Foodies Welcome in Newburyport
Diverse dining experiences grow in this small coastal city,
photograph by Pete Tschudy
It is 8:30 p.m. on a Friday night, and a long line of people—maybe 75 or so—snakes through an alley to the back door of Buttermilk Baking Company in Newburyport, waiting for whatever owner Ashley Bush and her team of pastry chefs are serving up. Might be buttery rich apple crisp, perhaps a Danish topped with house-made mac and cheese and pulled pork, or something new they’ve just dreamed up. The crowd won’t find out until the sign goes up at 9, but people have come from as far as Manchester, New Hampshire, for a bite anyway.
In addition to the increasing popularity of the Buttermilk After Dark pop-up, held on select Fridays, the biggest surprise has been the community spirit in downtown Newburyport, says Bush, the mad genius behind the event. “I thought for sure everyone would take their plate to go and sit down by the waterfront, but the atmosphere out back by the dumpsters is a good time and people want to stay awhile.”
Community is very much on the minds of residents of Newburyport these days—supporting local businesses and each other. Collaborations have become the norm, and a new Facebook group, Nice People of Newburyport, has grown to more than 2,200 members since launching this spring.
“That’s one of the things that really distinguishes Newburyport,” says Ken Jackman, president of the board of directors at Newburyport’s Custom House Maritime Museum. “You’ve got a community here that really cares about community.” One where people pitch in to support each other—and the thing that makes the town special. When the Maritime Museum decided to host a “Sea-to-Table” fundraiser to restore the museum’s roof, a five-course fish-based tasting menu quickly became seven, as downtown’s top eateries all jumped in to donate time and food to the event.
That combination of community and food is becoming a signature of the port city.
When beloved bakery Abraham’s Bagels reopened late this summer, after being shuttered for almost a year by a devastating fire, whole families started lining up around 3 a.m., hoping to be the first to score a fresh bagel. Because the bagels are really good—but also because locals wanted to show their support.
Restaurants are responding to the embrace. Over the past decade or so, the town has welcomed a wide variety of big-city-style dining options, notes Wellington Augusto, whose Brazilian-style steakhouse, Mission Oak Grill, just marked 11 years in Newburyport. Over the years, he’s brought a number of firsts to the city, including homemade empanadas from his native Brazil, and all have been welcomed by diners.
“I got a lot of pushback in the beginning,” Augusto says, noting that even offering mignonette for oysters instead of cocktail sauce and horseradish was a big step forward in 2006. These days, he’s introducing a surf-and-turf empanada stuffed with shrimp and chorizo, topped with an agave-lime-cilantro aioli, and expects that diners at Mission Oak are up to the challenge.
Nancy Batista-Caswell, proprietor of Ceia Kitchen + Bar and Brine in Newburyport, as well as Oak + Rowan in Boston, agrees that the support of the local community is enabling the dining scene to broaden.
“We are able to do what we started at Ceia because of the community we have,” Batista-Caswell says. “We were able to really test the market and push the limits because our guests were responding to it.”
Batista-Caswell’s two spots were somewhat outliers when she opened them, serving house-made charcuterie plates and grilled octopus at Ceia and crudo at Brine. But these days Newburyport’s growing line-up of luscious enticements includes several restaurants dishing up crudo, including BONS award-winning raw fish at The Paddle Inn—and Batista-Caswell couldn’t be happier.
All of this is building a brand for the city. Over the past few years, international tourists have started adding the port city as a must-stop destination between Boston and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The increase in tourism is supporting the growing dining options, notes Mayor Donna Holaday. “We have seen an increase in cultural tourism, which looks for more diverse offerings,” she says, noting that the city of 17,000 residents now offers more than 54 restaurants.
James Rogers, chef/owner of Andiamo, which has been offering house-made pastas and other upscale Italian–influenced dishes for five years, agrees. “I think the mix is wonderful—I like the diversity that Newburyport has evolved into.”
See our Newburyport restaurant list