Salem. The name alone conjures specters of skeletal tree branches stretching toward a misty, moonlit Massachusetts sky, menacing black-cloaked Puritans, and witches, ghosts and ghouls lurking around every brick-paved corner. It’s true that Salem has both earned and cultivated its spooky reputation as the Halloween capital of the world. Yet in recent years, the Witch City has also become a food city, dense with creative restaurants, cafes, patisseries, breweries, a distillery and, just like any self-respecting foodie town, a food tour.
Tucked on a quiet side street in the heart of downtown is A&J King Artisan Bakers (ajkingbakery.com; 48 Central St.; 978-744-4881), where husband-and-wife team Andy and Jackie King craft a delicious array of lovingly made breads, pastries and sweet treats made from locally sourced, seasonally available ingredients. The cozy, rustic-industrial space is packed with locals sipping coffee, knitting, reading the newspaper and catching up with friends around small, copper-topped tables. Tuck into featured breakfast pastries such as the savory mushroom croissant ($4.25), redolent with oyster mushrooms, goat cheese, shallots and thyme, or the pain au raisin ($3.65) made with rum from Salem’s own Deacon Giles Distillery. Try the seasonal Danishes ($2.95) in rotating flavors such as garlic scape pesto with cherry tomatoes or sweet lemon cream cheese with mixed berries. You also can’t go wrong with a fat slice of sour cream coffee cake with a thick walnut-cinnamon topping ($2.50), a blueberry muffin ($2.85), or even a loaf of artisanal bread or bag of homemade granola ($8.30) for later. And everything — down to the caramel syrup swirled through cappuccinos, chai for lattes and chocolate ganache — is made on site.
Salem was one of America’s most important seaports for international trade in spices, tea, silks and other exotic goods during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. That maritime legacy means sampling seafood is de rigueur in Salem, and Sea Level Oyster Bar (sealeveloysterbar.com; 94 Wharf St.; 978-741-0555) offers the perfect spot, perched at the edge of Salem Harbor on Pickering Wharf and overlooking the Salem National Maritime Historic Site and Derby Wharf Light Station. Alfresco dining on the deck is lovely during warm weather, but scenic views are guaranteed any time of year in the expansive, two-floor restaurant. As the name promises, the oysters (market price) at Sea Level’s raw bar play a starring role on the menu, but there are lots of New England classics for people who aren’t fans of the briny bivalves, including densely packed lobster rolls (market price); rich, buttery, crumbled-Ritz-cracker-topped seafood pie ($22); and creamy New England clam chowder ($7). If seafood isn’t your thing, you’re still in luck, thanks to options such as sweet potato, kale and goat cheese pizza ($13); pickled pear salad with goat cheese, blueberries and sugared walnuts ($8); and a fried-pickle topped burger ($15).
Bambolina (bambolinarestaurant.com; 288 Derby St.; 978-594-8709) is serious about its Neapolitan-style pizza without being even a little bit pretentious about it. Shared plates are standouts here, and there are lots of options, such as Italian street corn ($6) — roasted corn on the cob loaded with a tangy mix of house Caesar dressing, ricotta salata and grana Padano cheeses, and a healthy dash of Espelette pepper powder — the garlicky, fire-roasted Castelvetrano olives ($6), and the zucchini “ceviche,” a light salad of greens, zucchini ribbons, ricotta salata and lemon dressing. The charcuterie is another great shared option, whether you choose individual plates such as the rabbit and pork pâté ($11) and corned beef tongue ($8), or opt for a board of five chef-selected items and garnishes ($24). For dinner, it’s all about the pizza. For purists, there’s the Margherita ($13.50): crispy edges, soft interior, topped with tomato, pecorino and mozzarella, and whole fresh basil leaves. Then there’s the sweet, savory and super-satisfying Beef & Blue ($16.50) with cured beef, Gorgonzola cheese, caramelized pearl onions and the gentlest hint of honey. Wash it all down with wines by the glass or bottle, or craft beers, such as the Greenhead IPA, made a few miles up the coast by Newburyport Brewing.
Pecci is a writer based in New Hampshire. Her website is alexandrapecci.contently.com.More from Breakfast, lunch and dinner New Orleans, La.; Baltimore, Md.; Stockholm, Sweden