Talk of how busy things are or aren’t in the Old Port is seasonal fodder. There’s always some level of discussion this time of year, but opinions vary and real data is hard to come by.
On the Fourth of July, there was lodging available when hotels sold out in years past, but we also have at least three new properties to fill up. Evasive parking is old news, but some prime spots have turned into al fresco dining options. Restaurants are overflowing, but some are maintaining pandemic seating guidelines and reduced hours. The point-counterpoint list goes on, and ultimately, I suspect it’s business as usual.
But really, is it?
“Portland has gotten to a strange point where we can’t even compare anymore,” said a bartender at one of Lee Harding Smith’s Rooms restaurants. “It’s ‘goals’ for me to get out and see what’s new and not just a different coat of paint and an alternate name. But, have you been to the new rooftop bar, Luna, at the Canopy Portland Waterfront Hotel on Commercial?”
Leaning forward on my barstool, I was all ears.
“I went up there with a few friends last weekend,” he said as he topped off my glass with the last of the luscious wine I wasn’t savoring. “We were irritated before we got there because they claim they’re Portland’s only rooftop bar, but what about Bayside Bowl? Luna also claims to have the best view but what about Top of the East (at the Westin Portland Harborview)? And Top of the East didn’t have to build and block off the view of other businesses and residents to charge $16 for a small cocktail. All the drinks up there are $16. As far as cocktails, Hunt & Alpine still kills it.”
Hunt & Alpine Club on Market Street debuted in 2013, and at the time felt exclusive and urban chic beyond anyplace else we had. Now, their specialty cocktails average $14, and the place is a lovely part of the landscape, promoting Allen’s Coffee Brandy and oozing local by charging a 5 percent health and wellness fee for employee benefits.
I fact-checked and all specialty cocktails at the very corporate Luna are $16. A Grey Goose vodka and tonic is $12, which gives the rest of us something to visualize.
For drastic contrast purposes, think of Lincolns. It’s a speakeasy and if you don’t already know where it is, I can’t tell you. Lincolns is at the other end of the spectrum. They sell top-shelf anything and tonic for $5. Yes, they too have a shtick. Everything is $5 at Lincolns and the overhead is low. Take a shot in the Wilkes booth. And so on.
But Luna makes me think more of New York City than Portland and I wonder if the NYC vacationers find this appealing. Do they come to Maine for something easily found at home? Do others think of it as progress? I’m not sure I do, but it’s more apples and oranges. Both fruits, but not easy to compare.
Joined by a few servers, my bartender friend turned the bitch-session topic to the Seize the Deal radio advertising discounts Smith’s Rooms often participate in. In exchange for gift certificates, a business will “buy” a certain amount of radio advertising dollar-for-dollar. In turn, the radio stations will sell the certificates for half off to the public, making it a three-way win. Most certificates come with disclaimers, and the majority are purchased by locals.
Everything is great until people redeem them and don’t tip on the total before the discount, or figure out how to spend $49.50 on a $50 certificate they purchased months ago for just $25. One of the servers called the bartender out on this train of thought.
“It isn’t just us impacted by those dumb certificates,” she said. “It’s all the costs, too. The restaurant isn’t bringing in the cash, and the kitchen is getting yelled at about portioning. It’s just a rearrangement of doing business, I guess. Remember Portland Dine-Around? It was the same thing, but it got people into the restaurant who might not come and we could make them valid just for slow nights or days. Do those Dine-Around books even exist anymore?”
My BFF used to get a Portland Dine-Around Card from her mother-in-law for the holidays every year. As of today, their website leads to an error page, indicating a pause or perhaps the end of a not-always appreciated era.
So, 2020 aside, I don’t know if it’s a busier year than in the past. Are there more people in town? Is more money coming in on smaller menus with raised prices? All this remains to be seen. While I’ll eventually drag my BFF to Luna, I’m sticking with the $5 happy hour slushy blueberry vodka and lemonades on Bayside Bowl’s rooftop.
Oh, I’m also planning a trip to New York City (stay tuned) where highs and lows are always the norms.
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].