The moment Rob Blood, Marblehead native and owner of the successful Lark Hotels group, set foot on the roof of Salem’s Newmark Building, he felt inspired to build a roof deck.
“The Hotel Salem is in the heart of the city, which means we’re pinned in by other buildings, so in order to get some outdoor space we only had one option,” he says. “Salem Harbor, Essex Street, PEM, the urban beauty, and the grit…you can see it all from the roof.”
When you arrive at the bar set atop the former Newmark’s Department Store, the first step out onto The Roof at The Hotel Salem can be disorienting as you admire the panoramic view five floors above Essex Street. Is that the top of Old Town Hall? There’s the harbor in the distance, and in the foreground, spires, pergolas, slate rooftops. You’re looking down on every major American architectural style, each represented within Salem’s borders, but from a unique angle.
The other tilting perception comes from the back of the house, from the outdoor kitchen. The motto here, “Strong Drinks, Simple Food,” is more in line with the casual urban dining trends of bigger cities. Do less and do it well. There are oysters, an ahi tuna cocktail, ceviche, guacamole to share. Give me an atmosphere I can sink my teeth into and a menu that is small, sophisticated, and well done. This is shorthand, these days, for tacos, which are a savory superfood, in my opinion, with the ability to provide protein and pleasure in an unfussy, almost snack-like fashion. All of this is under the guidance of Lark’s executive chef, Justin Perdue, who was hired to oversee a number of Lark Hotels’ restaurants and has lent his creative energy to both Counter, which is in the hotel’s lobby, and The Roof.
Oh, and then there are the craft cocktails, some of which are on tap. These change all the time, but if you are lucky, you could be drinking a pisco punch made with the infamous Peruvian brandy or a Spanish daiquiri made from tequila and banana liqueur with lemon and nutmeg. I highly recommend the habanero strawberry margarita to accompany the pork and pineapple tacos. This is made with habanero-infused tequila, lime, agave, Aperol, and strawberry purée. The more adventurous may want to try the frozen coconut margarita or the frosé, a frozen concoction of house-infused orange vodka, Combier Rosé, and lemon.
“The space kind of sells itself,” says Rob Hennigan, bar manager at The Roof and Counter. Of course, Hennigan is underselling himself and just how much he’s able to capitalize on good local cred. As the guy behind the drinks program at Salem’s Kokeshi and with years at the fearless libation hub known as Opus just a few blocks away, we trust him to lead us toward the good drinks. The Fog Cutter, Hennigan’s favorite, is a vodka and brandy fruit-forward mixture that comes in a handsome owl made of copper in a substantial pineapple-shaped objet d’art for four. These weighty vessels stay put in a stiff wind.
“It’s a pretty savvy town when it comes to food and cocktails,” Hennigan says. And here, he delivers. Part of the trick is putting a twist on classics, building on the same tiki cocktails one might find at Kowloon in Saugus. He once heard me talking about the draft cocktails at Alden and Harlow in Cambridge, and he got all swoony, declaring the Harvard Square place, with its rotating creative cocktails on tap, one of his favorites. He has a list of other excellent places to drink in Boston, for which he shows extreme reverence.
(Roof deck cocktailing has become so pervasive that this writer is actually on a roof deck atop a Midwestern hotel at this very moment .)
But would it be too much to say this is a whole new world for Salemites? It’s something Lark Hotels teased us with for months. Now, it’s a reality. Take the elevator and listen to the friendly chimes as the door closes and you are wisked up to R, at the top of the 44-room boutique hotel. I’ve visited almost every day for the better part of a week—it was to have a drink with friends, to eat lunch, to work from my laptop, to see the views with clouds, in sun, at twilight, under the stars.
As Hennigan says, this atmosphere may be better than Boston, since we get to look down on the buildings rather than across at them. The Salem hotel pays homage to the last gasp of the downtown anchor store when Salem was a shopping hub. Housed in the former high-end clothing store space, the hotel mixes mid-century modern design with funky details from stores of the ’50s and ’60s.
Up on the roof, the bar is full of communal fun. I sat next to a complete stranger, and more than an hour later, we were still talking about a common topic in Salem these days—how completely cool the little city is becoming with each passing month. (In full disclosure, I had been at the Envoy Hotel’s roof-deck bar in Boston’s Seaport District the night before.) By the time we were saying goodbye, we were making plans to meet here again, perhaps on the day of Salem’s Pride Parade. I went back again a few days later to celebrate the summer solstice in the most laid-back, restful space I could imagine. I grabbed a friend from Essex Street and brought him up in the elevator. He also enjoyed the sound of the chimes on the way up, with their static at the end, almost like vocal fry.
Hours into the solstice afternoon, it was like a reunion as old friends continually showed up, one group celebrating a birthday, looking summery in post-swim messy buns. For those serious about having a table to dine, there are high top tables with vibrant yellow chairs. A group ordered oysters and stood around in their work attire admiring the view. Banquettes, with their mismatched cushions, offer a loungy, unhurried space to sink in and contemplate the rooftops. This is where I found myself in conversation with Reid Hickman, who moved to Salem less than a year ago, and his buddy and colleague from Teach for America, CJ Crowder.
“You can see Marblehead from here,” says Hickman, before focusing on the closer-up details, like the industrial look of the decor. Crowder, who took the train up from Cambridge, says he never thought of Salem as having roof-decks. “It seems more like a two-story little city.” Crowder eleborates that teachers in his organization used to commute to teach at Salem schools from Cambridge or Somerville, but now are preferring to stay local in Salem.
This spring, The Roof opened to lines around the corner, and in the evening, things tended to get a bit rambunctious. When you’re looking almost directly into someone’s condo, you understand why management wants to close the place down before midnight. What happens when the never-ending summer ends? This November or December, The Roof goes underground to the basement of the hotel. The staff, the drinks, and the good food will be available in a cozier setting, where we can all sit and dream about getting high above the rooftops, where the sun shines and the tequila is spicy, and the tacos are served up just right.