Dining Off the Beaten Path in Portsmouth

The up-and-coming Islington Street in Portsmouth's West End has it all - except the big crowds
STREET Restaurant. Photo by Susan Laughlin

You have to admit that Islington Street in Portsmouth is not terribly pretty. There have been plans for the last 20 years to change all that and make the milelong corridor an inviting, art-filled, walkable live/work/play area. 2018 will be the year that bricked sidewalks, better signage, attractive period lighting and bumpouts to “calm” the traffic will be added, starting on the most westerly end this coming spring. But the real infrastructure is already there — great restaurants.

On a recent wintry day, I traveled the chaotic street, a narrow artery that leads to downtown Portsmouth, looking for the dining jewels. The whole crown may not be complete yet, but I found some real gems.

Islington Street is really mixed usage with residential, plumbing shops, gas stations, a tangle of utility lines and a general dreariness on a gray winter day, until you step inside one of the vital eating establishments. You can almost feel the healthy heartbeat of a thriving life force.

My first stop was Café Espresso in the 800 Islington Mall. Nothing historic about this 1960s-era development, but the spot was inviting enough with cheery yellow walls, a responsive waitstaff and a bakery case filled with puffy homemade muffins. I enjoyed the Blackstone Benedict with a nice lemony hollandaise and crispy bacon. You can tell the locals loved the place — they’ve been coming back again and again for the last 18 years for their Belgian waffles, buttermilk pancakes, great home fries and easy parking. Breakfast is available through lunch hours until 4 p.m.

Across the street is the historic Button Factory complex. Before WWI, it was the world’s largest producer of shoe buttons. After the war, they produced mattress buttons and plastic apparel buttons, adding more buildings until it was a large complex. In 1986 the original three-story building was sold and became a home for artists of all types. Another part of the complex is home to several restaurants and shops.

Stopping for a quick latte, I enjoyed the aroma of Port City Coffee Roasters. The shop is small and offers basic sandwiches and freshly roasted beans ground to your specifications. My Indonesian selection “aroma-fied” my car for the rest of the day.

Walking back around to the front of the complex, you’ll find STREET’za, an enterprise opened last summer by Josh Lanahan and Michelle Lozuaway, owners of STREET. The menu is relatively simple, offering wings, a few salads and pizza. But this is not ordinary pizza. They have taken the worldly street food concept and applied it to America’s favorite comfort food. Ah, the ‘za. The Korean cheesesteak comes with kimchi and Korean BBQ beef, the Greek pizza has lamb, feta and mint, and the garlic-laced white sauce pie comes topped with fennel and sausage. They offer both gluten-free cauliflower and vegan gluten-free crusts, but the New York style is just the right balance of chew and crisp. At lunchtime I was able to purchase just a slice, but regretted that I didn’t have a whole pie to take home. The cavernous space has been dressed up with a lot of fun elements — antiques, bench seating (be careful not to sit on the end) and murals done by an employee. Craziness seems to be encouraged. Misspellings on the menu aren’t changed, they are embraced, says a server. The offbeat atmosphere is summed up on the creative T-shirts that proclaim “Chew with your mind open.”

Part of the ‘za space will be a marketplace for international foods, but in back, kind of hidden, is b.Bar, which opens at 4 p.m. I promised to return.

Caffe Kilim houses a market selling imported goods. Photo by Susan Laughlin

From the West End, I headed back to the east end of Islington Street. This is where Caffe Kilim found a home after they left their Daniel Street location in 2006 due to high rent. Ahmet Yazgan, son of the owners, is now holding down the family business. “We introduced Portsmouth to espresso and all the high-end coffee terminology 25 years ago,” he says. According to a poster in the café, the world’s first coffee house opened in Turkey around 1475, so they must know their beans. The adjoining market and seating space is warmed by the design of hundreds of Turkish rugs. Find here a selection of imported goods, including Turkish delight, pomegranate molasses, Turkish apricots and spiced pistachios.  

