If you’ve been around Portland for as long as I have, you may remember a time when West Bayside was not somewhere you wanted to be. Aside from the post office, there wasn’t much but from empty lots, empty buildings, and just a whole lot of nothing.
This part of town has largely been an industrial area for the majority of Portland’s recent history. While East Bayside was thriving with the arrival of new breweries, coffee shops, and restaurants, West Bayside had yet to see this sort of revitalization.
However, in the past few years, this area of town has blossomed from wasteland to a wonderland, chasing the heels of its sister neighborhood to the East. Whereas East Bayside is very beverage-centric with Rising Tide, Coffee By Design, and more, West Bayside brings a bit of variety to the table. From bowling alleys to barbecue to community kitchen spaces, the options are growing every day. We’ll be highlighting some of these gems and how they’ve helped developed West Bayside into a thriving, vibrant part of Portland’s many communities.
The Yard has had an interesting history. In 2019, this live music venue and bar began its life as The Whiskey Barrel; a country music bar with a vibe reminiscent of southern honkey tonks that you’d find on any street corner in Nashville. There was live music, country blasting on the TVs over the bars, and no shortage of whiskeys. Served neat or in a mixed drink, brown water was the name of the game. However, whiskey and country proved to be a hard sell to Yankees here in Maine.
Shortly before lockdown in March of this year, they decided to go forward with a rebranding effort that transformed The Whiskey Barrel into The Yard. With more of an inclusive feel, broader food menu, and a move away from its country roots, they were posed for success with this new business model. This rebirth was met with new challenges come lockdown in March and for a brief period of time, The Yard had made the hard decision to close its doors for good.
However, in an unexpected but welcome move that seemed to come out of nowhere, The Yard announced its grand return for Summer 2020. And this time, they came out swinging. Boasting extravagant milkshakes piled high with cheesecakes and donuts and a refurbished food menu, The Yard was ready to take West Bayside by storm. And since their reopening in the past few months, almost every night brings full tables of people ready to slurp some shakes.
The Hanover St building, which also includes Wilson County Barbecue, the future site of Banded Brewing’s new facilities, Fortune Teller Tattoo and Cyclebar, is the cornerstone of the rapid change occurring in West Bayside. Each new space that has opened in this building has experienced great success and customer traffic, and The Yard has rightfully earned its place as one of West Bayside’s latest and greatest attractions.
Shortly after The Whiskey Barrel’s grand opening, Wilson County Barbecue was poised to follow in its footsteps. The neon sign in the tall windows of the Pearl Street space proclaimed promises of ‘Hot Biscuits Now’ and the anticipation was killing me for opening day. And that anticipation was well worth it when Wilson County opened Portlanders into its new space.
Clean concrete, wide open space, and a lounge area complete with a fire place, Wilson’s is described as “a comfortable gathering place replete with Southern hospitality and unfussy charm.” On the menu were delectations I hadn’t laid eyes on since my road trip through North Carolina. Hush puppies, collard greens, cheesy grits, and banana pudding are all rare delicacies to the Northern palette and it felt like such an indulgence. Aside from the large menu is a broad selection of brews on tap both from local and away so you’ll find no shortage of options to quench your thirst.
The casual sophistication of Wilson’s space is met with a laid-back attitude that almost makes you forget you’re north of the Mason-Dixon. Once you’re done enjoying a rum bucket or bougie milkshake next door at The Yard, save some room for a fried chicken plate with a side of mac and cheese and collard greens. You won’t regret it. You may even come running back for more next week.
If you’ve been to Bronxville or Port Chester in New York, then you may already be familiar with Coal’s Pizza. Founded in 2004 in the Bronx, the owner of Coal’s Pizza, Billy Etzel, is a long-time visitor to Maine with a family connection in Kittery. This bond with the Pine Tree State made it clear to Etzel that this was the perfect place to establish the third Coal’s Pizza location. Etzel purchased the former Portland & Rochester space on 114 Preble Street, and opened on June 12 in 2019.
It’s here that you’ll find a pizza rarely, if at all, seen in Maine. They serve grilled pizzas that are nearly flat as a board and crispy to a fault, but have no shortage of flavor. You’ll find such combinations as the “Bee Cool” (three cheeses, tomato, basil, smoked pepperoni, hot honey) and “The Bayside” (fresh mozzarella, goat cheese, pistachio pesto, arugula). If you’re not in the mood for pizza, Coal’s has some of the most finger-licking, lip-smacking chicken wings in town. The rosemary maple wings are an appetizer that will have you waking up in cold sweats in the middle of the night for years.
Aside from Slab and Otto, Coal’s is one of the few places in Portland that offers a variety of pizza you can’t get anywhere else in the state. Pizza in Portland has largely remained a typical American affair that you’d find almost anywhere. But, if you’re looking to expand your taste buds and give a new type of ‘za a chance, Coal’s is a great place to start.
Fork Food Lab
Aside from Bayside Bowl, Fork Food Lab really felt like the first true heralding of change in the West Bayside neighborhood. Owned privately for a number of years before the tenant sold the property to Eric Holstein and Neil Spillane in 2016, the feeling of change in the neighborhood was almost immediate.
This was the first and only place in Portland that served as an incubator for what would become some of Portland’s most beloved food staples. The Totally Awesome Vegan Food Truck, Suga Suga, Mill Cove Baking Co., and many more found their footing within these walls. Providing a tasting room and kitchen, Fork provided the means for up and coming food vendors who did not have adequate space to practice and produce their wares.
Briefly, this innovation was interrupted after two years of being open in 2018 when New York-based Pilotworks pulled out of ownership of the building. The company claimed the business model was unstable and no longer wished to pursue the venture any further. However, The Sustainability Lab, based out of Yarmouth, swooped in just in the knick of time and acquired Fork Food Lab from Pilotworks with an effective opening date of Oct. 1 of that year.
Needless to say, Portland had a collective sigh of relief knowing that independent chefs, food truck owners, and entrepreneurs would continue to have a place to craft their goods without fear. Since then we’ve seen almost a dozen new businesses become members and share their food with the people of Portland. Hopefully Fork Food Lab will continue to be a place for young food trucks and culinary businesses to grow, create, and thrive for many years to come.
Alongside Fork Food Lab, Bayside Bowl is one of the original projects that began to bring West Bayside into modernity. What began as a single-level, 8-lane bowling alley on Preble St that offered a smattering of American pub fare transformed into a multi-level, 20 lane experience complete with four bars, arcade games, live music and comedy, and a legendary rooftop bar with a refurbished Airstream selling street tacos. Almost overnight this neat little spot transformed into a beloved, high-coveted destination that even has live music and rooftop movie nights in the summertime.
Bayside Bowl’s transformation from a humble bowling alley to the ‘it’ place in West Bayside really helped facilitate the change to come. This part of town was finally somewhere people wanted to be. It was a respite from the craziness of a night in the Old Port while still close enough to downtown that a brisk walk could get you there if you really wanted. It highlighted the potential of all the space around it, and welcomed new projects to take place. So if you need a place to start getting familiar with West Bayside, bowling a game with some friends or sharing a beer on the rooftop is the perfect place to start.