Ed note: The Danforth has closed since this article was originally published in Maine magazine, November 2022.
A moody aesthetic and top-notch drinks make this hot new destination an instant favorite.
The Danforth’s bartenders begin pouring drinks at 4 p.m., so I arrive at the Portland cocktail bar at 4 o’clock on the dot for an early happy hour. As I step through the restaurant’s front door toward the host stand, the afternoon sun is streaming through several large windows, illuminating the space that has been recently renovated into a posh, modern lounge. One wall of the bar area is lined with three plush, dark red velvet booths, while 12 backless barstools provide seating at the blond wooden counter. Midcentury modern glass pendant lights hang overhead, drawing the eye toward the sleek wooden shelving that showcases an extensive liquor collection.
Head bartender Carlo Caroscio and his team are shaking and stirring drinks, moving seamlessly around each other in the timeless dance of bartenders everywhere. I’m seated in a cozy booth, and shortly thereafter my friendly server delivers a cocktail named Down Ocean, a daiquiri made with grapefruit liqueur, sake, and sparkling wine. It’s tart and refreshing, as a well-made daiquiri always is, with some added complexity from the dry rice wine.
Expectations are high for the Danforth. The bar is the fourth establishment from Gin and Luck, a hospitality group headed by Portland resident Alex Day and his business partners Devon Tarby, David Kaplan, and Ravi DeRossi. The group owns three other cocktail bars—all called Death and Co.—in New York, Los Angeles, and Denver. The New York location opened in 2006 and became a trailblazer in the craft cocktail revival. While Day swears it was not his intention to open another bar in Portland, he was swayed by the opportunity to purchase the West End bistro Little Giant in September of 2021. Day and his husband, Andrew Ashey, whose architecture and design firm provided the makeover of the Danforth, moved to Portland from Los Angeles in 2019, attracted to the pace of life in a smaller city. After a substantial interior renovation, the Danforth opened in July and became an instant hit with Portlanders looking for a special night out and an upscale spot for a drink after work.
The cocktail list at the Danforth is composed of ten drinks, beginning with a light cucumber-melon spritz and ending with boozier classics such as variations on the old-fashioned and the Manhattan, called Hyperion Old Fashioned and West End, respectively. The menu, at least on its face, seems surprisingly simple—there’s no long list of ingredients, unfamiliar liqueurs, or specialty syrups mentioned. Rather, drink descriptions are short, with three to five ingredients that seem approachable and familiar. Later, Day tells me this simplicity is by design. He says the concise list “has hidden layers that you can peel back if you want to, but we’re not going to put them right in front of you.”
Day’s success in creating approachable yet intriguing cocktails is evident in the Impossible Love—a frothy mix of green chile vodka, peach liqueur, and pineapple juice. It’s another take on a daiquiri, made with vodka. Always popular with drinkers, vodka has long been eschewed by serious craft cocktail enthusiasts. But Day says no more. “We were the worst offenders back in the day,” he tells me. “We were such snooty, smug jerks. But that world doesn’t exist anymore.” At the Danforth, he’s more interested in ensuring that customers feel comfortable and have a good time than insisting that a proper martini is made with gin and not vodka.
The food at the Danforth is another surprise, revealing a depth I didn’t anticipate from an establishment that is primarily a cocktail bar. Chef Michael Boomhower, most recently of Central Provisions in the Old Port, offers a robust menu of nine share plates and five large-format entrees. When I return for dinner, my husband and I are seated in the lounge, a room adjacent to the bar that seats 75 in burgundy velvet booths and clusters of mustard-yellow swiveling barrel chairs. The mood in the lounge is energetic as our upbeat server delivers a parade of small plates. I sip an Echelon, a riff on a margarita made slightly savory by the addition of celery juice and sesame, and dig into the campanelle pasta, each bite coated in a radish-greens pesto that leaves a lingering spiciness.
Other popular appetizers include Pigs in a Blanket, small bites made from fennel sausage wrapped in puff pastry; griddled head-on shrimp; and beef tartare served on a crusty piece of Standard Baking Company sourdough. The salad, a simple combination of baby leaf lettuces, crispy fried shallots, croutons, and a light Caesar dressing, ends up being one of my favorite dishes. My entrée, a half chicken with a seared, crispy skin, is finished with smoked butter and sits atop a flavorful corn, zucchini, and pepper succotash. My husband’s vegetarian entrée, a decadent mushroom polenta, is reminiscent of a soufflé with its creamy, rich texture. Whole roasted branzino, a dry-aged rib eye, and a burger round out the meal options.
After only four months, the Danforth already feels like a classic. General manager Lucy Comaskey tells me that some repeat customers have found their favorites on the specialty drink list, while others ask for “dealer’s choice,” an off-menu drink of the bartender’s design. Whether it’s drinks and snacks at the bar or a multi-course meal in the loungy dining room, Portlanders are eagerly exploring the many moods of this multifaceted West End destination.
The Danforth | 211 Danforth St., Portland | 207.536.0361
The small space adjacent to the Danforth on Clark Street has been home to several businesses, including a market, sandwich shop, and bakery. Now it’s home to Zu Bakery, from baker Barak Olins, who sold his bread at the Brunswick Farmers’ Market for years. Olins’s bread, including the burger buns used at the Danforth, is made from organic and Maine-grown grains. Coffee and pastries are available at the shop in the mornings, and freshly baked bread becomes available as it’s ready throughout the day.