A date with Portland’s hotel bars
By Chris Busby
Other than Mother’s Day brunch and adultery, most locals figure there’s no reason to drink in a hotel bar. Why hang out with a bunch of tourists and pay too much for the pleasure?, the thinking goes.
But there can be good reasons to hit the Four Seasons, do a shot at the Marriott, work your mojo at the HoJo, start tiltin’ at the Hilton, and so on.
Hotel bars in Maine’s smaller burgs often double as local hangouts, like the Bounty Tavern at the Holiday Inn in Bath. As a pick-up spot, it’s hard to beat a bar with rooms for rent upstairs and a steady stream of strangers drinking on company credit cards.
Portland’s best hotel bars have a romantic — if vaguely licentious — atmosphere, a cosmopolitan sophistication you otherwise have to travel to experience: dim lighting, old-growth woodwork, comfy chairs and couches, and bartenders who treat you with more courtesy than you deserve. The drinks cost no more than you’d pay at a comparably classy restaurant, and there’s always the possibility a drunk celebrity will stumble in after a night on the town: Hey, isn’t that Kiefer Sutherland sprawled out on the carpet? Wow, he’s a lot smaller in person.
As Bollard art directors Sean Wilkinson and The Fuge, contributing cocktail writer John Myers and I discovered on a recent research tour, downtown Portland’s hotel bars are a mixed bag, but they all offer something for those seeking a romantic night out, if only the opportunity to be anonymous.
Whether you’ve got a hot date, a babysitter, or a pending indictment, Portland has the hotel bar for you. And now, just in time for Valentine’s Day, you have this handy guide.
Port of Call — Holiday Inn by the Bay
Port of Call’s strongest selling point is the fact no one around here knows it exists. To wit: though our group has decades of local drinking experience between us, we were headed en masse into the dining room until an alert waitress — perhaps noticing we’d had a couple warm-ups — steered us back out to the lobby and into the proper chamber.
If complete anonymity is what you’re after, join the closeted clergy, college professors and co-eds here for a beer.
This place is depressing. It feels just like one of the rooms upstairs — same furniture, ceiling tiles, dull prints of paintings depicting old ships in profile — except there’s no window to the outside world and you can’t turn off the TVs. There’s a widescreen behind the bar with the volume on and an even larger TV occupies another corner, framed by rope-lights and flanked by a fake plant.
Port of Call has more beer on tap than the other hotel bars downtown (most of which have no taps at all), and almost all of it’s good and local. That satisfied me, but my companions were less enthused about their cocktails. “How’s your gin gimlet?” I asked Myers. “Well, it has ice in it,” he answered. The free happy-hour munchies consisted of chicken nuggets desiccated by overexposure to Sterno, and a modest platter of veggies and fruit with a non-descript dip.
The bartender was capable, but Myers noticed she was getting a bit panicky shortly before we left. The coolers behind the bar had apparently run out of coolant, yet the system was still running, the heat it generates now gradually warming all the beverages sealed within (a not unheard-of occurrence, fellow bartender Myers explained). Between the four of us — including my draft, Myers’ aforementioned gimlet, a well-vodka martini for Sean and The Fuge’s Rob Roy — the tab was just $20, the cheapest of the night.
This Holiday Inn is currently for sale. There’s hope the next owners will remodel Port of Call, give it some genuine character, or at least take down the rope lighting. Or better yet, level the entire hotel — a Floridian beach–style eyesore city planners would never approve today — and start from scratch. Oh, and get better dip.
Hot Date: one star
Night Out: one star
Illicit Tryst: five stars
Open until 10 p.m. nightly.
Top of the East — Eastland Park Hotel
The night we visited, Top of the East was just weeks away from a major renovation. That must explain the chair condoms.
From just feet away in the dimly lit lounge, the seats around the tables looked like elegant, modern furniture. In reality, they were metal-framed, cushioned banquet chairs completely covered in a black, spandex-like fabric. The illusion is so easily dispelled (just sit down) that this must have been a temporary measure. The bartender said to expect new furniture, new carpet, and a new overall look when the bar reopens in late February or March.
