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Inside the Great Escape, Salem

One of the oldest correctional facilities in the country is now an upscale dining experience.

In a city where preserving history and architectural heritage is quintessential and bringing the past alive in modern ways is a celebrated tradition, Great Escape Restaurant is perfectly suited to its surroundings. The unique penitentiary-themed eatery is housed in what was once the country’s oldest active jail, an imposing structure nestled atop a hill at 50 Saint Peter Street.

The historic prison, which opened in 1813 and was in use for the next 177 years, was once a co-ed facility with no age restrictions. “Many people are surprised to learn we had men, women, and even children serving time here,” says General Manager and Salem native Shane Andruskiewicz. The jail sat abandoned for nearly 20 years, but all that changed in 2010, when the building was converted into 23 condos and a unique restaurant space (partly inspired by the remake of Boston’s Charles Street Jail into the trendy Liberty Hotel).
Owned by Cleber Santos, the swank space features prison bars, high ceilings, and as much of the original architectural elements as was possible. “When we got the space, all that was left was the 200-year-old two-foot-thick granite floor and brick walls, both of which can be seen today,” says Andruskiewicz. “We were also able to obtain some of the original jail cell doors for decoration.”

Guests love to peruse the authentic jail documents on display in the 100-seat room (there’s also an outdoor dining space during warm months),which is open daily for lunch and dinner. The overall effect is oddly cozy, and while the space can get noisy on busy weekend nights, its trendy vibe-on par with a contemporary urban dining scene-is what keeps people coming back.

Well, that, and the food. Chef Fredie Barbosa devised a menu (or “prison schedule”) of succulent seafood, classic pastas, and steak, chicken, and veal dishes served in heaping portions. Patrons adore the Eggplant Tower, a flavorful concoction of breaded eggplant layered with mozzarella, prosciutto, and a velvety pesto sauce. The Al Pacino (pan-seared jumbo scallops over spinach and risotto) and Alcatraz (breaded chicken and jumbo shrimp served with roasted potatoes and Dijon sauce) are hits, as is the creative cocktail list featuring prison-themed favorites like The Commuted Sentence, a blend of blueberry vodka, Chambord, and cranberry.

With its creative specialties and ambience, Great Escape is a place where you’ll be happy to do time.