Crooners and Cocktails
90 Exchange St., Portland
Fads and styles come and go, but the public’s appetite for nostalgia remains constant, as evidenced by the continued popularity of ’50s diners, hippie fashions, and ’80s synth-pop songs. Crooners and Cocktails, a self-described “supper club throwback” that opened in the Old Port about a year ago, is nostalgic by nature, with its slick black-and-white decor and Rat Pack soundtrack. But unlike those ubiquitous retro diners, Crooners and Cocktails doesn’t suffer from the delusion that the world ended in 1965. The proprietors have blended an old-school atmosphere with modern dining sensibilities to create an experience that feels, ironically, new.
My wife and daughter and I joined a couple friends there for brunch on a recent Sunday. We sat in one of the large, dimly lit booths in the back that’ll make anyone feel like a V.I.P.
The cocktail list contains classics like the Rob Roy and Brandy Alexander (both $10), as well as crooner-themed drinks like the Frank Sinatra (Jack Daniels on the rocks with a splash of water, $10) and the Sammy Davis Jr. (Jack and a glass bottle of Coke, $10). Brunch options included a mimosa ($3) and the house Bloody Mary ($5). One of our friends gave the basic Bloody a thumbs-up, but my wife and I split the specialty Bloody Mary ($10), and it was totally worth the splurge. The thick, slightly sweet, house-made grilled tomato juice was a perfect base for spicy Stoli Hot vodka and a generous dose of horseradish. Garnished with two spicy meatballs, a sour pickle and a celery stalk, the drink doubled as an appetizer.
Our 11-year-old ordered the Boston Cream Pie Stuffed French Toast ($16), served with crisp bacon and lightly seasoned homefries. It was right up her alley, and nearly as decadent as it sounded. The slight bitterness of the dark chocolate helped keep the sweetness in check.
One friend went with the other sweet option on the menu, the Bananas Foster Waffle ($16). The buttermilk waffle was crisp and fluffy, the caramel sauce complex and sweet. The grilled sausage patty on the side was juicy and well seasoned. Our other friend chose the Grilled Ham Steak Benedict ($16). She especially loved the bright, lemony hollandaise sauce. The ham was smoky, not too salty, and the eggs were expertly poached. In addition to a serving of potatoes, this dish included a side of rich and creamy truffled spinach.
I ordered the Chef’s Special Panini of the Day ($14), a warm sandwich of speck (a smoked, cured Italian ham), gruyere cheese, tomato, arugula and raw onion, the bread pressed to deliver a satisfying crunch. The flavors were excellent, though I would have liked something sweet (like a fig jam or fruit purée) as a counterpoint to the salty meat and bitter greens.
As is usually the case, my wife ended up with one of the best meals of the day: the Grilled Homemade Meatloaf Sandwich ($14) with horseradish sauce, soft Taleggio cheese, spinach and pickled onions. Unfortunately, the kitchen had run out of pickled onions and had to substitute raw ones, but that was a minor drawback to an otherwise incredible sandwich. On the side, a green salad tossed with a tart lemon-and-truffle-oil dressing well complemented the rich meatloaf.
If you want to take the expressway to Memory Lane, there are plenty of classic diners to choose from. But for a more sophisticated twist on nostalgic dining, I recommend Crooners and Cocktails. They do it my way.
— Dan Zarin
Crooners and Cocktails serves brunch on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.