Salem is best known, of course, for the witch trials that shook the town more than 300 years ago. This history—and the city’s present-day embrace of all things witchy and magic—are major reasons the city attracts more than a million visitors every year.
Those who love Salem, however, will tell you there is so much more to the city’s past and present. The beautiful historical architecture, a world-class museum, and plentiful opportunity for shopping. And then there’s the food.
“We consider ourselves to be the number one food city on the North Shore,” says Karen Scalia, founder of Salem Food Tours, which offers trolley tours and guided walks focused on the culinary offerings of the city.
Salem’s foodie history goes back to the late 18th century, when sea captain Jonathan Carnes made a valuable discovery on a trading mission to Sumatra. Carnes had learned of a spot with bountiful pepper and willing trading partners, and he was eager to capitalize on his secret.
In 1795, he and a few carefully chosen, discreet investors mounted an expedition. Though the complete journey took some 18 months, it was, in the end, a rousing success. Carnes returned to a stunned Salem with more than 140,000 pounds of pepper, and his investors made back their money sevenfold. Carnes’ venture quickly attracted competitors, and soon Salem was the epicenter of a very profitable spice trade.
Today, Salem’s food scene might not have the same levels of global intrigue, but it does offer visitors a wide range of flavors, cuisines, and dining experiences to choose from. The city’s development into a food destination has been a work-in-progress for the past ten years, Scalia says. Restaurants, gourmet shops, and the local farmers' market have all contributed to solidifying Salem’s growing reputation as a food-forward spot.
“It’s been an organic, wonderful, natural growth of the city,” she says. “A lot of great places have come online in the last few years.”
For cool and casual fare, hungry visitors can check out the sci-fi-themed pizzas and décor at the Flying Saucer Pizza Co. or dig into a meat-stuffed Southern-style sandwich from Po‘Boys and Pies. For high-end dining, restaurants like Ledger, Opus, and Finz offer shifting menus of seasonally inspired meat and seafood favorites. To explore global cuisines, try the ramen at Kokeshi or the shakshuka at Adea’a Mediterranean Kitchen.
Craving something sweet after lunch or dinner? You’re in luck. A&J King offers a seasonal collection of cookies, tarts, and the occasional whoopie pie, Caramel Patisserie serves up a colorful assortment of authentic French macarons; and, after 7 p.m., Goodnight Fatty sells a shifting rotation of warm, indulgent cookies.
All these eateries, Scalia says, are united by a commitment to high-quality fare. None of them use their location in a popular destination as an excuse to serve mediocre food.
“I’ve been to a lot of tourist towns where average or below average food is the norm,” she says. “What I love about Salem is that the restaurants take seriously what they put out.”
The coronavirus pandemic has, of course, caused some major changes in the food scene, forcing restaurateurs to adapt and innovate. Throughout the spring, summer, and early fall, many eateries ramped up their takeout offerings and added curbside and home delivery options.
When the state allowed outdoor dining, the city contracted with Creative Collective, a creative business marketing organization, to launch a comprehensive program that would get as many restaurants as possible offering alfresco service. Creative Collective helped more than 30 eateries navigate licensing, permitting, and constructing outdoor spaces.
Many of the outdoor dining areas were protected from nearby traffic by heavy concrete barriers. Creative Collective worked with a dozen local artists to paint the barriers, transforming the utilitarian safety measures into works of public art.
“We’re adding some life, adding some color, adding some energy,” says Collective founder John Andrews. “Now we have all this amazing artwork that can go out and keep people safe.”
As colder weather approaches, restaurants are again rethinking their approach to safe service and hospitality in the time of COVID. Ledger plans to expand dining into its private event space when there are no occasions booked, to serve more diners at safely spaced distances, and will keep outdoor dining open with heaters for as long as guests are willing to brave the weather.
Sea Level Oyster Bar will be bringing back its popular “zipline taco” from the spring: Guests order their tacos at a takeout window and, when the meal is ready, it is placed in a bucket and sent down a zipline that runs from the second floor. The result is tasty tacos delivered with fun and (socially distant) flair, explains Serie Keezer, the executive chef for Sea Level and Finz, both located on picturesque Pickering Wharf.
Weekly pop-ups for Taco Tuesday and BBQ on Fridays will also be reappearing, he says.
As restaurants continue to evolve with the ever-changing pandemic situation, Keezer is confident the members of the industry will support each other as they have every step of the way so far.
“We’ve all come together and really helped each other out, bounced ideas off each other,” he says. “We’re all in it together and we’re trying to survive together.”