Last Calls

photos/The Fuge

Sebago Boring Company

I’ve had a low opinion of Sebago Brewing Company as a drinking establishment for a while now. My opinion, which I shared with anyone who’d listen, stemmed from an experience I had at their Old Port location, before they moved from Market Street to Fore Street last year. I showed up one evening to meet a friend for a drink. Sitting at the bar, I asked for a Jim Beam double, my usual at the time.

The bartender said no. He then informed me that it was against the law to serve me a double. Dumbstruck, I asked him to clarify. He repeated: It is against the law to put a double on the bar in front of me. Taken aback, I tried to reasonably inform him of the truth, that while it may be against Sebago’s policy, it certainly is not illegal to serve a double shot.

He would not relent. So, without further discussion, I asked for a shot, neat. What I got was a single, exactly one-ounce pour in the smallest shot glass I’ve ever seen outside a novelty shop. Then he asked me for $6.50. I pushed the shot back and, until last month, had not had a drink at Sebago since.

At the time, I took the experience personally, but I’ve since come to realize that there’s nothing personal about Sebago at all — and that’s the problem. The brewing company, which also has locations in South Portland, Gorham and Kennebunk, designs its restaurants to offer a homogenized, characterless, impersonal experience. Though locally owned, Sebago may as well be a national chain.

Take the atmosphere. The new Portland location could be in Anywhere USA. The space is large and open, with neutral colors and sparse décor. The walls in the front half of the place are bare save for some advertisements for Sebago beers and a Jordan’s Meats sign (all that remains of the factory that once stood on this spot).

The staff’s attitude is similarly generic, just a shade of polo shirt away from that of any corporate restaurant server. They’re friendly, attentive and efficient, but they’re not creating an experience any different than one you’d have at Chili’s or Applebee’s. It’s not their fault. They’re conforming to expectations about their appearance and demeanor that come from the top.

One of Sebago’s strengths is their robust menu. It offer nearly five dozen options at very reasonable price points. The selection ranges from typical pub fare to mid-scale Americana, with sautéed dishes, salads, sandwiches, burgers, and daily specials. During four recent visits, nearly every plate I or my guests ordered was plentiful and perfectly cooked. Only the Pesto Bruschetta ($8.99) could raise complaint — the tomatoes were much too chunky for the dish.

Sebago’s second strength, and perhaps its greatest draw, is the beer. There are five regular offerings, and a handful of seasonal and small-batch selections can usually be had as well, giving beer-lovers plenty of reason to return. I’m not a beer-lover, but everyone who accompanied me found something they enjoyed. There are flights available for sampling. The most notable I tried was a cask red, which has a long aftertaste, a slight fruitiness, and a note of purposeful flatness in the mouth, comparable to Smithwick’s.

The Pain Killer.

Of course, I came to Sebago to sample their cocktails. Given my previous experience, I was pleasantly surprised that the prices were lower than I’d expected. The drink menu is sorted into four sections. Warm Drinks, served in a coffee mug, are priced at or below $6.50. The Favorites section tops out with the light and dark rum Pain Killer, served in a tall 16 oz. glass for only $7.50. The two frozen options are a fruity Tropical Skittle for $6.75 and a Strawberry Mudslide for a quarter more. The Straight Up selections ranged in price between $6.50 and $9, the most expensive being the Dirty Double, a vodka martini made with Double Cross..

Of the eight drinks I tried, all were quite easy on the palette, though they did so by relying on the safety of sweetness. And in retrospect, the small amount of alcohol in Sebago’s cocktails made the drinks lose much of their luster.

On my third visit I had dinner and four cocktails in about a three-hour span: a Pain Killer while waiting for my friend to arrive, a S’more when we were seated, an Almond Joy when we ordered dinner, and finally the Starburst, which my friend did not care for and gave to me. Four drinks in three hours should have made me legally drunk, but walking up to the East End afterward I only felt a slight queasiness caused by all the sugar in those concoctions. I had no noticeable buzz.

That reinforced my earlier reluctance to drink at Sebago. They may have a good selection of beers, but their cocktails and liquors are not worth the visit. The relatively inexpensive prices are less about a good deal and more a reflection of the large glass of mixer you’re receiving. Ordering Jim Beam neat will now net you a standard pour in a hefty shooter glass for $5.25. Certainly respectable, but it wasn’t lost on me that 100 yards away I could be sitting at a bar that would serve me twice the amount for almost a buck less.

You could meet up with a large group of friends at Sebago and be assured that everyone would find something to their liking. It’s the type of safe restaurant you might take your parents to, or a blind date. But with so many other choices on the peninsula — establishments with distinctive atmospheres, refined cocktails and meals you’ll remember long afterward — Sebago is not a destination for a memorable evening.

— Carl Currie