The bar scene at Free Street Restaurant and Cocktail Bar is a zoo.

A Maine-themed zoo, to be precise. The wildlife tableau that runs along the top of the wood-paneled bar sets the tone convincingly. In it, a dozen or so mounted animals from Maine’s woodlands – with the exception of a warthog in the mix – stand in startling still life, arranged as artfully as a natural history exhibit.

A beaver gnaws wood, while a black bear examines a wasp’s nest (possibly wishing it were a honey bee hive). Foxes snoop and coyotes range in a still life interspersed with ducks, raccoons and a rare white porcupine.

“This albino porcupine really caught my eye,” said customer Andrew Doolittle of Portland while sitting on a recent Thursday night at the downtown bar. “It doesn’t even look like a real animal, looks like a Yeti or something.”

Between the animals atop the bar and the mounted heads of moose and more far-flung creatures, like the African buffalo and waterbuck that line the room’s opposite wall, the effect can be arresting.

“A lot of people stop in their tracks, for sure,” said Free Street General Manager Dru Finesse, noting that the ownership team scoured taxidermy shops for months to collect the mounts on display here. “You get a lot of double takes from customers, like, ‘Whoa, what the heck is that?’ There’s always a little bit of wonderment. It’s like watching somebody at a zoo or a museum.”


Dozens of photos of fishing and shooting line a hallway at Broken Arrow in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When it opened late last year, Free Street joined the ranks of a small but proud subset of popular Portland hangouts where mounted animal are central to the interior decor. Places like Broken Arrow on Congress Street, with its photo wall of anglers, its taxidermy boar, bison and small-mouthed bass, and its wall-mounted arrows; Batson River Brewing & Distilling on Hanover Street with its pointer dog logo and grand stone fireplace topped with a mounted moose head and surrounded by antlers (other Batson River outlets also have hunting or fishing design schemes); Sagamore Hill Lounge on Park Street, which was designed to pay homage to Teddy Roosevelt’s trophy room at his Long Island estate; and CBG, where the retro-rec room vibe just needed the wall mounts to really feel complete.

The national “taxidermy chic” bar look from 10 to 15 years ago doesn’t account for the thinking behind these local spots today. In a state loaded with avid outdoorspeople, the hunting theme just kind of makes sense in a bar.

But what makes it more interesting is that owners and managers of these venues aren’t big hunters themselves, or even hunters at all. For them, the decor offers throwback aesthetic appeal and an opportunity to honor majestic animals without waste.

Clifford Smith, manager at Sagamore Hill in Portland, stands on the staircase leading to the bar. The decor is “an homage to the conservation Teddy Roosevelt really stood behind,” Smith said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I think it’s very thought-provoking,” Sagamore Hill General Manager Clifford Smith said of his own bar’s collection of about 15 mounted heads and whole animals that grace the interior and stand sentinel along the walls of the front entry. “It’s not a showcase. It’s a subculture, and a lot of people don’t understand it. Like they don’t understand punk rock or veganism.”

“In a way, it’s also preserving the forest by showing it to people who might not have otherwise seen these animals wild in the forest,” Finesse said. Free Street donated $2,500 to the Maine Audubon Society last year, plans to donate annually and is in talks to host fundraisers for the organization as well, according to Free Street co-owner Jay A. Town.

Still, the creatures on the walls at these places do raise questions from time to time.


“It’s usually somebody visiting from the Plains or Southwest who have a hunting background, and they make a point to ask questions,” said CBG co-owner Michael Barbuto, sheepishly acknowledging his background as a “city guy” with no expertise whatsoever in hunting game. As a result, he can’t tell guests exactly what kind of duck, deer or bear they’re looking at.

An elk sculpture made from driftwood is on display at Free Street Restaurant and Cocktail Bar in Portland, one of several bars in town whose decor pays tribute to hunting and fishing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“They’re polite about it, but I know I don’t measure up to the male hunter archetype,” he chuckled. “I don’t have it in me. I can buy bologna at the grocery store. That’s me hunting.”

