My favorite street in Portland isn’t really a street. And even though I wrote a local history book called Portland’s Past, you won’t find a mention of it there or in any other book on Portland history. Yet there’s no better place in town to make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, especially on a cold night in January.
It was early evening when Frank and I tore ourselves away from the ales and stouts at Sebago Brewing Company and back into the swirling snow. Abandoning the bright lights of Fore Street, we headed towards the waterfront but stopped short of Commercial Street and quickly ducked into the first alleyway we came to. Suddenly we had escaped the annoying sound of 21st century traffic, and the dim street lights cast the old brick buildings in a soft hue. I soon realized I was walking unsteadily, that beneath my feet was no longer pavement, but cobblestones. We had found Wharf Street, and our fun had just begun.
I never knew before that Gritty’s has a back entrance, and that it leads to a second much smaller pub that immediately felt cozy and intimate as we found a place at the tiny bar. The dozen or so other people there were chatting with each other as they sipped their brews, and we were probably the only ones from away. The beer I ordered was simply called “red” as I recall, while Frank switched from stout to porter. From Gritty’s we wandered along Wharf Street to the famous Street and Company where we got a table with no wait at all. In a town famous for its restaurants, this is one of the most renowned: visited by Anthony Bourdain, lauded in food guides, name-checked by just about every performer I’ve seen at the State Theater. Bundles of herbs hung from the wooden beams, the aroma of fresh seafood wafted from the open kitchen and the old world atmosphere of Wharf Street was not diminished at all after we stepped through the door.
I’m convinced that Wharf Street is the most enchanting spot in Portland, but it never figured into the 18th century stories I tell about the city because the area was then under the waters of Casco Bay. And my tales from the 19th century don’t include it because it was then only a mere alleyway behind the bustling Fore Street, known mostly to the workers unloading cargo from the ships docked at Union and Widgery Wharves jutting out into the harbor. Even when the land was extended with fill and Commercial Street was built below it, Wharf Street remained a nondescript alleyway tucked between two major streets, serving the back doors to the buildings on both. Even the devastating fire of 1866 did not find Wharf Street as the wind blew the flames northeast so quickly that they missed it altogether.
Today many restaurants and shops have found their way to Wharf Street and have turned the backsides of the Fore Street buildings into welcoming entrances of their own. In the long view, Wharf Street probably benefited from decades of disregard because something of the 19th century seems to have remained here.
When I read blogs I always enjoy seeing pictures of the writers, so I’m including one here even though I’m not too fond of the shot. It’s me on Wharf Street Sunday morning. I don’t know how people manage to take good photos of themselves. I think their arms must be longer than mine!