How a Design Agency Helped Make Portland, Maine, the Hippest Foodie Town in New England

Might & Main unpacks its work for the city's best eateries

PORTLAND, Maine—Over the past decade, this once-sleepy New England town has experienced a remarkable culinary boom that’s put it squarely on the map for foodies, with restaurants like Eventide, Central Provisions and Vinland bringing national renown to the city of fewer than 70,000 people.

And one design agency helped make it all happen.

Might & Main, a small shop on Fore Street in the heart of the Old Port, has developed the brand identities for more than a dozen food clients in town, including many of the hottest restaurants that have opened up in recent years.

Currently counting four full-time and five part-time designers, Might & Main got its big break into restaurants in 2012, when it developed the branding for Eventide, an oyster bar on Middle Street that was an instant sensation and remains one of the best restaurants in town—indeed, one of the best in the region. (Chefs Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor won the James Beard Award this year as the Northeast’s best chefs, following their third nomination.)

To Might & Main founding principals Sean Wilkinson and Arielle Walrath, the restaurant business was a category that always beckoned. Chefs are artists themselves, and restaurant branding can be its own highly creative and collaborative endeavor. Plus, it’s tangible—you work with window signs, menus, coasters and so on—in ways that so many design projects aren’t anymore.

“We like tangible stuff,” Wilkinson tells me one July afternoon at Hugo’s, a restaurant next door to Eventide that’s also owned by Wiley and Taylor, along with their general-manager partner Arlin Smith. (Eventide itself always has a line out the door in summer, and is a little too crowded today for interviews.)

“We like things printed on paper, and things pressed into pulp board and foils and signage, and people experiencing a three-dimensional world,” Wilkinson says. “Restaurants seemed like a really good place to try that.”

Eventide, as it turned out, was the perfect way in.

 

Eventide Oyster Company

Wilkinson was a happy-hour regular at Hugo’s in the early 2010s and got to know Smith, who often tended bar. When Smith, Wiley and Taylor hatched plans for Eventide, after acquiring the space next door, Wilkinson convinced them to pay attention to the branding of the place. (Wiley admits they were much more focused on the food and service, and “in our initial budgets, we didn’t even have money set aside for branding.”)

Soon, Eventide had a gorgeous brand identity courtesy of Might & Main. It combined nautical themes and old-time typography to evoke a feeling that’s both refined and relaxed—much like the modern image of Portland itself.

“What I love about that brand is that it’s pretty understated but unique in a lot of nice ways,” says Wilkinson. “Some of those ways became trendy over time—some of the channel letter shading and things like that. As that faded out of fashion, it’s nice to see the Eventide brand is sticking in there and feeling pretty timeless and simple and clean. My favorite part of it is that it feels successfully Portland-y. It feels humble but refined, and seems to hold up.”

“They talked about the word Eventide being the word for the golden hour, when the sun is setting,” Walrath says. “It was this idea of water and horizons and the passage of time. We knew that, being nautical, there were probably going to be some blues involved, and we wanted to reference the fishing and coastal docks, the working waterfront. … It’s light, it’s bright, it’s nautical, but it’s not treading on clichés, hopefully. Hopefully it feels a little bit purposeful.”

Eventide’s owners were thrilled with the brand.

“The logo is evocative of old New England a little bit, almost sales or marketing typography from the days of yore,” says Wiley. “The horizon line established by ‘Eventide’ works well with the text that’s rounded above it. Likewise, the color change on our coasters, with the oysters almost submerged. I think it speaks really well to the name as well, Eventide, this sort of dusk, witching-hour, cocktail hour, just after the sun sets. I think it’s evocative of that horizon line, which plays well with the brand.”

Might & Main also came up with a stylized monogram E, custom oyster illustrations, business cards shaped like oyster tags, silhouettes of shucking knives and a maritime-inspired color palette ranging from deep to pale blues, paired with rustic browns and creams. The agency also designed the food menu, which is printed on thin newsprint—its ephemeral feel is meant to emphasize the freshness of the food—and the drink menu, which is sturdier and uses blue and gray cardstock that is layered and grommetted in the corner.

The coasters are letterpress printed on thick blotter stock. The oysters on some of the coasters are blind embossed, implying a sense of luxury.

Eventide was a runaway success—the owners are preparing to open a second location, Eventide Fenway, in that neighborhood of Boston—and Wiley is quick to credit the branding for giving the place a cool look and feel.

“I think a lot of Eventide’s success revolves around the timing of opening the place. Oysters entered the cultural zeitgeist about five years ago. Right when Eventide was opened, people really started thinking of Portland, Maine, as a very cool place to be,” he says. “I think we do a great job with the food. I think our service staff is awesome. I think the nuts and bolts of it as a restaurant works really, really well. But do I think we’d be as popular or successful as we are now without the branding that we’ve had? No, absolutely not. I think it’s been absolutely transformational for us.”

 

Central Provisions

In subsequent years, Might & Main burnished its restaurant credentials with any number of local and regional projects. Among them were the branding of two other well-received eateries in town—Central Provisions and Woodford Food & Beverage.

Central Provisions is a gem of a restaurant on Fore Street (conveniently, it’s right across the street from the Might & Main offices) that serves small plates and strong cocktails in two rustic, brick-walled rooms. Might & Main’s branding for it was based mostly around the historic building itself—an old provisions warehouse, dating to 1828, that used to accept crates and barrels from ships carrying goods from the East India Trade Company.

