us that even in late summer, a real “bold coast” night can include flooded streets, flickering electricity and a glowing fireplace — all fine as long as you’re the one enjoying dinner overlooking the crashing waves, and not the desperate driver begging for a room after abandoning her stalled car. Yikes.
In Asheville, the scene is getting so crazily good so fast it’s hard for us to keep up. We’ve just heard that both Uber, and a local version of the car service, called CabHound, have just started up here — good news for those of us who love both downtown and West Asheville restaurants, and want to have cocktails at both. First, however, the bad news: Our once-beloved home base bar, Sazerac, has changed name and management, now called the Social Lounge. Gone are the careful, thoughtful craft cocktails, the TV tuned to TCM, the interesting bartenders, the delicious bar bites (so long, duck gumbo!). It’s the first casualty we’ve noticed to the tourist trade, now merely handy and open late (though not our first bad experience at a dining establishment — I’m looking at you and your desperately sad and overcooked pasta, Vincente’s.) The good news: There are so many good spots to replace it, starting with Nightbell downtown, and the “members-only” (it costs $1) Double Crown in West Asheville. John Fleer’s Rhubarb, also on Bon Appetit‘s Best 10 New Restaurants list, is fun, and the new Korea House is a welcome bit of diversity in this roots-centric village. Wicked Weed is hard to beat for lunch, and while Table is still a sentimental favorite, West Asheville’s the Admiral now wears the feathery plume in its cap of our top choice. (Vinyl fans: Lots of good stuff all over town, but Harvest Records, across the street, may have the deepest bins). Like Portland, Asheville also has a small, well-curated women’s shop I always visit: Maison Mary, on Broadway. Mary isn’t a designer, but several friends are, and she commissions a few pieces from them, all made in town. She also features vintage designer clothes and shoes (including Prada, Versace, Diane von Furstenburg, Ferragamo and many others) and costume jewelry. It’s a small shop, so you have to visit often, and it will pay if you listen to her suggestions to try some pieces on before dismissing them. This trip, I scored a graphic black-and-white print dress with a collar that also works as a hoodie, or simply loops down the front or back of the neckline.
Good lord. It’s fall already, isn’t it?