The cozy corner spot is South Portland’s neighborhood treasure.
Ask David Turin which is his favorite of the four restaurants he owns, and there’s no hesitation before he answers “388.” He speaks about this neighborhood gem lovingly. “I like the feel of it. It’s like having people come into my kitchen. It’s not a bar or a pub with food, but a place with real dining, where the neighbors want to come after work for a bite to eat.” David’s 388 is celebrating its tenth anniversary this month, according to manager Kelly Frederick. Turin himself is a little hazy about dates and years, relying on his staff to know such things. Frederick “came with the building” when Turin purchased it from an ailing Barbara Winthrop, when it was Barbara’s Kitchen. She was very particular about to whom she would sell, and Frederick asked her why Turin got the nod. “Because I like him,” was Winthrop’s plain answer.
Turin worked hard at making David’s 388 the welcoming neighborhood gathering spot it is today. He’s very much a hands-on kind of guy, whether in the kitchen, a construction site, or even a boat. He gutted the main floor and basement of the corner restaurant himself, leaving only the walk-in and chest freezer. He made the place inviting, simple, and comforting with warm yellow beadboard on the walls and simple curtains to soften the windows. Three years later he felt confident enough to expand into the barbershop next door, and transformed that space as well.
Even with the addition, David’s 388 is an intimate space, seating just 40 diners. Four stools at the tall counter by the open kitchen are considered by many to be the best seats in the house. Here you’re practically on the line with chef Kelsey O’Connor and sous chef Ian Paine, who cook together in the tiny space. O’Connor had been working with Turin at David’s in Portland, but when the opportunity came up to move here, he was happy to take it. “It’s a good fit for me, and there’s more interaction with guests,” he says. The style of food is similar to that of Turin’s flagship location in Monument Square, but there’s an important distinction. “The portions are smaller at 388, and less expensive,” says Turin. “People tend to eat more courses here. I think we were ahead of the curve on small plates. But, we serve in a more traditional fashion, and diners appreciate that.”
The beauty of this concept is, of course, the opportunity to explore more items on the menu. Turin prides himself on cooking “the kind of food people want to eat. Well prepared, recognizable, and always delicious.” With those simple guidelines in place, David’s 388 offers something for everyone in the neighborhood. As I slide onto one of those coveted seats by the kitchen, the yeasty scent of freshly baked focaccia permeates the air. I sip a Peartini from the bar, and I’m delighted when the bread is sliced and offered. It’s as wonderful as I’d hoped, tender and light, topped with olive oil, rosemary, and Romano cheese. Watching O’Connor cook is a treat, and I’m making notes for my own cooking as he finishes a sauce with butter and Madeira. He gives the pan a shake and a swirl, then pours the luscious contents over house-made pappardelle pasta with fresh and dried mushrooms. A drizzle of truffle oil and Parmesan add a little funk to the dish, in the best possible way. “This has been one of our staples for years,” says Turin. “We can’t take it off the menu.” There are other favorites that diners have come to expect will always be available: steamed buns with pork and Asian barbecue sauce, crispy-skin duck breast with herb-mushroom risotto, and a classic burger that can be topped with foie gras. When certain people at the Old Port magazine office mention the latter, they practically swoon. It’s not long before two women take seats next to me, noting that “we always want to sit here.” They order cocktails while browsing the menu. “The problem is, you think you know what you want to eat, then they start telling you the specials,” one says. Tonight, a sumptuous lobster mac and cheese makes the decision difficult.
I’m capping my dinner with a warm apple tarte tatin and cinnamon ginger ice cream, just as the local crowd starts to arrive. This area of South Portland, near Willard Square, has seen a recent influx of both young families and empty-nesters. Many are regulars at David’s 388 and often walk to dinner. A lively group of four enters the restaurant in down jackets, rosy-cheeked on this cold night. They’re greeted like old friends and seated at the table in the window. “We’re focused on being the best neighborhood restaurant we can be,” says Turin. He’s not the only one who says it’s his favorite.