It was four years ago — the beginning of 2008 — that Portland prepared to get its moment at the center of the nation's food consciousness. That year national newspapers and magazines wrote glowing overviews of our food scene, and ambitious restaurants were opening with regularity. It was a moment of great hope and enthusiasm. And it was bad timing. By year's end, the economy had tanked, food tourism sagged, and running a successful restaurant in Maine became more of a challenge. At the same time the national mood soured too, and the optimism that accompanied Obama's election gave way to three years of slog.
OTHERWORLDLY FLAVORS Al Huda at Morrill’s Corner.
So thanks to the timing of its peak, the fortunes of Maine's restaurant scene uniquely paralleled that of the national mood in recent years. Will the trend continue in 2012? Considering the Maine food scene from the perspective of an election year suggests some trends to watch in the next 12 months.
Politics and food are always entwined. It is the industry that gave us Herman Cain, and it was lobbying for the Restaurant Association of America that turned him on to politics. Susan Collins is obsessed with potatoes. And candidates will haunt pizza places, dinners, and doughnut shops for the next year, mixing with us commoners. The down economy makes these sort of modest spots especially appealing. Last year Pat's Pizza opened a Portland location, Otto's Pizza expanded to a large and handsome space on the bottom of Munjoy Hill, and Roma Pizza opened on Exchange Street. 2012 should be another good year for good pizza.
For similar reasons doughnut shops, ice cream shops, bakeries, and cafes all thrive in times like these — they offer safe pleasures for little money. One of the best books on politics in recent years, Talking About Politics by Kathy Walsh, chronicles the political conversations that occur over coffee and pastries at one modest diner. Portland's classic Tony's Donuts seems to have a new cachet lately, and the Holy Donut is selling theirs at Bard and Hilltop. Gelato Fiasco, based in Brunswick, will soon move in right near Gorgeous Gelato, run by a couple who arrived last year from Milan. A bakery called Crema is set to open on Commercial Street in the near future, joining Bam Bam Bakery and Bakery on the Hill as recent additions to the Portland pastry scene.
Obama will hope that Latino immigrant communities help him win some crucial states out west, especially as Republicans compete to demonize immigrants. Here in Maine, where Latino immigration is negligible, 2012 will continue the somewhat puzzling Latin explosion of recent years (Havana South, Zapoteca, Sonny's, Taco Trio, Taco Escobarr), with El Rayo opening a new Cantina, and Sabor Latino coming to St. John Street. A better reflection of Maine demographics, the just-opened Somali spot, Al Huda, will be worth watching in the coming year.