We all know Portland boasts a holy host of epicurean eating options, and I plan to try them all in due time. But sometimes these things aren’t about the food itself. In fact, a thorough review of DiMillo’s probably has little to do with the food. Mainers scoff at the notion of going to DeMillo’s, at paying $30+ for a steamed lobster, or $27 bucks for a mound of buttered breadcrumbs with a sliver of mushy fish underneath. But DiMillo’s isn’t about the food. It’s about the flourish and the polished brass and the oyster crackers in the carpeting and the smell of perfume on 75-year-old ladies out for a big night.
DiMillo’s is a floating restaurant; it used to be a car ferry to Rhode Island, among other incarnations. The dining room is carpeted and sunken, with windows all around, perfect portholes for peering outside at boats and docks and condos. But I had better back up a bit. Malcolm says when he was a kid in the 1980’s, living two hours north of Portland, coming to DiMillo’s was a very big deal, a fancy night in the big city. He has fond family memories of sitting with his parents at the table, cracking lobster, and staying up late. This is the real thrill of DiMillo’s.[pullquote]It’s the sort of place where your waitress forgets to fire your order but you forgive her and she comps you a glass of Chardonnay while career waiters in their black vests swan around mocking her failures.[/pullquote]I’ve had better seafood in many other places from Westbrook , CT to Wiscasset, ME, but dressing up and going down to the pier fills me with Shirley Temple happiness, a maraschino cherry on top. I love driving into the parking lot on the water, then walking the planked entrance into the belly of the beast. I love greeting the old gals hosting at the first front desk then gliding down the ambulatory into the warm interior, waiting for the second line of welcome to usher us deeper within. There are buoys hanging from the ceiling and ships wheels decorating the walls. The bread basket is plain, its accompanying butter languishing in a dish, in square little plastic packets, smaller than the tip of an awkward butter knife. I always order a martini with Cold River Vodka, which has a strong potato flavor not really suited to the glassy sheen of the classic cocktail, but that’s how I got it on my first visit, and it’s all about tradition. Malcolm sips a Glenfiddich 12 year, and smiles.
In other seasons on two previous visits, when DiMillo’s has no choice but to try and attract the locals, we ordered the twin lobster special for $19.99. Since it’s Summer, the high tourist prices are still in effect, but when you have visiting family in town, DiMillo’s is a must-visit, regardless of cost.
Though I was raised on the shoreline, I’d never really had real lobster before. The dining room at DiMillo’s is a good place to learn the art of twisting and breaking into the semi-hard exoskeleton of that little fellow. And only one unlucky dining companion was shot in the eye by the errant juices of my undeft hands.
After a round of drinks we ordered mussels for the table. Here, the broth is both lemony and mustardish, two new excellent foils for their briny little bivalve hearts, and when you’re with family, there’s no reason not to swab bread into the communal bowl. Our entrees, overall, were underwhelming. Lightly breaded and broiled scallops, haddock and a lobster for my husband were better than edible, but nowhere near life-changing. It was pretty mediocre fare, wedding quality fish, and yet I still felt fantastic afterwards.
It’s the sort of place where you share molten chocolate cake. It’s the sort of place you bring your grandma for her 90th birthday and delight in watching her wear a bib adorned with anthropomorphic shellfish. It’s the sort of place where your waitress forgets to fire your order but you forgive her and she comps you a glass of Chardonnay while career waiters in their black vests swan around mocking her failures. It’s crenolins and mary janes and falling asleep in the back of the station wagon while your parents smoke and argue, The Moody Blues on the radio. DiMillo’s is nostalgia for the future.