When Barbuto and his co-owners took over CBG a few years ago, they settled on a nostalgic look with wood-paneled walls, glowing signs from the ’70s advertising beers like Hamm’s and Narragansett, and taxidermy mounts. “A lot of people have stuff in their basements or man caves. And their partners or wives are like, get rid of that. But they don’t want to lose it. So they’ll ask us to hang it. They want to be able to come in and say, ‘That’s mine.'”

But some of the nuances of mount protocol were lost on the CBG team, evidenced in part by the doe head hanging over the bar.

“A customer recently said, ‘Normally, you wouldn’t hang a doe, you’d want an eight-point buck or something, so that’s a bit strange,’ ” Barbuto said. “Someone else said, ‘It’s not the worst thing, but it’s more unusual than you think.’ ”

And of course there are occasional customers repelled by the mere sight of animal mounts.


Just some of the taxidermic animals on display at Free Street Restaurant and Cocktail Bar. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Most people who come here like it,” said Town, who estimated the Free Street taxidermy collection is worth $27,000. “Kids love it, they point at all of them and try to name them. But there are definitely people who are turned off by it. I heard someone say to her friends, ‘Can we not talk about the taxidermy?’ I understand. We’re not trying to offend anybody. We just like wildlife, I guess.”

Smith recalled a surprise party at Sagamore Hill earlier this year that went awry when the guest of honor arrived and stood frozen in the entryway.

“She was looking at the animals, very afraid. She said, ‘My friends didn’t tell me about this. I can’t.’ She was just overwhelmed by it all,” Smith said sympathetically.

The woman told him she had a mounted animal phobia that none of her friends were aware of. “She didn’t come in. Her friends had already bought themselves a round, so she left and they met up with her somewhere else,” Smith said.

A bear and beaver are among the many taxidermic animals on display at Free Street Restaurant and Cocktail Bar in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Other times, seeing a black bear mid-roar holding out its enormous paws inside Sagamore Hill – a glimpse available to anyone looking into the bar’s Congress Street window – might be just the thing to tempt people inside.

“They’re overwhelmed at first when they come in the entryway,” Smith said. “They don’t know what to think. We get a lot of lookie-loos that just come on in and check it out.”


Sometimes guests have been tempted to do more than just look. Sagamore Hill’s mount collection is antique and includes specimens like kudo, wildebeest and springbok, along with a Canadian lynx that was stolen this spring by a Massachusetts man before Portland police convinced him to return the yard-long cat.

But most Sagamore Hill customers have come to appreciate the mount collection, and understand that it’s meant to pay tribute to nature and life. “It’s homage to the conservation that Teddy Roosevelt really stood behind,” said Smith, casting his eyes about the room to take in all the animals on display. “I think being in Maine, there’s a history of hunters and people who enjoy the outdoors and want to preserve it.”

Though not a hunting enthusiast, Doolittle said the animals mounts at Free Street don’t make him squeamish. “People are going to hunt animals, animals are going to die. If they’re not on the walls, they just go to waste,” he said. “Might as well honor their lives by putting them up. It doesn’t make sense to me why some people are like, ‘Gross, animals on the walls.’ ”

Jay Town, owner of Free Street Restaurant and Cocktail Bar. He estimates the taxidermy collection, some of which can be seen above his head, is worth $27,000. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Barbuto said the CBG team heard more negative feedback about their several mounts when they first took over the venue in 2020. As CBG developed a large and loyal customer base, the criticism quieted.

“People come in all the time – three, four, five times a week – and I don’t think they even see the walls anymore,” Barbuto said. “They just see the faces and feel the atmosphere.

“The new faces, they might look around and give it that approval nod thing,” Barbuto continued, demonstrating by bobbing his head slowly and raising his shoulders in appreciative contemplation. “Like, ‘Yeah, I get it.’ ”

CBG regulars lean into the look, even if they might prefer to see the animals alive in the wild.

“I love the camp vibe the animals bring, like a good old-fashioned Maine camp vibe,” said Julia Bergquist of Portland.

“The animals are already dead,” added Kirsten O’Brien of South Portland. “So we’re just glad they’re resting in such a groovy place.”

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