“It was a barrel storeroom, and there was some apothecary storage, and there was wine and liquor storage there, and groceries,” says Wilkinson. “There are all these cool visible artifacts of what the building used to be. In a similar way of trying to feel very Portland-esque, we tried to access a lot of those things. Even the name Central Provisions—that street was Central Street at one point.”

The chef, Chris Gould (who’d been working part-time at Eventide before striking out on his own in 2014), and his wife Paige, who runs the place with him, embraced the feel of the building—with materials like exposed brick, burlap, black steel, exposed wood and stainless steel. Might & Main’s approach to the branding scheme, likewise, was to lean into the history.

“We were really influenced by everything from train timecards and tickets to apothecary labels and that sort of eclectic type of Victorian era or turn-of-the-century stuff,” says Wilkinson. “It felt like it highlighted the best of what goes on in the Old Port. A return to that simpler time, and that mysterious authenticism of feeling like it belongs here in Portland. And I think their food responds to it really well, in that it’s well done but sort of humble—creative takes on classic American dishes.”

The place has a rustic elegance, which is a phrase Wilkinson often uses to describe Portland itself, or at least the Portland that used to be, as well as the first wave of breakthrough Portland restaurants—notably, Dana Street’s Fore Street, opened in 1996—that defined the early boom of Portland food.

Rustic elegance is still an apt description of much of the port town, though the city and its restaurants are now moving past that.

“I think Central Provisions is an example of a restaurant that did it well without overdoing it,” says Wilkinson. “But it definitely is starting to trend away from that. People are starting to appreciate Portland for being more than a brick-covered city next to the ocean. It’s feeling a bit more modern and contemporary. More funky things like The Honey Paw [Smith, Wiley and Taylor’s third restaurant, which opened next door to Eventide in 2015] or Evo can exist in that space and not be afraid to feel a bit polished and metropolitan.”

 

Woodford Food & Beverage

Few restaurants symbolize the evolution of the Portland food scene more than Woodford Food & Beverage, opened in 2016 and operated by husband and wife Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer.

On the one hand, there’s plenty of history to the place. The building at 660 Forest Ave. was the site of the very first Valle’s Steak House, opened in 1933. Yet it embodies, too, the modern dynamics of the Portland restaurant business—the move to open places off the Portland peninsula, which is getting crowded, and Woodford’s eclectic, forward-looking bistro menu of regional farm-to-table food served in a modern diner environment.

Might & Main’s branding for the place played off that vintage-meets-modern tension.

“It has a cool history of being this family-style, no-fuss kind of diner atmosphere. And that’s how they came into the project,” Wilkinson says. “They wanted to access that vintage feel without being knee-jerk hipster vintage. It was fun for us to try to keep the brand really clean and feel like it had hints of that simple bistro/diner feel, without doing the predictable clichéd stuff. And they’ve really backed it up with a beautiful design for the interior, and cool programs like the custom-printed wine carafes that you can take home with you if you don’t finish the whole bottle.”

Might & Main worked on brand identity, signage design, the large diner-style menus, collateral and package design for Woodford F&B. The agency describes the brand as “easygoing and utilitarian” with a feel that’s “vaguely vintage but fresh, with classic elements and unexpected touches.”

 

Might & Main’s Legacy

Might & Main does more than restaurant branding, of course. Among its many other clients are Maine’s biggest retail brand, L.L. Bean, for which it created the design system for the catalog. The agency continues its restaurant work, too, moving beyond Portland—by the end of the year, there will be six restaurants open in Boston with branding by Might & Main. The agency is now also getting into hospitality, which Wilkinson says is a natural evolution.

“I keep thinking that a hotel is like a restaurant that you wake up in,” he says. “There’s that much more stuff to consider, everything from interior signage to the little notecard on your pillow to ‘Do not disturb’ signs and evacuation maps. That’s been a really fun process for us to jump into with a few projects here in Portland, and New York and Boston.”

As for their legacy and influence in Portland, Wilkinson and Walrath are both reluctant to take too much credit for the city’s culinary boom. But they undeniably led the charge in shaping the public face of it—in the way so many celebrated new restaurants present themselves to the world.

Partly, they humbly suggest, it was just good timing.

“It’s awkward saying it, maybe, but we had this goal that we wanted to elevate the state of design in the city,” Walrath says. “We wanted things to look better. We wanted people to think about aesthetics, and care about aesthetics. I don’t think we can take sole credit for that starting to happen, but it’s definitely been something where we’ve tried to elevate the awareness of design as important. I think we’ve done that at a time when the food industry was also really exploding here. It’s been a nice confluence for us.”

“Eventide set things into motion for us,” adds Wilkinson. “By fate of timing, and being in the right place at the right time, and stumbling into what was going to be the most exciting restaurant for Portland for a while, we ended up really being at the front of a lot of what has made Portland’s food scene what it is today. We’ve continued to try to put that effort into every other restaurant that’s come along, and it came at a time when every other restaurant opening up was better than the last. It built a really cool, robust scene that keeps getting better. Our work with restaurants is beginning to taper off, so we got to own a really nice moment in time in Portland.”