Good Eats, Nice Digs in Portsmouth

This foodie hotspot also offers sated diners sweet dreams.

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As a culinary destination, some believe that Charleston in South Carolina now claims ascendancy over New Orleans. Portsmouth, though much smaller than either, might give both a run for their money.

New Hampshire's only seaport, with just 20,400 people, nonetheless boasts 250 restaurants-a figure that encompasses the entire gastronomic spectrum, from the iconic Gilley's dog wagon to fine French dining. At least 40 are serious sit-down venues within a few minutes' walk of the waterfront. And its all there: Thai, Indian, Japanese, Northern Italian, Southern Italian, Southern barbecue, California cuisine, Mexican, Caribbean wood grill, American eclectic. There is even that rarest of all dining experiences north of the New York metro area - an authentic Tapas menu, found at Cava, 10 Commercial Alley.

Anyone too impatient to get on the waiting list, can just walk around the corner to someplace else. Several restaurant lounges feature live music at least part of the week, with troubadours from the ample stable of local talent. Others feature dining al fresco on decks that overlook the working port.

Besides Gilley's and The Rosa for Italian, two other venues are worthy of mention because both have stood seemingly since the dawn of time. The Dolphin Striker, at the corner of Bow and Ceres streets, has endured through the decades because of outstanding food, great atmosphere, and a world-class tavern. Spring Hill Tavern is the very definition of a "watering hole" because it preserves within its walls an ancient spring-fed well that once provided water to sailing ships. Now the well is glass-topped and home to a trio of peacefully grazing Japanese goldfish. The walls are a gallery of great nautical photography and art.

Another old favorite is Warren's Lobster House, a short stroll across the Memorial Bridge in Kittery, Maine. Eat lobster 12 ways to Sunday while grazing Warren's expansive salad bar. This place preserves the dining experience of mid-twentieth century New England.

Where to Stay ****

Wentworth by the Sea is a rare surviving example of a grand 19th century hotel, and lucky to be so. During much of the last half century this "white elephant" stood vacant and was threatened with the wrecker's ball because no one could afford the renovations. Now the Wentworth is a Marriott Hotel and Spa, and its survival is ensured. The hotel stands on a bluff on New Castle Island just a few miles from downtown Portmouth, overlooking Little Harbor and the Atlantic. The complex includes Wentworth by the Sea Marina with 170 slips, an 18-hole country club, tennis, two swimming pools, and on-site restaurants. Unusually for such a facility, you may bring a dog of up to 30 pounds for a small additional charge. Tel. 603-422-7322, www.wentworth.com.

The Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel has the advantage of location, putting you within a two-minute walk of the city's colonial/federal downtown and restaurant district. Many of its rooms have a sweeping view of the Piscataqua River and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, across the river.

The Alehouse Inn, the smaller of the three, puts you right on the Portsmouth's waterfront in the historic Portsmouth Brewing Company building. The brick walled rooms have a loft-like atmosphere but with contemporary furniture and accoutrements. Tel. 603-431-7760, www.alehouseinn.com.

B&Bs. As you would expect in a town with so many expansive old buildings, there are numerous bed & breakfast inns to choose from. For information on your choices, visit www.portsmouthnh.com/lodging.