December 24, 2014

Bar Food? Paper Plates, Plastic Wrappers and Regret

As last week’s Nor’easter reminded us, baby, it’s cold outside. Fortunately, Portland’s plethora of bars and restaurants offer hours of indoor entertainment. Drinking on an empty stomach is never a good idea (as hard lessons learned in college will attest), but many Portland bars tend towards $14 cocktails and $8-10 small plates to accompany them. A happy hour for two can quickly turn into a $100 meal—certainly not a sustainable pace until spring.  

Fortunately, even the grittiest bar is legally required to serve some sort of food. Specifically, Maine liquor laws require that “Class A Lounges must offer food for sale during all times they are serving liquor.” The law goes on to elaborate, specifically that salads, hamburgers, and hotdogs are in, but popcorn, chips, or pretzels are out. So two friends and I set out to explore the cheaper side of drinking and snacking through Portland.  

On a recent quiet Saturday night, couples at the Snug played card games and swapped real-life ghost stories. For a while, the Snug kept its customers satisfied with stiff drinks, soft pretzels, and black bean burgers. Back then—during what I refer to as “the Glory Days”—bar staff allowed customers to bring in slices from neighboring OTTO Pizza. Last December, the Snug’s owner Margaret Lyons revealed a relatively extensive menu offering vegetarian pub fare.  

We ordered mixed drinks ($6), but found that the expletive-laced menu was gone. My friend mourned the loss of the opportunity to consume an entire sleeve of Ritz crackers and a block of cheese in public. Undeterred, I ordered a soft pretzel, now made by South Portland bakery Little Bigs ($2), over the two tempting soup options: carrot ginger and creamy tomato with homemade croutons ($6). The pretzel was perfectly serviceable, salty and chewy, with a small side of yellow mustard for dipping.  

Buoyed by our success at the Snug, we plunged into the frigid November night air and headed through the quiet East End streets to Sangillo’s. Figuring we’d at least find sustenance in the form of Jell-O (shots), we were warmly welcomed into the neighborhood bar. Spying a hot dog warmer, we asked about the food options, and with a laugh, the bartender offered up a surprisingly diverse selection of Hot Pockets, corn dogs, and pizza. Figuring corn dogs pair best with tequila Jell-O, we went with two dogs and three shots, totaling $13. A squiggle of yellow mustard completed the package and before our systems could process what we’d done, we were back outside hailing a cab across town.  

Our first disappointment of the night came at Mathew’s, where we learned their cook was “out sick.” Portland’s oldest bar allegedly offers a small menu of hamburgers, chimichangas, and fried snacks like onion rings and jalapeno poppers, but admittedly no one’s there for the food. Our whiskey and ginger ales came in pint glasses for $7, and the friendly bouncer chatted with us while we sipped. But soon our hunger caused us to bid the sparse crowd at Mathew’s farewell.

We prowled the Old Port, sticking our heads in bars and asking, “got any food?” We heard recommendations for other area pubs, tales of frozen burritos labeled “in case of inspector,” pitches for karaoke, and were pointed to a lone rack of potato chips. Finally, exhausted from the search for hot dogs in dark places, we settled at Andy’s Old Port Tavern with a basket of popcorn and their full pub menu.

Eating at some of Portland’s oldest, classic, grittiest bars is comparable to hitting the freezer case of the 7-11 on your way home after a bender: not something you’d do in broad daylight, but satisfying, albeit sodium-laden. This winter, consider visiting bars you might not otherwise frequent, but eat at your own risk.  

The Snug Pub | 223 Congress Street | daily, 5 pm-1 am
Sangillo’s Tavern | 18 Hampshire Street | daily, 8 am-1 am
Mathew’s Pub | 133 Free Street | daily, 10 am-1 am
Commercial Street Pub | 129 Commercial Street | 10:30 am-1 am

Originally published in DigPortland on December 10, 2014.