Here we are at last, Gentle Readers – the last article in my marathon series about great sites to take a date in and around Boston. We now move from Beantown itself out to the rest of the surrounding locales. Although Boston may be the Hub of the Universe, there are some nearby spots along its “spokes” that deserve a look.
In 1692, a mania struck the little town of Salem Village. The causes of it are well-documented, and I won’t go through a lengthy explanation here. For our purposes, it’s enough to know that 19 accused witches were hanged, 1 was pressed to death under rocks, and somewhere between 4 and 17 accused witches died in prison (sources vary).
By all accounts, this was a tragedy, and in 1957, Massachusetts formally apologized for it. But it fascinates me to no end that one of Massachusetts’ cities has really stepped in, taken the reputation as the Witch City, and turned it into an incredibly lucrative tourist trade. It may seem a tiny bit in poor taste when you think too hard about it, but modern witches love them some Salem, so maybe we can think of it as a story about redemption and acceptance instead of the alternative.
The turn-around arguably came when Laurie Cabot, a wiccan high priestess, was named Salem’s official witch in the 1970s by Governor Michael Dukakis. She opened the city’s first official witch shop in 1971, and this seems to have opened the city to a more spooky influence. Now, museums dedicated to the Witch Trials, haunted houses, witchcraft stores, psychics, and other such venues call Salem home, and, during October, the Witch Town becomes Halloween Central, home to a host of Haunted Happenings that celebrate the eerier side of existence all month long.
What’s actually rather interesting to me is that Salem is not where most of the hysteria occurred. The trials happened here, and the executions, but the accusations largely happened in Salem Village, now called Danvers, which was home to a really creepy abandoned asylum until it was recently turned into luxury apartments. You’d have to be crazy not to want to live there, right?
Okay, all joking aside, Salem is super-awesome. Not only does it have all the cool atmosphere mentioned above, but it also has two fantastic comics and collectibles stores (shouting out to Harrisons and Red Lion), one of the most extensive Army-Navy Surplus stores I know (perfect for stocking up on camping and LARPing equipment), some great restaurants (Salem Beer Works is awesome for appetizers, and the all-you-can-eat beef ribs at the last remaining Victoria’s Station restaurant are magnificent), a damned fine Polish deli and grocery (which, when you’re married to a Domanski, can be a very good thing,) and a lot of cool, kitschy bookstores, record stores, game stores, and more.
If you’ve never been to Salem, go check it out if you’re ever in the area. It’s well worth the drive. Just don’t expect to park for cheap during October.
We Came, We Saw, We Concord
Okay, that’s a terrible pun, but Concord has a lot going for it, and I feel like it deserves a mention.
In my last article, I mentioned Concord’s place as a patriotic symbol of American victory in the Revolutionary War, right? Okay, now put that aside and enjoy it for being a cool, hip lil town.
We never go to Concord without making a stop at the rather unimaginatively named Concord Cheese Shop. A store this good doesn’t need a fancy name. They have over a hundred cheeses available at any given time, not to mention unusual chocolates, sauces, crackers, breads, sausages, and a myriad of other treats to enjoy with your cheese. You can get Red Dragon, my absolute favorite cheese here – a type of Welsh cheese called y fenni that’s made with ale and mustard seed. Pow! That’s flavor!
Right down the street from there is the Toy Shop of Concord. Yes, I know, another thrilling name. But I would’ve given my eyeteeth for a toy store this cool when I was a kid. There’s a noticeable lack of transformers, G.I. Joe’s, and video games. Instead, you’ll find Playmobil, Rokenbok, Legos, art supplies, musical instruments, tons of puppets and costumes for theatrical play, and a zillion other wonderful, imaginative toys that reward kids who like to be creative.
