I’m not really a likely candidate to sing the praises of an establishment with a goofy name and Comic Sans-rich menus that include items called things like WeeBee Jammin and KaaNoodling, but, for Portland, Maine’s Silly’s, I have step out of my usual uptight aesthetic snobbery.
The restaurant had been highly recommended as a must-go-to by multiple close friends when we visited Portland a few weeks back, and—with a richly deep, vegan-friendly menu and huge portions of house-made comfort foods—it fell far from disappointing. We walked away from our lunch wishing only that our stomachs were bigger so that we could eat more.
I reached out to Silly’s owner, Colleen Erin Kelley, to find out more about the restaurant’s history recently. Read on to hear how she stepped from a long history of local food services to restaurant ownership, why having such a flexible menu is important to her, and get her twenty-nine (!) recommendations on what to do when next in town.
raven + crow: So I know that you bought Silly’s from a pair of sisters who owned it originally—what was it like back then?
Colleen Erin Kelley: Yes—Deidre and Stephanie nice. But I don’t know, interestingly enough—I had never heard of Silly’s nor had I eaten here. I fell in love with it when I saw it for the first time in July of 2002…I purchased it in November of 2002.
Love at first site then. I know a lot…if not all of the recipes originate with you, correct?
Yes they do…but there are a few that I enhanced. The only original is the lamb marinade.
Do you have a long history in the food business or has it just been a passion of yours for a long time?
I do—my parents owned a restaurant in Brewer and I started working there when I was 7. Then I went on to the Seacrest on Cape Cod at 10, getting paid through my sister’s check, sorting silverware in the dish room. So 41 years. And yes, you have to have a passion for it because you have to devote your life to a restaurant.
Sounds like. The menu’s insanely vegetarian- and vegan-friendly, way beyond your run-of-the-mill portobello burger or pasta primavera—was it like that before or where does that come from—you?
Comes from me. A long time ago I had a guest in a large party only able to have a salad on the menu which broke my heart and she felt like a pain in the butt asking all kinds of questions about what is in things etc. I vowed that anyone with any dietary needs will have choices at Silly’s and not feel like an outcast.
That’s awesome, especially knowing how that feels so well for so many years before this whole thing caught on more. We especially loved the fried tofu in Buffalo sauce and Vegan Meltaway (both pictured below). Do you have any vegan-friendly favorites on the menu?
I love the Imperial Thai Fighter portobello with all the veggies, the meaty mushrooms, and the ginger miso sauce.
That does sound nice. We really need to come back. Then, did the Nice sisters come up with the name Silly’s?
Yes—they were on vacation to Jamaica and went to Bongo Cilly’s and, when they came back, they were looking for a name and landed on Silly’s as an honor to their favorite Jamaican restaurant.
So it’s not a direct reference to that Einstein quote?
Nope. That came later
You all state on your menus that you make everything—sauces, dips, dressings, bread, baked goods—from scratch; that the only thing you don’t make are the tortillas. True?
True–except like ketchup or mustard or cheese etc.
You don’t make your own tofu or vegan cheese though, right?
Nope. I have 2 full-time prep cooks now that can’t keep up.
And—not to find fault with an incredibly admirable system—why not the tortillas? I’m guessing it’s just a million times easier and/or cheaper to buy them?
I would have to make 1500 a week and I don’t sleep now….I truthfully couldn’t handle it.
Where does the desire to make so much food from scratch come from?
I think if you want to own a restaurant, then it is important to make your own food, not open a freezer and a bag.
We saw that you have a few walls of photos of people posing with your bumper sticker at famous landmarks. How long has that been going on for and what’s the most exciting one you’ve got?
Before my time, although I have added a lot. I think Easter Island or the one above the erupting volcano on Reunion Island.
How long have you lived in Portland?
I actually live in Standish, but 22 years.
Have you seen it change a lot in that time?
An immense amount, but definitely I like change.
Our first visit was just a few weeks back, but the city—which we loved in our few days there—seemed to be undergoing that somewhat familiar change that’s happened over the years in Brooklyn and the other Portland and so many other cities of young people moving in, driving up real estate prices, bringing in craft breweries and artisanal this and that. Any opinions on any of that? I love pickles and beer, but I know it’s a complicated issue and one that’s got a lot of perspectives to be considered.
I think it is a natural progression of a city. I frankly don’t know what to think although I love a place that has so many small businesses. I am just hoping Portland doesn’t make too many decisions that will cull the rise in them.
Agreed. Favorite thing about this city?
It has something for everyone to do, see, and eat.
For anyone visiting from out of town, besides coming to visit Silly’s, any sites you’d recommend seeing or things you’d recommend doing?
Walking the back cove; Victoria Mansion; the museum; duck tour; lobstering; Sea Dog game; farmers’ market; an afternoon picnic in Deering Oaks; ice cream at Beals; Portland Observatory; walking the Old Port and Congress; going to see a movie at the Nick; Bull Moose music; Longfellow Books; SPACE Gallery; the wine and cigar shop; Miccucci’s; Portland Pottery; Bayside Bowl for some bowling; frisbee at the East End Park; following the Freedom Trail; the Jewish Museum; Coffee by Design; Standard Baking; the Bakers Bench in Westbrook—you can get their cream horns at Coffee by Design; Brown Trading; Union Bagel; Holy Donut; and my all-time favorite is the Armory Lounge in the Regency for shrimp cocktail and lobster bisque.
Wow. So, nothing, then…? Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Colleen—hope to see you again soon.
Thanks so much for coming to Silly’s and take care.
Silly’s is located at 40 Washington Avenue, open Tuesday-Friday, 11AM-9PM; 9AM-9PM on Saturdays + Sundays; and closed Mondays. We’d highly recommend it to omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike.
Pictured above, a local draft IPA in Silly’s aluminum mugs; Pity the Fu—Buffalo-style fried tofu; and the Vegan Meltaway. Below, the loaded Vegan Nachos. You can see Silly’s full menu on their site.