“I don’t think the dog is drinking Jack and Coke," Steve DiMillo said, "but I don’t know.” (Courtesy DiMillo's Floating Restaurant)
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Dimillo’s Floating Restaurant is a landmark (a watermark?) on a map that still makes Portland a great place to live.

Sure, it’s a famous tourist trap, but a damn good one that gives folks From Away a value for their dollar, top-notch service, free parking, and a setting that’s unique and authentic. Owned and operated for generations by the DiMillo family, it also speaks to those who know the place is run by someone who understands the 207. 

That someone is patriarch Steve DiMillio who once told me his first job was washing dishes in his father’s busy restaurant kitchen.

“I was 13 years old,” DiMillo said. “My dad took two milk crates and put one on top of the other. He wrapped an oversized apron on me and lifted me onto the top crate, where I leaned into a sink full of greasy dishes, and never got out.” 

Before COVID-19, locals also knew DiMillo’s as a must on the happy-hour circuit (think dreamy mussels) with strategic pricing to help survive our endless winters. DiMillo’s was the site of my youngest daughter’s high school graduation luncheon, and of the new Portland Phoenix launch party. And, of course, I’ve been to many industry wine shows there, with my BFF in tow as a life preserver.

Then, there was the time I met a date at DiMillo’s. We had spoken at length and swapped photos, and if nothing else, he seemed like a smart guy who might be clever. We agreed to meet at the two bar stools closest to the service station, facing the water.

When I arrived and peeked around the lounge door, I saw it was indeed the man in the pictures. The only caveat is he was at least 15 years older than portrayed. As if that wasn’t deceiving enough, he was the husband in one of the regular couples who dined with me weekly at my restaurant job.

Scramming ninja-style, I went to J’s and ate oysters.

As much as Portland is a food town, it’s an equally dog-friendly place, which helps offset the urban-chic gentrification. Portland has two dog parks maintained by the city (an applauded use of my tax dollars), access to East End Beach for aquatic recreation during certain hours, and miles of trails. For the most part, we’re good dog citizens (although if you leave your dog’s poop somewhere, you will undoubtedly be called out on Nextdoor).

With a few exceptions, these two passions – dining and dogs – do not mix, so I was both amused and appalled when DiMillo shared a picture of a white Pomeranian, sitting up in a high chair at a table for three, on the deck at his restaurant. It’s uncharitable, but I’m pointing fingers at someone From Away for pulling such a stunt. 

“Some people just take it too far,” DiMillo said. “A service animal is trained for a variety of purposes but mainly to help their owner maneuver through life. In a public facility, especially a restaurant, the animal should remain at the feet of its owner and pretty much be unnoticed. Folks, please don’t abuse the system by outfitting your dear pet with an SA (service animal) vest just so you can take it to dinner, and maybe rethink asking for a high chair and a cup of water for your pet. People are just obsessed with their pets these days. I love dogs, but there’s a decorum not being followed these days.”

Being the dog lovers we are, locals know their well-behaved, four-pawed companions are welcome on the Porthole deck, outside at Gilbert’s Chowder House, Portland Lobster Company, and many breweries, to name a few. Off the peninsula, there’s Elsmere, Lenny’s, Sam’s, Picnic-ettes at Thompson’s Point, and more. Some of these places provide bottomless water bowls and an appreciation for soulful live blues that most dogs don’t have access to.

But unless a dog is an authentically certified service or therapy animal, there’s no room for it at places like DiMillo’s, or other indoor bars and restaurants struggling to stay afloat. 

Personally, I have many stories about animals in restaurants and will admit I’ve turned my head when I should have asked people to leave. The teacup Yorkie eating out of his dad’s briefcase and the rabbit in a cage made to look like a tapestry carpetbag are my favorites. Adorable or not, I probably shouldn’t have given that tiny dog a piece of bacon. 

Bottom line is, things are hard enough these days for restaurateurs and people who need service animals for whatever reason. So, no unauthorized dogs in restaurants, OK? And that includes the guy I stood up who tried to pass himself off as a young pup.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].

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