Massachusetts’s most spellbinding seaport is home to some of the North Shore’s best restaurants.
It’s now peak tourist season in Massachusetts’s most spellbinding seaport, but to be honest, the North Shore city’s restaurant scene is strong enough to warrant the quick trip from Boston any time of year. So whether you’re flying up for October fun or just planning a post-Halloween day trip, here are a dozen very different (though equally delicious) places to refuel.
Wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pizzas anchor the rustic Italian cookery at Bambolina, where those pies are topped with everything from octopus to bresaola to gorgonzola dolce. You’ll also find pasta plates and sides, such as mushrooms marinated in lemon, thyme, and crushed red pepper, plus affogato—vanilla gelato topped with a double shot of espresso—for dessert. Bambolina’s takeout program, meanwhile, has a host of “necessities”: Where else can you arrange curbside pickup of house made chili oil alongside CBD tinctures, bottles of sanitizer, and bundles of fire wood?
288 Derby St., Salem, 978-594-8709, bambolinarestaurant.com.
Speaking of Italian, you’ll find fabulous red-sauce plates (just like nonna made them!) at this cozy downtown stalwart. The homey interior is a bit too snug to accommodate diners in the social-distancing era, but the bowls of hearty bolognese or seafood linguini, and the plates bearing big portions of lemon-sauced chicken or pepper-sauced pork loin, taste just as great via takeout—or over carafes of Chianti on the new sidewalk patio.
107 Essex St., Salem, 978-825-9911, bellaverona.com.
It’s fair to say that we all could use a temporary retreat to the sweeter days of childhood right about now. For that, get to Bit Bar—a retro-cool arcade and restaurant that trades on your fondest memories of ’80s Nintendo. The playful eats range from Buffalo-style “Tetris tots” to elk-and-beef burgers with BBQ sauce to caramel-covered brownie sundaes; meanwhile, cocktails like the Princess Peach (vodka with fruity schnapps and cranberry juice) may just give your mood a 1-Up. There’s a spacious patio, though you can still toggle frequently-sanitized joysticks while playing “Pac-Man” or “Burger Time” in the game-equipped dining room.
50 St. Peter St., Salem, 978-594-4838, bit.bar.
Flying Saucer Pizza
Let your geek flag fly here. From the “Spaceballs” (aka. garlic knots) to the many specialty pies, the menu abounds with nerdy references: The “Audrey II,” for instance— covered in arugula, roasted red peppers, and balsamic fig—nods to the hungry plant of Little Shop of Horrors. But you can also build your own pizza using epic ingredients like sweet habañero sauce, Cajun-style chicken, and a ton of vegan alternatives, including jackfruit disguised as “pulled pork” or “meatballs.” Gluten-free crusts are available too, and trust us: They’re out of this world.
118 Washington St., Salem, 978-594-8189, flyingsaucerpizzacompany.com.
Right next door to Flying Saucer Pizza is this boho-style sandwich shop and coffee klatch, the kind of place where laptop warriors hammer out emails while sipping on draft-poured cold brew coffee, or toe-tapping music fans vibe out to local musicians while tipping back craft beers. The live entertainment lineup has moved outside for now, so grab global-inspired sandwiches (such as the Barcelona with turkey, manchego cheese, and apple butter) or crepes (like the Athens, filled with artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and goat cheese) and nosh them in the same grassy park where you’ll find the famous Bewitched statue, a popular place for touristy photo opps.
247 Essex St., Salem, 978-740-8882, gulugulucafe.com.
Howling Wolf Taqueria
Behold the massive burritos at this Mexican joint—including the signature Howling Wolf, a fork-and-knife-required beast filled with shredded beef, salsa, and beans that sits in a sea of chili sauce. The scratch-made tortillas are some of the best around, especially when they’re deep-fried for delicious chimichangas. Just don’t sleep on the menu’s other “wolf snacks”: say, avocado fries or chicken wings served with jalapeño ranch. Need even more spice? Sip on margaritas infused with red-hot ghost peppers.
