Maybe it was all that time in Mexico, but when the temperatures spike, Jillian and I have an unusual reaction. Rather than put on shorts, wipe our sunglasses clean and find a patio to sit on, we tend to try to go underground: someplace dark, cave-like, air-conditioned, with frosty cold beer on tap, and, ideally, some pretty decent bar food. Yesterday, during day three of the heat wave, we still hadn’t locked down our ideal place to go and hide out from the heat. A halfhearted trip to the Sebago Brewing Company a few weeks ago was disappointing enough to not even warrant mention on these pages, with a dingy dining room and terrible food. It was with similar expectations, then, that we visited The Great Lost Bear on Forest Avenue.
The occasional Grateful Dead iconography and cigarette-smoking frat boys outside made me cringe, but when we were seated in the back corner with a 23-ounce Allagash Black, we instantly felt better. This was the kind of place we had been looking for, at least in appearance. It was dark and air conditioned enough to make you forget the late August heat, and the 69 draft beer selection was enough to keep us interested. The Great Lost Bear is the kind of place that TGI Friday’s-style places must have been trying to copy, way back in the 70s, before chain restaurants started stockpiling nostalgia and wall-mounted-weirdness in giant warehouses, ready to be shipped at a moment’s notice to prime mini-mall locations throughout the Midwest. Old circus posters, street signage, and yes, a mounted bear line the walls, and the lighting is dim enough that you just barely have to squint to see your waiter. We also lucked into being there on a Tuesday, which is “Talls for Smalls” night: 23 ounce beers for the price of a pint.
While you could sit all day, soaking up the free Wi-fi and working your way through the beer list, we also wanted to see if the bar food was an option, as well. We started with a half order of Buffalo wings, for $6.99. Instead of getting a tray of baked or breaded wings (what is it with oddball wing preparations around here?), or a plastic basket full of tiny, shriveled wing pieces that had been deep-fried into tortured little nuggets, we were pleasantly surprised to be served four whole, fried chicken wings, dipped in a nice Buffalo wing sauce that was vinegary, if not quite spicy enough. While not breaking the wings into segments may mean less fried surface area, the skin was crispy enough to indicate that the wings had been patted dry before frying, a critical step in Buffalo wing preparation. Getting whole wings also means getting the tip, that wonderfully crunchy third wing section that so many ignore. An oddly huge bowl of blue cheese was provided, which was on the runny side and not particularly remarkable, though it did have a few big chunks of real blue cheese.
After wolfing the wings down in seconds, we ordered another round of drinks and two main events: The “Woodford’s Cheesesteak” for me at $9.99, a combination of shaved steak, grilled onions, and cheese sauce on a hoagie roll, and the “French Herb Cheeseburger” for Jillian, a $9.99 half pound of beef with an herbed cheese sauce, served on a toasted bulkie roll. We each chose a small salad on the side, though other options included fries, coleslaw, or dirty rice.
The cheesesteak was pretty solid. The steak was nicely shaved and cooked, if not particularly flavorful. The onions were carmelized and sweet, and where I expected “Wit Whiz,” Philly-style cheese sauce, there was instead a nice, mild white American Bechamel. Overall, the sandwich’s biggest success was in its nice combination of textures: chewy, creamy, toasty, and a just a little sweet.
Jillian’s burger was great. While I wasn’t crazy about the “French Herbed Cheese” variation, which seemed like little more than the cheese sauce from my cheesesteak with a fistful of herbes de provence thrown in, the thick, juicy hamburger patty was clearly high quality, and cooked to Jillian’s medium-rare specifications. It’s nice when a place that bothers to ask you how you want a piece of meat cooked actually follows through and then cooks your meat that way, and we didn’t expect that in a bar. The bulkie roll was pillowy and soft, nicely grilled in butter. I will definitely try a different burger variation on our next trip, as I think there’s a lot of potential there.
The Great Lost Bear succeeds in the ways you need it to, providing a great selection of mostly local draft beers in a cool, calmly-lit environment, serviced by an easygoing, yet attentive staff. Knowing what to order and what to avoid seems key, and it seems like sticking to simpler dishes (chicken wings) and skipping their more “exotic” fare (Peanut Thai Chicken Rollup? Spanakopita? Seriously?) might be the order of the day. So far, it is our favorite choice for a cool place to lay low until October with a few beers and some good pub food.
The Great Lost Bear: 540 Forest Ave, Portland, ME 04101. (207) 772-0300. GreatLostBear.com.