Among the notable restaurants Bon Appetit editor-at-large Andrew Knowlton mentions in naming Portland the magazine’s “City of the Year” are, clockwise from top left, Chaval, Cong Tu Bot, Rose Foods and Drifter’s Wife.

When it comes to being a food-lovers’ city, Portland is no longer a small side dish – it’s the main course. Bon Appetit magazine has chosen Portland, Maine, as its “City of the Year,” calling it “one of the most unexpected culinary destinations in the country.”

This is just the fourth time the magazine has named a City of the Year, and Portland, with a population of 67,000, is by far the smallest honoree, “by millions of inhabitants,” said Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appetit’s editor-at-large. Knowlton wrote the two-page feature story on Portland that will appear in the magazine’s September Best New Restaurants issue, which hits newsstands Aug. 14 and its website today. Past winners were San Francisco in 2015, Washington, D.C. in 2016, and Chicago in 2017.

Founded in 1956, Bon Appetit is a glossy national food magazine with a circulation of more than 1.5 million. Editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport and deputy editor Julia Kramer also played a role in choosing this year’s City of the Year winner, according to a Bon Appetit spokeswoman.

Knowlton is a self-described cheerleader for Maine’s food scene, and especially Portland restaurants. He’s been dining here since he attended Bates College in the late 1990s, and he regularly visits family in Rockland. Knowlton estimates that he visited Portland 10 times over the past year. While he was not judging the city by a specific set of criteria, Knowlton said in an exclusive interview with the Portland Press Herald that he noticed changes in the restaurant scene here during the past year that gave the city a leg up on other potential winners.

“When I was looking at Maine this year, yes it’s the density of new (restaurant) openings, but it’s also the buzz around people talking about restaurants,” he said. “Sitting at the bar at Little Giant, you’ll hear people talking about a dinner they had at Chaval. Or you’ll hear somebody at Chaval talking about Drifters Wife. Or someone at Drifters Wife talking about Cong Tu Bot. And people at Cong Tu Bot talking about The Shop. You know a town is food mad when you walk around and you hear conversations about food. It happens in New York. It happens in San Francisco. And it happens in Portland, Maine now.”

The other change he noticed was a diversification of the city’s dining options. The restaurant community has grown beyond pioneers like Fore Street, Street & Co. and Hugo’s (under Rob Evans’ then ownership), which showcase seafood and other Maine fare, he said, and now includes more international influences. “I can go to Maine now and get good Sichuan food,” Knowlton said. “I can go to Maine now and get really good Korean food. I can go to Maine now and get Middle Eastern food. I can go and get a bowl of pho. And I don’t think you could say that, to that degree, five or 10 years ago.”

Knowlton also cited the role of young restaurateurs moving here from places like Brooklyn to “diversify the scene and enrich it and move it forward.”

“That’s what I saw that really put Portland over the top, as opposed to some other cities,” he said.

Knowlton couldn’t offer any kind of assessment of the economic impact this national recognition could bring to Portland. Being named City of the Year in Bon Appetit may well make Portland even more of a destination vacation spot, he said, but more importantly it should attract “the right kind of tourist,” he said, “the food-centered ones who will not just walk down Commercial Street and call it a day.”

Portland competed for City of the Year with 33 other cities that Knowlton researched for Bon Appetit’s “Hot 10” list of America’s Best New Restaurants. Last week, the magazine announced it had included two Portland restaurants – Drifters Wife on Washington Avenue and Rose Foods on Forest Avenue – on its list of 50 finalists for the Hot 10, which will be announced in the same September issue. Portland restaurants have been on the top 50 list before, but only Central Provisions, in 2014, has made the cut to the Hot 10 – a designation that Knowlton says can be great for a restaurant’s bottom line.

The Portland restaurants that stand out to Knowlton are those that are “not just good for Portland, they would be good in any city.” At the same time, he said, they’re unique to Portland. The bagel at Rose Foods, for example “is better than any bagel that I’ve had in recent memory in New York City. And that’s not hyperbole. There’s a craftsmanship that goes into those bagels that is noticeable. The curated wine and food experience at Drifters Wife is amazing. I’ve told them many times that I wish they would open a place near me because that’s the wine bar of my dreams.”

Cong Tu Bot, a Vietnamese restaurant on Washington Avenue, is “fun and rambunctious and reminds me of a place that could be in Brooklyn,” Knowlton said. Ilma Lopez, co-owner of Piccolo and Chaval, is “one of the country’s best pastry chefs,” he added. “I think she’s super talented.”

And Knowlton has a soft spot for Jordan Rubin, aka “Mr. Tuna,” who serves sushi from food carts around the city, including a diver scallop handroll “that might as well have been served in L.A. or Tokyo.”

Portland has received accolades for its food and drink scene in the past. In 2015, Travel + Leisure called it one of “America’s 20 Best Cities for Beer Lovers.” That same year, Men’s Health magazine voted the city among “The 10 Best Places to Live Now,” citing a number of factors including “a host of innovative yet unpretentious farm-to-table restaurants.” In 2009 Bon Appetit labeled Portland “America’s Foodiest Small Town, a moniker that is still used today. Many of the city’s individual chefs, restaurants and bakeries have received glowing national media attention.

There’s no question the number of restaurants in Portland has grown significantly over the past 20 years. The city’s restaurant licensing records show that in 1998, just 27 Class 1 restaurants were licensed in the city, defined in part as those that sell at least $50,000 worth of food annually – places such as Back Bay Grill, Fore Street, David’s, Sapporo and DiMillo’s. By July 2018, that number had grown to 113, with another seven licenses pending. Restaurants with Class XI licenses, the other major restaurant category, may not meet $50,000 in food sales and may serve only alcohol part of the day. The number of restaurants in that category grew dramatically, as well, from 14 in 1998 to 53 in July 2018. Class XI restaurants include places such as Bayside Bowl, Black Cow, Ruski’s, The Porthole, and The Honeypaw.

“I’ve heard Portland people say there are too many restaurants, there are not enough people to go around,” Knowlton said. “Sometimes I think Portland people don’t realize how good they have it.”

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