PORTSMOUTH — Trip by trip, over the last few years, this close observer has witnessed this Seacoast gem’s metamorphosis from a neat day trip into a hip foodie “it” town.
My latest obsession is Franklin Oyster House, a pearl that’s hip coastal seafood joint meets Ye Old New England. Inside a beautifully renovated 19th century oyster house, a super friendly staff serves oysters every way you can eat them — stewed, grilled, stuffed, fried, roasted, marinated, sandwiched, or raw by the half shell. Sit at the bar and watch your order plucked from ice and shucked right there. There are no TVs, putting the focus on the art of shucking, the food, and the conversation. The beer list is substantial, and aside from shellfish, the extensive menu includes options like boiled cider-glazed pork belly with apple polenta and goat Italian sausage flatbread or buttermilk fried Maine chicken. The fries alone are worth the trip. 148 Fleet St., 603-373-8500. www.franklinoysterhouse.com.
After oysters ($1.25 each), we walk to Moxy, a stunner of a tapas bar that understands the true culture of a European tapas bar — the dim lighting is as intimate as the small plates, which are built for sharing and conversing around. The idea here is to make a night of it: order three or four tapas, pairing each with the right wine or beer. Sit at the bar where half the fun is seeing what other people order, hearing fellow diners discuss the food with one another.
With sources and farms listed on the wall, each plate tells a story, from the New Hampshire mushroom tortellini with chèvre, sage, and roasted turnip, to the Maine scallops with aged copper, brussels sprouts, cranberry, and purple daikon. Start with the Moxy bread — grilled bread, grated tomato, and farm goat cheese — but save room for the whoopie pie sliders with chocolate dipping sauce. 106 Penhallow St., 603-319-8178, www.moxyrestaurant.com.
We also liked BRGR Bar, an old-school Archie and Jughead-esque burger/milkshake shoppe meets hip new-school foodie fare. Creative starters include housemade fried pickles, lobster poutine, and ricotta sweet potato tots with cilantro aioli. Brgrs include the Mac Daddy — a Maine farm beef patty topped with housemade mac and cheese, barbecue short rib, and onion — and the Oo-Mommy burger, topped with gorgonzola, bacon jam, and fried onion rings. “Adult milkshakes” include The Thin Mint, with brownie bits, chocolate syrup, rum, and peppermint schnapps, or Grandpa’s Coffee with Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum and coffee brandy. 34 Portwalk Place. 603-294-0902. http://brgr-bar.com.
Then there is the hub of culture that is 3S Artspace. The nonprofit art gallery/performance space/restaurant is tragically hip and on the pulse of the East coast arts scene. The gallery has hosted everything from cut-paper artists to a juried exhibit of hand-made furniture. The performance space has hosted a screening of a silent film accompanied by a live orchestra, and as well as folk singers.
The dining experience is another art: The indoor/outdoor restaurant, Block Six, is gorgeous with an eclectic, Old World-vibed menu. We went in the summer and sat outside. The menu changes, but can include stone-fruit salad with olive oil and feta, or radishes rolled in butter and sea salt, to the lamb meatballs with yogurt, or local fish catch-of-the-day with carrot, fregola, and bagna cauda. 319 Vaughan St. 603-766-3330. www.3sarts.org.
I should mention that Portsmouth’s downtown is a walker’s downtown, lined with shops, cafes, galleries, pubs, restaurants. Start in Market Square. From there, you can walk just about anywhere, and we’ve found some gems just strolling.
Earth Eagle Brewings, for instance, is a hole-in-the-wall that brews up tremendous beers, including gruits. Let me Google that for you: gruit is an old-fashioned herb mixture used for bittering and flavoring beer popular before the extensive use of hops. It’s also a nice lunch spot, where creative fare might include pineapple barbecue-pulled pork on homemade cornbread to a sandwich of fruit-wood smoked bacon, dates, and cheese. 165 High St., 603-502-2244. http://eartheaglebrewings.com.
Another hidden gem: Lexie’s Joint. Parking can be tough, but worth it for the fish tacos and black truffle salt fries. 212 Islington St. 603-319-4055. http://peaceloveburgers.com/
For pubs and bars, Portsmouth is packed, from Cava — a wine-drinker’s wine bar with wines from Lebanon, South Africa, or Spain by the glass. (10 Commercial Alley, 603-319-1575, www.cavatapasandwinebar.com) — to one of our first favorites: Portsmouth Brewery. Go downstairs. You’ll feel like you’ve just arrived a house party in a friend’s awesomely refinished basement. There are groups of 30-somethings, older couples, skiers who just came from at day in the mountains. They’re playing pool or shuffleboard, or sitting on the couch watching the game, or bellied up to the bar, joking, noshing, imbibing. The atmosphere is terrific, the house-brews remarkable, and — forget pretzels — the menu ranges from mussels steamed in Blonde Ale broth to beer-battered, panko-crusted fried calamari with basil-pesto mayonnaise or a fried eggplant sandwich with blistered cherry tomatoes on toasted sourdough. 56 Market St. 603-431-1115. portsmouthbrewery.com/about-us/directions/
For coffee the next day, we have two favorites: Breaking New Grounds, which sits at the center of Market Square and buzzes with activity all day. The coffee is fantastic and they have decadent pastries. (14 Market Square, 603-436-9555. www.bngcoffee.com.) We also love White Heron, a hip coffeehouse, all exposed beams, hardwood floors, lots of art, and occasional live music. Great coffee, and breakfast wraps includes the huevos rancheros wrap with scrambled New Hampshire eggs, Vermont cheddar, rice, black beans, salsa, and cilantro-pumpkinseed pesto. 601 Islington St., 603-294-0270, www.whiteherontea.com/cafe.
For lunch? Portsmouth Book & Bar, literally a bar in a bookstore, where you can order a fresh mozzarella sandwich with tomato, pesto and greens, a glass of white, and then browse the used fiction. 40 Pleasant St. 603-427-9197, bookandbar.com.