The scariest part about Salem in October might be the mob scene of tourists and vendors that descend on the city every year.
Or, as I overhear a man on the main drag of Essex Street put it: “What a freakin’ zoo, eh?” Tents line the street and merchants hawk witch hats and Salem t-shirts and sweatshirts (“I got stoned in Salem!”). A man in a monster mask plays the saxophone for change and tour guides try to lure in some of the thousands of tourists that will visit the city today.
I didn’t come for a graveyard tour though. I came to Salem to drink beer, and found a scene of inviting pubs and stellar craft beer bars that were haunted … with the convivial spirit of good beer, food, and people.
Chris Lohring of Notch Brewing and his wife Mary Ellen Leahy, graciously offered to show me around for the day, and they’re the perfect guides—they moved here in 1999 and seem to know everyone working behind and in front of the bar.
I meet them at In a Pig’s Eye [148 Derby St., Salem. inapigseye.com], “the Cheers of Salem”—as a friend later described it—a cozy pub with live music almost every night that’s been serving locals beer (like Berkshire Brewing Co., Harpoon, Fisherman’s, and $2 PBR) for more than 25 years.
“It’s not a beer geek place. People come in to get local beer you can drink a few of,” Lohring says.
The Pig’s Eye has been around since 1972, but current owners Jenny and Jon Reardon bought it in 1986. Since then, they’ve been satisfying Salem residents’ thirst and creative appetite, with rotating art on the walls and frequent live music (which Lohring assures me isn’t the kind that’s impossible to talk over). A regular walks in and greets everyone sitting at the bar, many of whom are eating mugs of clam chowder, and I start my pub tour with a Notch Session Ale.
Next, we walk along near the water past the Friendship, a reconstruction of a 1797 sailing vessel. Salem used to be a shipping town; now, as Leahy accurately perceives, their main import is tourists. We also pass the infamous Bunghole Liquors (“We’re not #1, butt we’re right up there”)
and several psychic parlors, which not surprisingly, Salem has its fair share of.
As Leahy also points out, it says something about the kind of city Salem is that they have strict ordinances on fortunetelling licenses. A psychic-license ban was lifted last April, according to a Salem News article and licenses are now issued only “if a store designates at least 75 percent of its goods and services to fortunetelling and related products.” Previously it was 51 percent.
For lunch, we step into Scratch Kitchen [245 Derby St., Salem. scratchkitchensalem.com], a bright, warm restaurant that smells of bacon. As the name indicates, they do it by scratch here: bacon cured in house, bread baked on premise, and source ingredients locally. Lohring swears by the fish tacos, and I go for the BLT, with thick, smoky, salty bacon and housemade bread and mayo.
There’s not a shortage of craft beer either—they have four taps, and a large bottle selection with a local focus. Prices are reasonable too–$9 for the B.L.T., $4.25 for a bottle of Ipswich IPA, and they have free live music every Thursday night.
After a quick peek into The Old Spot [121 Essex St., Salem. theoldspot.com], an English-style pub with 16 draft lines that touts itself as “The Friendliest Pub in Salem,” we reach a small square, where protestors usually gather this time of year holding signs proclaiming the damnation of anyone who rejects Jesus Christ.
If you accept craft beer as your savior, however, you’re in luck.
There’s Cafe Polonia [118 Washington St. cafepolonia.com], a Polish restaurant with a broad selection of Eastern European lagers and porters I’ve never even heard of before, the recently opened Flying Saucer Pizza Company [118 Washington St., Salem. flyingsaucerpizzacompany.com], and the best-known beer bar in town: the Gulu-Gulu Café [247 Essex St., Salem. gulugulucafe.com].
Given Lohring’s predilection for hard-to-pronounce, semi-obscure styles of Czech beers (See: Notch Session Polotmavy and Cerne Pivo), it’s no wonder why he loves Cafe Polonia, which has more than its share, as well as traditional Polish and Eastern European fare like Potato Dumplings with Goulash and Goulash Delight. I sip an Okocim Beer, a Polish Pilsener, and listen to Lorhing, Leahy and the bartender take part in Salem townie talk: which route to take to avoid the tourist traffic, how many visitors they expect this weekend.
More than 20,000 came through last Saturday, the bartender says, and they expect more this weekend.
The bar crawl culminates at the grand-daddy of all Salem beer bars: the Gulu-Gulu Cafe. Steve Feldmann and his wife Marie Feldmannova opened the Salem Gulu in 2007 (they also had a Lynn location, but closed it in 2008) and named it after Café Gulu Gulu in Prague where they met.
“It’s a community driven café,” Feldmann says when I call him later, with an outstanding beer selection: 24 draft lines, between 50 to 70 bottles, and a cask the first Thursday of every month. When I ask Feldmann, who was working as a web developer, but has worked in restaurants all his life, why he wanted to opened the Gulu, he says it’s as simple as this:
“I really like beer,” adding that, “It’s life. Beer’s a gift from god.”
When they first opened some townspeople who stopped in didn’t quite get it, he says. That might be because the Gulu’s funkier than some Salem establishments, with the art hanging on the walls, the music, and the fact that they don’t serve beers here that you will find most other places–and that’s the way they want it.
“If it’s a beer you could get anywhere, then I didn’t want it here.
Not that they’re bad, but if you could get them anywhere else, you didn’t need them here.”
Now, however, everyone seems to get it. It’s not just beer geeks who stop by: Feldmann says they see everyone from hipsters to grandparents to kids who come in for a soda. When the Upper Crust next door went out of business, they bought it and opened it in August as the Flying Saucer—a funky pizza shop with 14 draft lines of all New England beer, and no bottles—just canned craft beer from all over (except for Gluten-free beers, which only come in bottles). It’s where we grabbed our last beer of the day because the Gulu was a tad too crowded to find seats.
I ask Feldmann to describe the beer scene in Salem.
He says it’s “educated, but not pretentious. We get people in here who really love beer, but they’re not complete beer snobs—they just love good beer.”
Five bars and many beers later, I have to agree with him. Salem’s a terrific beer town–inviting and supportive of the local beer scene–and I know I’ll be hopping the train or the ferry (I hear they serve beer on board …) to there again soon.
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