Concord also has a cool bookstore (The Concord Bookshop) and candy store (Concord Confections…at least they’re trying.) But the landmark of Concord for me, and the reason we come back over and over, is the Colonial Inn. We’ve been lucky enough to visit this historic building many times, and I’ve always enjoyed it. The original structure dates from 1716, and it’s been a hotel since 1889. It’s also home to a delicious restaurant called Merchant’s Row, which used to feature traditional New England dishes like pot roast and chicken pot pie and which now boasts an impressive menu that includes things like Root Beer Braised Short Ribs, Veal Oscar, and Pomegranate Salmon. Delish! And, if you come during the right days, you may see rooms full of people in people dress who’ve just come from various recreationist events.
My Neck of the Woods
Long before I was born, my Mom bought a house during her first marriage in Somerville, Massachusetts. This house was in a rather unassuming neighborhood called Davis Square. The area was run-down, and the town was nicknamed Slummerville by surrounding towns.
In the mid-80s, the Red Line of the subway made it to Davis Square, and the whole area’s been getting, well…cooler. In fact, in 1997, the Utne Reader named it one of the 15 hippest places to live. We’ve got an open studio art festival, a festival of activist brass bands called HONK!, an awesome refurbished old movie theater (that still puts real butter on the popcorn, and sells beer and ice cream), free public folk dances…
Okay, we’re pretty awesome, I have to say. I say we, because I live less than two blocks away from this mecca of hipsterness, in that house my Mom was smart enough to buy when Somerville was cheap and Davis Square was not much of anything.
We have great little stores, from the comic book and collectibles store Comicazi to a fresh pasta store (Dave’s), to an ancient Singer sewing machine repair shop. You just never know what’s going to pop up here.
And we have awesome food. This ranges from the venerable Redbones, which makes damned fine barbecue with many faces and regional flavors, to the charm and live Irish music at the Burren (damned good curry fries), to the nouveau cuisine of Foundry (one of the best Croque Madames I’ve ever tasted, and if they have the corn chowder with bacon on the menu, it’s a total must), to the dim lighting and leather chairs of Saloon (a nearly hidden downstairs establishment with an incredible bar modeled after a 1920s speakeasy – make sure to order the Parisian Gnocchi).
My current favorite place to go in Davis is the Painted Burro, an upscale Oaxacan restaurant. If you visit (or date), you’ll be eating a lot of tortilla chips and salsa…because you will finish the first batch they give you – it’s that good. I then strongly recommend you try things like the Pork Belly appetizer (I could go and eat nothing but a few bowls of this, happily), the Corn on the Cob (which is roasted and serve Mexican Street Food Style with a spicy aioli and cheese), the tacos (my favorite is the Chorizo taco, which has freshly made house chorizo over a little potato hash, topped with a soft-cooked fried egg – the yolk will soak down into the rest as you eat it, making it like an incredible breakfast taco), and the street style hot dog (which is an amazing dog on a fresh, grilled roll with pork belly, cabbage/jalapeno slaw, and their own awesome ketchup and mustard). For a really unusual dessert, get the corn helado – yup…sweet corn ice cream. Awesome.
(If you want traditional ice cream flavors, skip dessert at the Burro and walk down the street to either J.P. Licks or the Somerville Theater – I know it’s odd to recommend a movie theater for ice cream, but I love Richardson’s Ice Cream – Maine Black Bear or German Chocolate are my faves.)
As soon as I finished writing this, I knew I wanted to give a quick shout out to Cambridge’s Kendall Square. Lots of cool restaurants are there now, including one of my faves, the Friendly Toast, which is like having upscale breakfast or brunch in Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Just trust me and check it out )and for God’s sake, get the cheese fries – I know blue cheese covered fries with a strawberry-habanero dipping sauce sounds unusual, but it’s a really good unusual. Kendall also has a great art-house theater – perfect for catching documentaries, foreign films, and small, indie releases. Saw Blair Witch Project and Fantastic Mr. Fox there weeks before they opened nationwide.
If you’re in this area, you don’t need to stay in Boston for awesome food, great stores, and plenty of excellent entertainment. And if you don’t know the area, drop me a line. I’ll show ya round…just buy me dinner. And I don’t drink, so I’m a cheap date.