Not that it matters. The main attraction here will always be the great views. Perched 13 floors above the plebian streets, you can’t feel unimportant — an extra boost of confidence you may need on a first date. Married couples can have a fun time up here, and bad parents can relax knowing they’re keeping an eye on the house. If you’re a local up to no good, slither elsewhere: Top of the East is popular with Portlanders, and there’s nowhere to hide. Should your sin be suddenly discovered, the temptation to jump out a window could prove too strong.
We mostly stuck to the same drinks we’d had at Port of Call (a bottle of Geary’s for me; no drafts here), which were good and amounted to just over $25, pre-tip. There’s an appetizer menu that’s heavy on seafood (lobster cakes, scallops wrapped in bacon, crab-stuffed mushrooms, etc.) and priced accordingly, but we stuck to a liquid diet.
Top of the East stopped offering mellow live music a while ago. That’s a shame. On our visit, the house system was playing ’80s pop R&B, which some human rights groups define as torture under the Geneva Conventions. And when they redesign the room, management should strongly consider reorienting the two leather couches so they’re no longer facing each other, putting good couples at the mercy of ugly couples who tongue-kiss in public.
Hot Date: five stars
Night Out: four stars
Illicit Tryst: one star
Open until 1 a.m. Thurs. – Sat., midnight Sun. – Wed.
It’s fitting that the bar in the hotel with fake-brick siding has a faux-fireplace where gas-fed flames play over an arrangement of faux-stone briquettes. At least the liquor’s real.
Eve’s at the Garden is a fine dining restaurant with a functional, though perfunctory, bar. It’s tiny — eight bar seats and eight nearby; four in front of the “fireplace” — and only vaguely delineated from the adjoining dining room and lobby, so anyone checking in can check you out. In the summer, when the garden courtyard is open, you may find some cover behind foliage.
Unless you’re having dinner or staying the night, there’s not much of a draw here. It’s a bright and empty space. Smooth jazz taints the atmosphere like the faint whiff of a fart. Somehow we blew $47.
Hot Date: one star
Night Out: two stars
Illicit Tryst: two stars
Open until 11 p.m. nightly
Great American Grill — Hilton Garden Inn
Here’s another lost opportunity, another bar tacked onto the lobby as an afterthought, a small courtesy to tippling travelers, given grudgingly. And to think: we were gonna let the guy who built this develop the Maine State Pier! Talk about a bullet dodged…
Sparse liquor selection, mostly national bottled beers, zero character. Great American Grill is the trademarked name of restaurants in the Hilton hotel chain. Paris wouldn’t be caught dead in one. This is not a date destination or an attractive option for couples. It’s soulless enough to sap the passion from the hottest affair, though its lack of appeal to locals makes it relatively safe territory.
Our bartender had personality and made decent drinks, but we didn’t have $36.50 worth of fun.
Hot Date: half-star
Night Out: half-star
Illicit Tryst: two stars
Open until 11 p.m. nightly.
The Armory gets it right.
This subterranean lounge is classy, yet comfortable, with a sizeable bar, good beers on tap, a well-stocked back shelf, and able and affable staff. Sure, there are cheesy touches, like the fake-library wallpaper and table lamps with tiny bulbs that flicker like candlelight. But there’s also real art on the walls: oil paintings of Portland by the late Cape Elizabeth artist Jon Legere, each illuminated by its own frame light. There are nooks to hide in and strategically placed mirrors that allow you to eye the entrance without turning your guilty head.
That said, undercover lovers beware. Every local who discovers the Armory’s charms thinks it’s their own little secret, so it’s fast becoming no one’s hideaway. It’s great for dates and couples, and lonely singles will find it a fine place to brood and look worldly until a new love comes along. Old Port bar and restaurant workers drink here in droves — always a good sign.
We dropped about $38 on our round, but in retrospect, may have actually had two. It’s hard to say. Time slips away in the dimness beneath Milk Street. Love lingers like a regular at last call the staff is too kind to kick out.
Hot Date: five stars
Night Out: five stars
Illicit Tryst: two stars
Open Sun. and Mon. until 11 p.m., Tues.—Thurs. until midnight, Fri. and Sat. until 1 a.m.