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If you hear banging coming from the kitchen at Chicken & Pig, the new fast-casual restaurant at MarketStreet Lynnfield, don’t worry. It’s not a temperamental chef, nor construction behind the scenes. It’s just the cooks pounding fresh chicken breasts to the perfect thickness.

The house dog from Chicken & The Pig at Market Street Lynnfield

“You’ll hear the hammer going constantly,” says Guy Ciolfi, chef and founder of Chicken & Pig, so-named for the menu of specialty chicken sandwiches and gourmet hot dogs. The pounding is integral to the quality, as is the individual hand-breading, the Lynnfield resident says. Sure, he could have bought a frozen product, but it wouldn’t be the same. “It comes down to quality,” he says. “If you can set yourself apart with a few easy steps, it’s worth it.”

J-Bird chicken sandwich and bacon cheddar cheese fries from Chicken & the Pig; 

The proof is in the chicken, as it were. The moist, crispy breast is addictive, served original style with house-made pickles and a special house-made sauce, or with creative toppings like Greek salad. Thousands of customers agree—while the restaurant just opened next to Paper Source last fall, Ciolfi has been serving that sandwich since 2020 from a wildly popular food truck he launched during the pandemic. 

Getting back to basics—the way that people used to cook, using real fresh ingredients—is a thread running through a new group of casual restaurants. Places without pretense that just want to provide high-quality food and a neighborhood go-to for a weeknight meal or a dinner with the kids.

Cormorant’s smash burger with duck confit and apple chutney; 

Coziness, comfort food, and confit at The Cormorant

“Most restaurants want to be a destination spot,” says Katie Taricani-Hickey, who opened The Cormorant in Newburyport with business partner Kristen Kilty in late December. “We want to be the spot for the locals—kind of a hidden gem.” Even the name echoes that—cormorants are ubiquitous in the Merrimac River, a stone’s throw away from the cozy restaurant, but they don’t get the same attention as sandpipers and gulls. “We’re so used to seeing the cormorant’s little silhouette as it perches on a buoy and dries off, but no one really talks about it. We thought it spoke to the ethos of this place—a cute little thing embedded in our community that no one talks about, but everybody knows is there.”

Venetian Schnitzel with dijonnaise vinegar pepper and pickles at The Cormorant

That’s likely a bit modest—people started talking about The Cormorant well before it opened, at least in part due to the local cooking chops of the two owners. Both women hold culinary degrees and are familiar to area diners—if not their faces, then their food for sure. Kilty worked in the kitchen at Newburyport’s Joppa Fine Foods, among other spots, and is behind many of its popular to-go dishes, and Taricani-Hickey has worked everywhere from Georgetown’s Café Serena to Nu Kitchen in Newburyport. 

At its heart, the Cormorant is a diner, right down to the chrome stools along the bar and 1950s-style Formica tables—but one with a full bar and a penchant for going well beyond the classic burger and a milkshake. You can certainly get a plain smash burger—a handful of loosely packed grass-fed beef pressed firmly on a flat top grill to juicy, crusty perfection—and a chocolate milkshake. But you can also get the Duck vs. Cow burger, which tops that patty with house-made duck confit, garlic-thyme aioli and apple chutney, or a Venetian Schnitzel sandwich—a hand-pounded pork cutlet on a grilled bun with Dijonnaise dressing, house-made pickles, and vinegar peppers. Oh, and you can spike that milkshake if you’re legal and in the mood. Or you can choose something healthier—perhaps a Kale Harvest Salad, or one of the rotating Blue Plate Specials.

“We want to be comfort food, but we also want to be nourishing,” says Taricani-Hickey. “So we came up with this bistro idea, with mindful entrées [as well]. It is exciting for us too, because we have some rotating offerings.”

The Cormorant co-owners Kirsten Kilty (left) and Katie Taricani-Hickey.

The menu isn’t the only thing that’s a far cry from the classic 1950s diner—The Cormorant is also one of the first (dare we say only?) restaurants on the North Shore to do away with tipping, instead including service in the prices on their menu. 

“There’s so many ups and downs in the restaurant industry,” Kilty says—noting that even the weather can impact how much a tipped employee takes home on any given day. “What’s missing in the industry is steady income, so you can budget and enjoy the lifestyle you want.” To that end, servers will get a regular hourly wage, with two weeks paid vacation for full-time employees and the potential for profit sharing.

Craft beer and scratch cooking at Little G

Caring for staff is also top of mind for Gregg Brackman, who opened casual bistro-style eatery Little G in Swampscott in the summer of 2021. Despite giant TVs, a raft of craft beers and cocktails, and a menu that screams football with friends, Brackman is not open on Sundays. “People ask me every single day, ‘Gregg, you have to open on Sundays, it’s a perfect spot,’” he says. The chef/owner, who also operates fine dining restaurant G Bar + Kitchen next door, knows it would be lucrative, but he wants to put his employees first. “Our staff gets to spend Sundays with family, or loved ones, or friends. That’s something that doesn’t exist too much in this industry.”

That care for his staff extends to his customers—Brackman is just as uncompromising when it comes to the menu at Little G, which grew out of the take-out G Bar offered during the pandemic. “We saw a need in town, not only for prepared foods to go, but for a more casual space as well,” he says. Opened in the former Newman’s Bakery, the bright airy space repurposed materials from the old storefront, crafting everything from the front of the bar to a school of stylized fish swimming on the wall from the former floorboards. 

The result is a warm, welcoming space with huge glass garage doors that can roll back when the weather is nice, and a combination market and restaurant that sells pizzas from scratch-made dough, salads, pastas, and a rotating catch of the day, all at gentle prices. Not to mention Middle Eastern-inspired dishes like souvlaki, with scratch-made pita, lamb kabobs, and craveable French fries that start with raw potatoes, cut by hand then cooked twice, to golden perfection. Especially in these days of labor shortages and skyrocketing cost for everything, preparing that simple spud is a labor of love. But like the owners of Chicken & Pig and The Cormorant, Brackman wouldn’t have any other way. 

“At the end of the day, we’re serving a product that really can’t be compared to anybody else,” Brackman says. And that’s exactly what every community craves.,,