12 Reasons to Drive to Salem

By Scott Kearnan  |  October 12, 2016
Credit: Courtesy of Tamara Flanagan/Notch Brewery

Fuel up and hit the road (or just hop on the commuter rail), because the North Shore has a lot to offer the food lover. Salem in particular offers some tantalizing treats, and with its annual October tourism boom upon us, there's no better time to discover some spellbinding restaurants in "Witch City."

  • Credit: Courtesy of Bambolina

    Opened last summer, this Italian spot proudly owns the nontraditional nature of its "neo-Neapolitan" pizzas, gorgeous pies that come in unconventional varieties like the Farmer's Market (topped with asparagus, peas, pesto, shaved zucchini and egg) and the clam chowder (adorned with clams, pancetta and shucked corn). But they're still cooked with great respect: the dough gets handmade in small batches and fired in an imported hearth oven, then baked at 925-degrees for 90 seconds for a rustic quality with lightly charred crust. Beautiful, bambolina

    288 Derby St., Salem; 978-594-8709

  • Credit: Courtesy of Richard Hawke/Bit Bar

    Bit Bar Salem
    Gen-Y gamers and craft beer lovers will love this new hangout in the old Salem jail, where vintage arcade machines — 8-bit hits like "Donkey Kong," "Burger Time," and more — will devour your quarters while you chow down on tasty morsels like a chorizo corn dog covered in Sriracha aïoli and an elk burger (pictured) served on a "doughssant" with black garlic icing. The bar has regional microbrews well represented, plus some playful cocktails like the spicy Ghost Eater, made from a ghost pepper–infused tequila, triple sec, fruit juices and lemon-lime soda.

    50 St. Peter St., Salem; 978-594-4838

  • Credit: Far From the Tree/Facebook

    Far From the Tree Tasting Room
    Last fall, Salem' hard-cider makers Far From the Tree debuted their new taproom — and really, is there anything more "Peak New England" than sipping cider in Salem on a crisp autumn day? Well, yes: consider that the ciders — served in styles like Lei (a pineapple and jalapeño cider) and Cord (aged in French oak with fresh maple syrup) — are made using only local apples. Besides downing flights and full pours, you'll frequently find special events like live music, poetry readings and more. 

    108 Jackson St., Salem; 978-224-2904

  • Credit: Flying Saucer Pizza/Facebook

    Flying Saucer Pizza Company
    Nerds, unite! This gourmet pizza joint pays homage to science fiction and B-movie flicks with its decor (think walls plastered with Star Wars photos and kitsch-y, colorful accouterments​) and the names of its huge pies, like the Mustafar II (topped with red sauce, mozzarella, ghost pepper salami and portobello) and La Casa del Terror (adorned with chopped garlic, taco meat, jalapeños and a Sriracha swirl). But you don't need to know what the names mean to know that the results taste delicious — and fresh, courtesy of Flying Saucer's farm-to-table approach for sourcing ingredients. (Beer geeks: There's a big craft brew selection for you too.) 

    118 Washington St., Salem978-594-8189

  • Naumkeag Ordinary
    A pair of Coda alums owns this new addition to the Salem scene, which boasts an impressive beer selection and a weekly rotating "Burger Tuesday" patty. But the simple (one might say, ordinary?) digs belie a seasonal American menu with great flourish. Deviled eggs with goat cheese, lardons and chimichurri are excellent, as is grilled pork loin with guava reduction and BBQ chicken with blue cheese potato salad and grilled escarole. 

    118 Washington St., Salem; 978-744-4968

  • Credit: Courtesy of Tamara Flanagan/Notch Brewery

    Notch Brewery & Taproom
    This craft brew destination has debuted just in time for fall's uptick in tourism in the bewitching North Shore seaport of Salem. The taproom is hip and spacious, with about a dozen taps pouring IPAs, lagers and other styles of beers, all made on-site. A river basin–side beer garden is the perfect place to kick back with a pint — or a few! — and nosh on snacks like pickled veggies and pretzels. 

    283 Derby St., Salem; 978-238-9060

  • Olde Main Street Pub
    Last year, this historic Essex Street space was reborn (under new ownership, natch) as a New American gastropbub with an old-world vibe. Witness: apps like smoked Gouda and goat cheese fritters and lollipop kale; entrees like lemon-garlic quinoa with feta and walnuts and roasted pork loin topped with fig puree; and, of course, the prerequisite rotating beer list.  

    121 Essex St., Salem; 978-594-8188

  • Opus
    There's a hip nightlife vibe at this newish restaurant from the team behind Gloucester's Latitude 43. It's helped along by a neat subterranean space that's great for live music and a creative cocktail list. (The Tragic Kingdom combines locally distilled rum with cognac and fall-spiced sweet corn shrub, while the Foliole mixes hibiscus vodka with cynar, Aperol and Boston-made Downeast Cider.) As for food: a standout sushi menu steals the show, but you'll also find small plates like pork belly tacos and nightly burger whims. 

    87 Washington St., Salem978-744-9600

  • Credit: Social Palates

    Sea Level Oyster Bar
    Oysters abound at this bi-level restaurant with a big bar and elevated patio right by Salem Sound. It's a hip space for shucking raw-bar eats and devouring non-humdrum takes on seafood classics like lobster bakes and fried fisherman's platters. But there's (nearly) as much turf as surf too: hot dogs laden with ale mustard and braised onions, fried zucchini tacos and pizzas topped with artichoke hearts and buffalo calamari are great for landlubbers. And there's that bar scene, with its craft-beer list and selection of well-priced cocktails like the rum- and fruit-soaked Poseidon's Punch. Ahoy.

    94 Wharf St., Salem; 978-741-0555

  • Credit: Trattoria Orsini/Facebook

    Trattoria Orsini
    In August a new Italian restaurant debuted on the Salem waterfront, importing Tuscan chef Vittorio Ambrogi to create a menu that covers everything from lamb shoulder ragu on housemade rosemary pappardelle to roasted porchetta and cacciucco, a fish soup of cod, shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari in a tomato-garlic broth. 

    247 Essex St., Salem978-740-8882

  • Credit: Courtesy of Brian Samuels Photography/Turner's

    Turner's Seafood
    The Salem sibling to this Melrose-founded seafood restaurant is housed inside the Witch City's historic lyceum, a lecture hall where Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first transatlantic telephone call. The building is constructed, documents suggest, upon the former apple orchard of Bridget Bishop, the first accused witch hanged in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. She supposedly haunts the space, casting about whiffs of apple — though maybe you're just smelling The Bishop cocktail, an autumnal rum and cider mix served at the bar. Regardless, the excellent fin fare — including awesome clam chowder and crab-stuffed sole — will convert any skeptics. 

    43 Church St., Salem; 978-745-7665

  • Credit: Creative Salem

    Ugly Mug Diner
    This marvelous little breakfast and brunch spot has a simple premise: take traditional greasy-spoon favorites and bring them up to meet a "foodie's" raised bar. Mission accomplished. Standard chicken and waffles becomes duck confit with candied pecans on a waffle drizzled with bourbon-maple syrup. Spam fritters transform by deep frying the canned meat and topping the crispy fritters with chipotle crème fraîche​. And the bar serves unique coffee drinks and intriguing fruit-based concoctions, pouring the tasty results into — you guessed it — ugly mugs from the owner's kitschy personal collection. How lovely!

    122 Washington St., Salem; 978-745-6844