76 Lafayette St., Salem, 978-744-9653, howlingwolftaqueria.com.
The industrial-cool interior, which includes massive garage doors that flood the place with sunshine, is one of our favorites in Salem—but while it’s temporarily closed, Kokeshi’s menu of Asian street food is perfectly suited to the street-side patio. Check out small plates like lobster rangoon with Sriracha-ranch sauce, pork and kimchi dumplings, or black sesame ice cream; or dive headfirst into noodle bowls like the Colonel Sanders Ramen, featuring fried chicken with wakame seaweed in a spicy pork broth.
41 Lafayette St., Salem, 978-594-4197, kokeshirestaurant.com.
Ledger Restaurant & Bar
The glitzy interior, a former bank, is fairly cavernous—so you’ll have plenty of socially-distanced space to stretch while discovering the eclectic, upscale New American cuisine from chef-owner Matt O’Neil and executive chef Daniel Gursha: Think cider-glazed pork shank with grilled apples and honey nut squash puree, herb-brined chicken with salsa verde and pepitas, or Maine mussels with pork belly, curry, coconut, and lemongrass. There’s tented outdoor seating, too, a fine place to take Ledger’s topnotch brunch plates, including decadent chicken and waffles drizzled with green chile butter and spicy honey.
125 Washington St., Salem, 978-594-1908, ledgersalem.com.
The transportive, ashram-meets-speakeasy downstairs area, dubbed Opus Underground, is typically a fabulous escape for live music and DJ dancing. We’ll have to wait a bit longer to return there, but in the meanwhile, the restaurant’s courtyard has continued to host entertainment for diners digging into mostly Asian-leaning options like miso- and orange-glazed salmon, massaman and coconut curry tofu, and a wide selection of super-fresh sushi. Thirsty? Cocktail cure-alls include the Psychosomatic, which blends apricot black tea bourbon with spiced pear, cinnamon, and dry curaçao.
87 Washington St., Salem, 978-744-9600, salemopus.com.
If you want to soak up the fresh fall air before winter starts shoving us inside, you can’t do better than this rooftop restaurant at the Hotel Salem. You’ll find a tidy little menu of two-per-order tacos, burrito bowls, and snacks like crab cakes with Sriracha aioli. But honestly, the star attraction is the setting, a perfect place to watch an autumn sunset while tipping back breezy drinks like the orange blossom margarita, frosé (frozen rosé wine) with strawberry puree, or the aptly named Sky Tai with North Shore-made Privateer rum.
209 Essex St., Salem, 978-451-4814, theroofsalem.com.
Sea Level Oyster Bar
Water views beckon to this harbor-side spot, where the seafood-focused menu is wide-ranging: Hoisin-glazed salmon and Italian cioppino stew—loaded with shrimp, mussels, clams, and more—shares space with New England classics like the Salem Sound Clambake, which is anchored by a one-and-a-quarter-pound lobster. Of course, you’ll want to start off with the eponymous bivalves, served freshly shucked on shellfish platters or baked with edamame soy butter and pickled ginger.
94 Wharf St., Salem, 978-741-0555, sealeveloysterbar.com.
A fabulous, family-run seafood restaurant inside Salem’s historic Lyceum Hall, Turner’s wholesales its super-fresh New England catch to customers around the country. But we’d argue it’s best enjoyed at its Salem restaurant, where our favorite has to be the Finnan Haddie, house-smoked haddock in a pearl onion au gratin sauce; every preparation is excellent, though, so swim on by for similarly stellar Gloucester hake marsala, crumb-topped lobster pie, or salmon pasta in cream sauce. And if you opt for curbside takeout, you can always add on-ice swordfish, scallops, and other seafood for creative cooking at home.
43 Church St., Salem, 978-745-7665, turners-seafood.com.