PORTLAND, Maine — Eliza Matheson, a self-styled foodie, was once a familiar face at happening bistros from Munjoy Hill to the West End. The latest top-chef offering was always the destination.
“We went out to dinner twice a week. I used to feel like I was in the know of the Portland food scene,” the Cape Elizabeth resident said with a sigh.
That was pre-maternity. Now the 32-year-old mother of two limits herself to two or three dinners out per year. But that doesn’t mean she spends all her time at home warming up Spaghetti-Os.
Matheson has joined the growing ranks of people in Greater Portland who are rediscovering lunch. With the challenges some people face in carving out time to go out at night, the formerly slighted midday slot has gained new respect.
Restless parents, twitchy telecommuters and gig workers are taking time out when the sun is high in the sky to indulge their palates with shaved crimson cabbage salad, endive assemblages with smoked ham powder, ground steak burgers with cider-cured bacon and Maine pork bahn mi sandwiches. Lunch — the less rushed, more affordable meal out — has become the new dinner date.
“You are somewhat isolated in young parenthood. It’s all encompassing,” Matheson said. She has started meeting her husband, a financial planner in Portland, for lunch to take advantage of a more relaxed scene. “Lunch is a nice balance. Sometimes we bring kids, sometimes it’s a date together on a Saturday.”
Restaurants from the sleek Evo Kitchen and Bar in the Old Port to farm fresh Gather in Yarmouth are taking advantage of the trend.
Tired of seeing his restaurant sit empty all day, Casey Prentice added lunch at Evo last month. The crowds came fast.
“It quickly started taking hold. Every day gets busier than the last,” Prentice, who attracts a business crowd happy to drop around $20 for a pork belly gyro with chickpea fries and a soft drink, said.
“From a business perspective there is not much more manpower to expedite lunch,” Prentice said. His chefs clock in at 11 a.m. to prep for dinner, so adding a lobster salad sandwich and falafel wrap to their to-do list was a no-brainer.
Over in Yarmouth, Gather owner Matt Chappell studied the market before he decided to add lunch at his Masonic Hall-turned rustic retreat. He created an online survey and discovered the market was ready for more refined midday meals.
“Generally people have more flexibility in the day and uninterrupted time. They don’t want cheap, fast food but simple, healthy meals fairly quickly,” he said of local entrepreneurs and freelancers who work from home or in co-working facilities.
Of those he surveyed, 52 percent said they have lunch, not solo at a desk, but with a friend or spouse. If they have young kids at school, they can’t go out to dinner at night.
“That was new to me,” said Chappell, who realized he was losing half the town by not opening midday.
His new counter service, which includes a hot lunch, is designed to feed people well and fast. Guests can choose from grass-fed burgers ($10), a Maine pork bahn mi sandwich ($10), soup and a half-sandwich ($9) and other affordable meals, then grab a seat under 14-foot ceilings.
Being able to enjoy a tasty lunch in a stunning setting for $14 and in less than 40 minutes is something Chappell hopes will draw in people several times per week. Instead of kicking them out at 2 p.m. guests can stay to work on laptops and drink coffee until dinner starts.
At Union restaurant at the Press Hotel, executive chef Josh Berry puts as much attention into lunch as he does his five-course dinner tasting menu. “You don’t need an office to have a business anymore,” said Berry, who is catering to telecommuters, sometimes three meals per day.
Located in a hotel, Union never closes. But out-of-town guests are not the only ones taking advantage of lunch options such as the Congress Street special — a cup of soup, side salad and petite sandwich for $15 — in this relaxing, hospitable space.
“I see people who meet clients here for breakfast, work in the lobby cafe for a few hours, come back for lunch and then visit the bar,” Berry said. “They are spending eight hours here. I think it’s great.”
When the chef has an afternoon off, he will grab lunch with co-workers at The Honey Paw or Evo.
“There is no stress, no rush when you are going out to lunch,” Berry said. “You get a good meal, can have a beer or coffee.”
And you are staying in the loop in a fast-paced, ever-changing food city.
“Being up on the food scene was important to me,” said Matheson, who grabs lunch on Saturdays with her family at places such as Salvage BBQ for a taste of the scene. “Dinner feels more intimate and more of a splurge. We will get back there someday.”