SALEM — My boyfriend and I recently spent time in Salem, a town neither of us had been to since school field trips, and a town I still associated with three things: witch trials, Halloween, and the House of Seven Gables.
We found so much more. Turns out Salem is not a town that blooms Oct. 31 and wilts Nov. 1 like a rare flower. It’s a perennial.
We arrived on a warm Friday afternoon to stroll the gorgeous waterfront and historic downtown: all beautiful brick walkways and cobblestone, with plenty of public art — whimsically painted street drains, for example — that add to the off-beat, creative vibe of the city. We spent an afternoon window-shopping the clothing shops, sweet shops, bookstores, and galleries. We drove, but if you’re coming from Boston, you can also take a fast ferry through Boston Harbor Cruises.
Downtown is packed with plenty of dining options, from a Tuscan trattoria, Firenze (2 Lynde St., 978-219-118, firenzesalem.com) to a Mexican taqueria, Howling Wolf Taqueria (76 Lafayette St., 978-744-9653, howlingwolftaqueria.com). Atmospheres range from the fun and quirky, like Flying Saucer Pizza Co. — a “nerd-vana” pizzeria offering locally-sourced vegan and gluten-free pies with names like “Stormtrooper Commander” and “Admiral Ackbar” (118 Washington St., 978-594-8189, live
longandpizza.com) — to Finz, a romantic waterfront seafood restaurant, with stunning harbor view, raw bar, and extensive menu. 76 Wharf St. 978-744-8485. hipfinz.com.
We finally opted for Rockafellas, a marvel of a historic building, warm polished wood and chandeliers, with a low-key vibe. The cornerstone of the building, we learned, was placed in 1826, and over the years, the building has housed everything from a glass and china shop to the National Exchange Bank — we could see the old vault from our seats at the bar. The menu offered plenty of fresh surf and turf — crab cakes, coconut shrimp, pulled pork quesadillas, coconut lime salmon, lobster and roasted corn penne, sirloin steak fajitas, plus a wide selection wines and local and craft beers. We ordered fish tacos and heaping summer salads. 231 Essex St. 978-745-2411. rockafellasofsalem.com.
After dinner, it was still warm and light out, so we walked to The Bit Bar and got our Ms. Pac-Man on. We arrived at the restaurant/bar/classic video game arcade to find folks dining al fresco on the patio, and others playing corn hole. Inside, it was like walking into warm childhood: some 30 classic video arcade games, the bulk of them from the ’80s and ’90s — Donkey Kong, NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat, Space Invaders, Spider-Man, The Simpsons — plus pinball games, and all at the vintage price of a quarter. This is a Gen Y heaven, where our Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are still pixelated, and Fritos are on the dinner menu.
We’d absolutely dine here next time: the creative and eclectic “new-comfort” menu includes smoked mango chicken with guacamole served on Fritos, barbecue shrimp with pineapple salsa on blue corn chips, elk burger with smoked cheddar and bacon served on a doughnut/croissant hybrid. Even the snacks and sweets are noteworthy: Sriracha popcorn, Strawberry Pop-Tart lollipops, fried banana cheesecake with salted caramel ice cream. 50 Saint Peter St. 978-594-4838. bitbarsalem.com
When our thumbs were good and sore, we walked to Naumkeag Ordinary to end our evening bellied up to the bar — which is hand-crafted from reclaimed wood — for raw oysters and craft beer. Again, this is a place we could have dined. The menu — the bulk of which is locally sourced and sustainable — included a bacon burger with crumbled blue cheese, truffle oil fries with parmesan, and smoked gouda mac and cheese with pulled pork. It was at this point I realized Salem is something of a foodie’s paradise. 118 Washington St. 978-744-4968. NaumkeagOrdinary.com
From there, it was a short walk to The Merchant, an 11-room boutique hotel named with a nod to sailing merchant Joshua Ward who commissioned the historic building in 1784. Today, the small hotel is designed thoughtfully, with a diligent eye to detail and keen playfulness with color: from the green and navy blue wall motif, to the original hardwood floors, to the cobalt blue fireplace in the common room, set off by a fire engine red couch, turquoise-green chairs, and geometric slab coffee table. There was a gorgeous bar set up with mixers, so if you had big group, you could BYOB and a board game for a fun evening by the fire. There’s also a second-floor deck with stylish furniture and lovely view. Our room was simple and pretty in shades of blue, with a fireplace and a wall-mounted TV. Just outside our door was a shared kitchen area with a Keurig coffee maker, microwave, mini fridge, and bowls piled high with free snacks like Pirate’s Booty and apples. It added to a hip, communal vibe. 148 Washington St., 978-745-8100. www.themerchantsalem.com.
There are plenty of options for breakfast in downtown Salem. You can get your Starbucks fix or you could head to The Ugly Mug Diner, where menu items include The Elvis Waffle, topped with peanut butter cups, bacon, banana, and whipped cream; the Scary Uncle Sully omelette with bacon, jalapeños, swiss, and cheddar; and pancakes and waffles topped with everything from candied pecans to toffee and chocolate crumble. 122 Washington St. 978-745-6844. www.ugly
Next for us was the Peabody Essex Museum, as good as any art museum in New England. We were absorbed by the Auguste Rodin exhibit, complete with live dancers who posed to resemble the great sculptor’s creations. We also took in a fantastic American impressionism exhibit, Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals, which also had an interactive aspect to it, and is up through Nov. 6. The PEM’s permanent collection is also staggering. There’s so much to take in it’s almost scary. 161 Essex St. 978-745-9500. pem.org.