As spring’s cool breezes turn to warm, sunny days, there are a few heralds of summer that can be counted on year after year: the return of the piping plover to their sandy nesting grounds, boats under full sail in Gloucester Harbor, and North Shore foodies flocking to open-air dining spots. As soon as the weather warms, decks open, crisp rosés are poured, and folks head outside to enjoy the area’s spectacular seaside views. Here are a few of our favorite deck dining options for your summer sojourns.
SEA LEVEL OYSTER BAR
Sea Level Oyster Bar might be one of the newer additions to Salem’s waterfront dining scene, but it’s already received major points as one of the best. “We’re literally perched right on Salem Harbor. It’s as close as you can get to the water unless you’re floating on it,” says owner and founder George Carey, who also owns the Salem restaurant Finz Seafood & Grill. “It’s great, fresh seafood, served casually, served fun.” The upstairs deck at Sea Level overlooks Salem Harbor, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the tall ship Friendship, Bakers Island Lighthouse, and, of course, the harbor. Sea Level’s raw bar serves at least four choices of oysters daily, mostly from local waters. The menu offers beer-steamed peel-and-eat shrimp, New England classics like lobster and steamers, and a rotating selection of 20 local beers on tap. “You can kick back…and smell the ocean, eat fish that’s from the ocean, and enjoy,” Carey says.
94 Wharf Street, Salem
THE STUDIO RESTAURANT
Located in the heart of Gloucester’s Rocky Neck Art Colony, The Studio Restaurant offers vast views of the water. “As far as beauty, there is no better view,” says Greg Halle, the restaurant’s director of business operations. The Studio’s expansive deck has a bar and umbrella-shaded tables. Perhaps its biggest draw, though, is its spectacular inner harbor location with views of Smith Cove. The restaurant sits on pilings in the water, and it’s surrounded by ocean and art galleries. Inside the restaurant, a rollicking piano bar also beckons. “There’s just all sorts of fun to be had in the summer,” Halle says. The Studio’s fresh seafood, twin lobster rolls, sushi, and raw bar keep patrons happy. And although parking can often be a challenge on Rocky Neck, The Studio offers a nautical solution: arrival by boat. The restaurant has hundreds of feet of dock slips for people who arrive in their own boats. Others can arrive by water taxi, as the restaurant is a regular stop for the Gloucester Harbor Water Shuttle, which connects Rocky Neck with other points throughout town, providing an inexpensive, scenic, and fun way to arrive in style.
51 Rocky Neck Ave., Gloucester
The first order of business at Seaport Grille in Gloucester: Choose a waterfront seat and let the sights and sounds of Gloucester Harbor wash over you. “In the summer, it’s really great to come here and have a table outside,” says general manager Lauren Johnston. “It’s beautiful no matter where you sit.” The Seaport Grille’s two decks—one canopied and adorned with twinkling lights, the other open-air—offer great views of Gloucester’s working waterfront, Ten Pound Island, and the open ocean. “I think the view is spectacular here,” says owner Sheree Zizik. Plus, heaters and fleece blankets—in a rich hue of royal “Seaport Blue”—keep patrons warm on chilly nights. But Seaport Grille isn’t just about the view; the menu is also top-notch. It’s known for fresh, local seafood in large portions (favorites include baked stuffed lobster, fried clams, and the fresh catch of the day) and signature cocktails, like the Seaport Swizzle and Gloucester Harbor-Rita.
6 Rowe Square, Gloucester
A drive down Essex’s Main Street reveals an embarrassment of deck dining riches, and among those beautiful spots is relative newcomer C.K. Pearl, which opened in June 2014 to wide acclaim. After stints at the area’s top restaurants and in Florence, Italy, the restaurant’s chef/owner and Essex native Patrick Shea is thrilled to be back home at “the river [that] was my backyard growing up.” The Essex River and the salt marsh provide a stunning backdrop to the restaurant and its lovely deck, where a bar and live jazz welcome patrons who are eager to soak in the outdoor atmosphere. The goings-on beyond the deck are great, too. “I don’t think you can find a better people-watching spot,” Shea says, adding that C.K. Pearl’s diners might spot fishermen on the river breaking down their catch of stripers at the end of the day or a parade of boaters heading to Crane Beach. Of course, the food at C.K. Pearl—unpretentious, modern takes on classic New England seafood—is as good as the view, including the restaurant’s strong oyster program, which features at least four local choices per day. “You see them on every table on the deck,” Shea says, a sure signal that “summertime is here.”
112 Main Street, Essex
THE MARKET RESTAURANT
After driving through a rabbit warren of narrow streets, past pretty houses and huge outcroppings of imposing granite in the little Gloucester village of Annisquam, one stumbles upon The Market Restaurant. One look at its great location, perched above the Annisquam River and tucked into the heart of Lobster Cove, tells you it was worth the drive. Housed in a former fish market, the seasonal Market Restaurant is helmed by two alums of Alice Waters’s famed Berkeley, California, restaurant, Chez Panisse. And because the restaurant is devoted to ultra-local, seasonal food from area farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and bakers, it’s only open from late May through mid-October. In addition, its menu changes constantly, depending on available ingredients. The Market Restaurant manages to pack a lot of action into its short season, though, and its stunning location on the river lends a lovely magic to dining there, whether it’s for breakfast, dinner, or weekend brunch. Its intimate deck provides stunning views of the river, the beautiful homes that line the shore, and the boats that ripple river waters.
33 River Road, Gloucester