Originally published in Maine magazine, June 2022.
The first time I stop in at Smalls, a new cafe in Portland’s West End, it’s for a breakfast sandwich. A friend told me it is in the running for the best in the city, so I parked on a steep hill off Brackett Street and found the entrance to the shop, which is in a rambling gray-shingled building. Inside, a long white counter with a gleaming blue espresso machine runs the length of one wall and provides bar seating for seven. A large mirror with a mod black and white tile surround hangs over the bar and reflects three globe pendant lights.
After I place my order at the counter, I walk through the cafe into the next room to peruse the selection of housewares, beauty products, and pantry items. Shelves display tapered beeswax candles, herbal tinctures promising relaxation, and small, funky ceramic pieces. Yet another room of goodies beckons me up four slightly crooked stairs, where I find tins of cured fish, honey-sweetened jams, spice mixes, and vegan candies. A refrigerator case holds local beers, funky wines, cured meats, cheeses, and pickled items.
The curator behind the eclectic offerings at Smalls is Samantha Knopf, who opened the cafe and market in January with business partner Karl Deuben of East Ender, a restaurant on Middle Street. Knopf lived in New York City for over 20 years and worked at times as a designer, bartender, server, doula, and florist before moving to Maine in February 2020. She says her aim at Smalls is to provide a comfortable space for people to connect with friends over good, affordable food and drink while also showcasing products from small, independent makers.
The early popularity of Smalls indicates it has quickly built a loyal following with Portlanders. The breakfast sandwich does end up being superlative-worthy, with a soft, toasted bun, crispy bacon, and a square of tender steamed eggs. A garlic-herb feta spread delivers a sharp saltiness without overwhelming the mild egg, and a smear of tomato mayonnaise lends sweetness to the whole thing.
The cafe’s kitchen is just a small corner of the space behind the bar. Chef Chelsea Cayer borrows kitchen space from East Ender to prepare many of the makings of the cafe’s 20 menu items. At Smalls, Cayer turns out a selection of sandwiches, salads, and snacks like marinated beets and spiced nuts using just a convection oven and a panini press. When I return to Smalls for dinner, I grab an available barstool next to a couple and a pair of friends. The rest of the seats are full—six more barstools line a counter along the other wall, and a table and bench seating are tucked into the nooks next to the front entrance. Knopf says she loves the small space of the cafe, which seats about 20, and has no plans to expand. The simple counter service model allows one or two staff members to keep an eye on all the customers.
I begin my meal with a Last Word cocktail, a gin-based classic with lime and green chartreuse over crushed ice in a vintage tumbler. My half-portion of the Caesar salad is simple and well done. Knopf tells me she judges a place by its Caesar salad, so if you offer one, it has to be good. Smalls’ version is indeed good, dressed with a shallot-Parmesan vinaigrette and filled with pebbly nubs of cheese and craggy croutons.
A wide ceramic bowl full of fat white cannellini beans warmed in olive oil arrives next. I scoop up the beans with a thick piece of toast from South Portland’s Solo Cucina market. They’re pleasantly salty and contain chunks of oil-poached swordfish and dabs of a bright arugula pesto. I round out my meal with half a ball of burrata and a few slices of salty serrano ham in a pool of housemade red pepper jelly.
My third visit to Smalls is for happy hour with a few friends, and we cozy up on a striped window seat. We share the crispy grilled cheese sweetened with caramelized onions, and chicken liver pâté complemented by a tangy cherry chutney. Afterward we browse the shop, and I weigh purchasing a rose-pistachio spice blend against restocking my chili crisp from Portland’s Little Brother Chinese Food.
Whatever you find yourself in need of, Smalls likely has the answer. Whether it’s a latte in the morning or a flower bouquet and a bottle of wine on your way to a friend’s, this cafe and market can provide. Special enough for date night but casual enough for a laptop session, Smalls successfully navigates the changing landscape of dining as we all reestablish our habits in this new world.
Smalls | 28 Brackett St., Portland
What’s in a Name?
Smalls’ owner Samantha Knopf envisioned a cafe/gift shop/ market that would be at home in the back of a New York bodega. She says the name refers to “small makers, small products, small space,” and the idea of treating yourself with something every day. The accessible prices of Smalls’ food and drink make daily visits possible.