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Check out the best places for Waterfront Dining on the Northshore.

Sean Toomey sometimes has to pinch himself when he comes to work. The owner of VASA Waterfront Kitchen, which opened this past winter in Salisbury, just can’t get over the view.

“I can’t believe it,” Toomey says, gazing out at the steeples of Newburyport across Merrimack River. “Spots like this just don’t become available that often.”

Everyone who lives around here has pinch-me moments when pausing to appreciate the coastal views. As soon as the temperatures climb past 60 degrees, everyone is ready to soak up the sun, getting boats in the water, riding bikes, and especially eating alfresco.


Photo by Kate Conovan

Much to diners’ delight, this year the options for enjoying a drink and a delicious bite outdoors have expanded greatly with VASA, Sea Level Oyster Bar’s second location in Newburyport, and 1606 Restaurant in Gloucester, setting out tables in the sun.

At VASA, excitement of the first summer season is running high. Toomey notes that he and his head chef T.J. Bernard have hatched plans for a festive atmosphere—especially on what Toomey is terming the “party deck,”—a standing-only porch off the bar. Small plates of finger food—perhaps lobster sliders, an artisanal mini-sausage, and other light bites, are on offer exclusively outdoors, while a few cash-only satellite stations serve up cold Fiji water, Sun Juice—a craft beer from Connecticut—and a rosé wine, from large tubs of ice, perhaps alongside a cocktail of the day.


Photo by Kate Conovan


“When I dine on the waterfront, there are two things I want: a quickly served cold beverage and a plate of world-class oysters,” Toomey says. In terms of oysters, VASA has been firing on all cylinders from the start, offering a selection of eight or so from top local purveyor Taylor Fish and Lobster in Kittery, Maine. The restaurant even has its own branded bivalve, called the VASA Pearl, a creamy, slightly briny oyster perfect for slurping in the sun.

With 80-plus outdoor seats, plus standing room for another 60 or 70 people, VASA promises to be hopping all summer long. Locals know that the tiny parking lot outside the restaurant only represents about 20 percent of the capacity inside; drop the car with the free valet and breeze in to grab a table or a drink on the deck. Or even easier, new this season there will be a complimentary VASA van, making stops across the river in Newburyport and ferrying customers across to the attached inn and restaurant.

Sea Level Oyster Bar

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Chef Bernard is glad to have opened during winter’s doldrums, to get his feet wet before the rush of summer. Across the river in Newburyport, doors couldn’t open fast enough for executive chef Jennifer Normant at the new Sea Level Oyster Bar, which made a late spring debut in the former Not Your Average Joe’s at the Firehouse Center for the Performing Arts; the space underwent a major transformation to bring Waterfront Park’s idyllic views front and center, says director of operations Dave Gillis. The back of the restaurant was pushed out just enough to accommodate more tables, and a wall of garage doors, like those at the original Sea Level in Salem, enables a seamless transition from indoors to the spiffy outdoor patio, raised to offer better river views and improved with sea grass and a cozy lounge area with a fire pit.

“We’re redefining the space to make it more a part of the waterfront experience,” says Gillis, who also owns Salt Kitchen and Rum Bar in Ipswich. Those 45 breezy back patio seats are joined by 45 more on the brick space in front of the restaurant. “It’s two different experiences,” Gillis says. “The front feels more like [Boston’s] Newbury Street—it’s perfect for people-watching.”

Sea Level Oyster Bar

Photo by Elise Sinagra

Chef Normant, a Hell’s Kitchen alum, plans to bring the same creative spin on classic New England cuisine that she established at Sea Level Salem, which she also opened.

“I’m trying to combine Key West with the heart of New England,” says Normant. Dishes like a classic seafood pie and Baha tacos will definitely travel up from Salem, but she also plans to incorporate some lighter offerings, especially in swimsuit season.

Compared to Sea Level, 1606 Restaurant at the Beauport Hotel in Gloucester is a veteran of outdoor dining. After debuting amidst much excitement last June, the stylish spot is entering its second summer ready for whatever comes its way, says general manager Ray Johnston.

1606 at Beauport

Photo by Doug Levy

“There really is nothing as elegant as this dining deck,” Johnston says. “It feels like somewhere else – like Nantucket or Newport.”

The views are all Gloucester, though. Overlooking Ten Pound Island Light and the mansions of Eastern Point, 1606 Restaurant, named for the year Gloucester was mapped by Samuel de Champlain, has quickly become a gathering spot for locals and hotel guests alike, and welcomes customers dressed in shorts and a t-shirt or those in a seersucker sports coat with equal aplomb.

1606 at Beauport

Photo by Peter Vanderwarker

 With views like those, and a classic seaside ambience, the more than 200 seats outside, from classic wicker lounge chairs to dining tables and even rocking chairs around the fire pit, are not always enough at the height of the season. For a relaxing experience, Johnston suggests turning up between lunch and dinner—a special menu served from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. highlights small plates including a luscious lobster-crab cake, or watching the sun set and the stars come out after 8 p.m. Because 1606 is housed in a luxury hotel, the restaurant offers some touches seldom seen at outdoor dining spots—like cozy throws to borrow if the ocean breezes turn chilly or perhaps evoking one more pinch-me moment.

VASA Waterfront Kitchen & Bar

175 Bridge Rd., Salisbury, 978-358-1700

Sea Level Oyster Bar

Market Square, Newburyport

1606 at Beauport

55 Commercial St., Gloucester, 978-282-0008 Ext. 5

Done eating? Check out the best beaches on the Northshore.