Originally published in Maine magazine, March 2022.
A new type of tavern is open in the West End of Portland. With its deep burgundy leather banquettes, glass-globed sconces that cast a warm glow, and flickering candles perched on stacks of cookbooks, Wayside Tavern sets the mood as a cozy destination for meeting with friends. The restaurant and bar are located in the Francis, a boutique hotel in a recently renovated 1881 Italianate mansion with natural wood crown mouldings, hardwood floors, and a brick fireplace.
The food at Wayside Tavern manages to be both comforting and exciting at the same time. Owners Siobhán and Michael Sindoni pull from their travels in Italy and Michael’s classic culinary training to create a menu with hints of intrigue. Michael rolls foie gras in crushed maple-candied almonds to create truffles that then sit in a pool of hot pepper jelly. Roasted half-moons of delicata squash come garnished with tangy Gorgonzola cheese and drizzled with spicy honey, while bitter chicory greens get the Caesar salad treatment, tossed with a creamy anchovy-laden dressing and crunchy bread crumbs.
Those looking for more traditional tavern fare will find items like fried cod bites, crispy-skinned roast chicken, and a satisfyingly peppery steak au poivre. Mondays bring a ten-dollar smashed patty burger on a potato roll. “The use of the word ‘tavern’ was very deliberate,” says Michael, who is the chef. “You can come in and get a burger or beer-battered fish if that’s what you’re going for.”
Michael is very familiar with the experience of sitting at the marble-topped bar that flanks one wall of the three small dining rooms: he regularly enjoyed meals at Flood’s, the restaurant that Palace Diner owner Greg Mitchell ran in the space until August 2020. Siobhán and Michael live down the street, and both loved the neighborhood feel of Flood’s. The closure of Mitchell’s restaurant presented the couple with the serendipitous opportunity to realize their own dreams of owning a restaurant. Conscious that three restaurants have occupied the space in the past four years, Siobhán says, “We want to be here for years to come.”
Many West End residents seem to concur, as Wayside Tavern attracts regulars drawn to the Italian influences that appear throughout the menu. The eggplant terrine has become a fixture at the insistence of customers, even when it is out of season. Chef de cuisine Matt Jatczak, who runs the daily operations of the restaurant, prepares the dish Sicilian-style, which means forgoing the heavy breading. Instead, he coats the eggplant only in egg before frying it, then layers it into a mold with garlic and chile-spiked ricotta. The terrine is then sliced and topped with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese, resulting in an elevated version of a homey eggplant parmesan.
Michael hand makes pasta, mozzarella, and bread using techniques he honed during several stints cooking in Italy. He tosses strands of fettuccini with a tomato sauce blended with ’nduja, a spicy Italian sausage. Toasted sourdough bread is dunked in chicken broth until it softens, thickly spread with ricotta cheese, and topped with slices of crispy-skinned chicken thighs. Pine nuts and wine-plumped golden raisins deliver contrasting texture and acidity. These simple yet elegant dishes show off the chef’s ability to deliver unexpected twists using familiar ingredients.
Siobhán oversees the wine and bar program, using her experience as a certified sommelier to curate a list of primarily Italian and French wines. She gravitates toward wine “that has a sense of place, that’s not cookie-cutter.” She tells me the most popular wine served by the glass last summer was an orange wine made from white grapes that were fermented with the skins, resulting in an amber color and bolder flavor. As for how her atypical wine selections are received, Siobhán says, “People here are really open. It’s been pretty incredible.”
The cocktail selection hews closer to the traditional, with just six classics listed. A gin martini, grapefruit daquiri, and rye Manhattan all receive small tweaks—an offbeat vermouth here, a housemade cordial there. After dinner, a long list of amari—Italian liqueurs—offer a sweet, herbaceous nightcap. The Irish-ish Coffee, a blend of coffee, crème de cacao, and a housemade walnut liqueur called nocino topped with a thick cap of pistachio cream, nicely balances the sweetness of a tiramisu or apple butternut squash cake.
Siobhán says it can be challenging for a restaurant to be seen as a place to enjoy a burger at the bar as well as a four-course meal with nice wine. But Wayside Tavern manages to pull off both. On a recent visit, my friends and I shared several of the dozen or so small plates, from garlic-chile butter broiled oysters to a creamy salt cod and olive tapenade dip. Then I dug in to a grass-fed steak accompanied by a glass of Mendocino red from Siobhán’s thoughtful wine list. Whatever route you take, Wayside Tavern provides a pleasant path to get there.
Wayside Tavern | 747 Congress St., Portland | 207.613.9568
On A Roll
After living in Dallas, Texas, for seven years, Siobhán and Michael Sindoni made the move to Portland in 2019 after hearing from friends how incredible Maine life is. With “plenty of time for R and D” during the pandemic, Michael opened Roll Call, a food cart serving roast beef, porchetta, and turkey sandwiches. The cart was a hit with the busy staff at Maine Medical Center, where many food trucks gather during the lunch hour. Michael’s younger brother, Nick, manages the cart’s day-to-day operations and is currently searching for a brick-and-mortar home for the business.