Looking for a more serious libation, I headed to Liars Bench Beer Company in the original Washburn Plumbing space. The old signage is now hanging over the kitchen area of this rustic, but cool small brewpub with a funky bar in front and the brew tanks in back. The draft list is small, with only about six offerings at a time, but they are diverse. From a saison to a smoky porter to their newest IPA Young Upstart, the latter being my favorite. I wasn’t expecting much on the menu, but was surprised to find their sausages were made at Moxy, recently heralded by Forbes as one of the 10 best restaurants in the world (yes, the world). The reviewer loved the take on the New England boiled dinner with its house-corned beef. Portsmouth is a small world. One of the brewers and owners of Liars Bench, Dagan Migirditch, previously bartended at The Franklin Oyster House, a sister restaurant to Moxy.

Switching gears again, I headed to The Kitchen, an interesting deli offering tasty sandwiches, creative salads and juicy burgers. You can take your choices to go or sit at the tables or the bar to enjoy a beer, wine and house-marinated vodkas. There is a lot to like here. I tried their take on poutine made with their signature “spudsters,” deep-fried mashed potatoes. In this case, they added a flavorful turkey gravy and topped it with a soft-boiled egg. It was a bit strange looking, but tasted wonderful. The menu speaks the language of love. Not all the burgers are beef. A customer favorite is the Krabby Patty with a hearty crab cake, roasted red pepper mayo and pickled red onions. There’s a duck burger too, with an Asian fennel slaw and a lamb burger with crumbled pistachios. Lunch needn’t be boring, especially here.

Liars Bench Beer Company is located in the old Washburn Plumbing building. In addition to their own craft beer, they also serve a small menu featuring sausages made by Moxy, which is located in downtown Portsmouth. Picture by Susan Laughlin

I headed up to White Heron Tea just before they closed at 7 p.m. The store is very inviting with a nice selection of house-made foods on the blackboard. Portsmouth restaurateur Jay McSharry says of his partner Jonathan Blakeslee, “He is a tea savant. He travels to Japan on a regular basis and was originally stationed there.” Indeed, the tea assortment is just plain dazzling, packaged in color-coordinated tins and backed up with a variety of retail accouterments, perfect for gift-giving. Why not get a tea strainer that looks like a rubber ducky?

I couldn’t leave the street without trying out Nikki’s bánh mì offered out of Darleen’s Subs. It is a strange menu board that’s half Vietnam specialties and half typical sub shop fare. The customer ahead of me claimed they had the best meatball sub ever, but I looked east for the bánh mì. It was presented nicely on a tasty toasted bun and flourished with fresh cilantro. Nikki offers about five versions, with one layered with liver pâté.

Finally, it was time to head back to STREET’za and into b.Bar, tucked within, but behind the ‘za space. The small bar is a wonder in décor. Large paintings of female nudes were done by an employee, the animal skins covering tabletops are reportedly from the owners’ barn, while the bottom half of the bar holds a mural in pieced leather. Light sources are interesting too, with Edison bulbs sticking out of former Edison phonograph horns — hope he would be happy about that. Patrons appeared to be delighted with the cozy and inventive space. I ordered a gin drink with Cocchi Rosa, lemon juice and dried rose petals that was nicely balanced. For now the menu is limited to SREET’za offerings of pizza, salads and wings. The Korean sticky wings are a standout. No worry, it’s all good.

Leaving for home, I took a last peek into STREET. The place was hopping. The eclectic décor just made it a fun place to be.

The future of Islington Street is pretty bright. Its eastern gateway is at Congress Street, right after Jumpin’ Jays. A mile later it ends with access to Route 33 and a fast way out of town. The lower rents are drawing in more restaurateurs. Lexie’s Joint may be moving to the 1950s-style Getty Station next door, making it a very retro space. In the 800 block, the old Frank Jones Brewery space is being converted to 42 residential units, and Cornerstone Pizza from Ogunquit, Maine, featuring artisanal pizza and craft beer, will open soon. Brendan Vesey of Joinery in Newmarket will be taking a space for a cocktail bar as well. A little farther up the street, Loaded Question Brewery is under construction.

I asked McSharry, a large stakeholder in the area, what he thought of all this. “It will be very exciting when it is done, but the process will be painful with road construction all year. This preliminary stuff will not be pretty,” he says. “If Kittery Foreside is Portsmouth’s Brooklyn, then this improved West End of Portsmouth will be its Queens,” he jokes.

All hail the new Queen after she shakes her drab garb and stands up with all her jewels in a place and not one Starbucks in sight. But, please, bear with the dust until the end of 2018.

Categories: Features, Restaurant Reviews