Mussels, rum, Hot Apple Pie, and lamb harissa meatballs in Dedham
Back in college, I had a professor who was—aside from being an excellent teacher—an expert at self-deprecating, deadpan humor, and one of his ongoing jokes was mentioning how absolutely wild and crazy his thrill-a-minute hometown of Dedham was. This always received laughs among the locals in class who knew that—back then, anyways—this southwestern suburb of Boston was an otherwise-pleasant and peaceful place that didn’t exactly scream out “excitement.”
Times have certainly changed, however, and today Dedham Center in particular is red-hot, especially when it comes to the dining and drinking scene. Don’t believe it? Drive through there sometime in the evening and you’ll see a bustling and rather charming downtown area that has no shortage of restaurants and bars, including some new places such as the Grateful Dedham Diner (which was reviewed here awhile back) and a rustic and cozy spot called Horse Thieves Tavern, which has some real potential based on early impressions.
Dedham has traditionally been seen as your ultimate bedroom community that doesn’t really have a main draw for tourists and locals alike, such as, say, Concord, Hingham, or Marblehead does, but the town does have a ton of history behind it, much like those places do. This can be seen on full display in and around the center of town with countless old homes along with historic churches, government buildings, and commercial structures, including the 1920s-era building that houses Horse Thieves Tavern.
Although the restaurant has only been around since this spring, it has a bit of a well-worn feel to it, with its exposed brick, pipes, wood/steel beams, wood fireplace in the middle of the room, and long communal table that adds a nice touch to the space. A rather mellow-feeling bar is set up near the entrance and is a great place to both eat and drink, and a rather odd feature (or lack of feature) is the fact that there is no host stand at the entrance by the bar, so when you walk in, it’s basically just an empty space with the bar on the right and tables further back. It isn’t exactly known why the place opted not to have one, but one guess is that they are trying to keep with the historic New England tavern theme, assuming that watering holes from long ago didn’t have such a feature.
One of the trends in dining these days is focusing on “inventive” or “modern” interpretations of old-fashioned American dishes and/or comfort food, and Horse Thieves Tavern is no exception. However, while some places simply say that their takes are inventive or modern and then offer what everyone else is offering, this spot really does have some interesting takes on New England classics. A good example of this is a dish that shouldn’t seem to work, but does—a skillet cornbread that is stuffed with feta cheese and topped with maple butter. There is a lot going on here with such few ingredients, but it’s somehow an extraordinary item that could quite possibly be converted from a shared plate into a full meal if you order two or three of them for yourself.
Another unusual option is the lamb harissa meatballs, which is another shared plate that could be turned into a meal and which includes a delectable combination of cut-with-a-fork meatballs, a spicy red sauce, and yogurt to help cool things down a little. Fried Korean chicken sandwiches are all the rage these days, and Horse Thieves Tavern has a good one, combining a crunchy slab of chicken with pickles, spicy aioli, and Korean slaw, all stuffed into a sesame seed roll. Some more traditional options include a fine plate of PEI mussels in a garlicky wine sauce; oven-roasted Brussels sprouts that get some sweet, salty, and savory tastes from the addition of maple syrup, hazelnuts, and bacon; a shepherd’s pie that, unlike so many places, is made with lamb; and for dessert, a classic Indian pudding with vanilla ice cream.
Horse Thieves Tavern has some solid options among its beer and wine offerings, but cocktails seem the way to go here, perhaps in keeping with the historic tavern vibe. It’s tough to get away from pumpkin-based anything these days, but the Pumpkin Old Fashioned here is something special, being made with a pumpkin-infused bourbon, maple syrup, bitters, and an orange twist. A similarly New England-style cocktail is the Hot Apple Pie, which combines hot apple cider with Tuaca, an underutilized Italian brandy liqueur that is perfect for a drink such as this. One other regional drink of note is a Northeastern take on a dark and stormy called (of course) the Nor’easter, which features Gosling’s dark rum, maple syrup, fresh ginger, and lime. Prices for food and drink are pretty moderate, though if you start piling up on the shared plates and the cocktails, the bill can go up in a hurry.
The Dedham of my college professor’s era is long gone, as this once-sleepy community has become a destination spot of sorts for those who yearn for a wide variety of food and drink options. And while it is still relatively new to town, Horse Thieves Tavern has all the makings of a pretty great place with its appealing atmosphere, familiar dishes with at-times interesting tweaks, and mixed drinks that taste like they come from centuries past. The suburbs of Boston have made some real strides overall when it comes to dining out, and thanks in part to restaurants and bars such as this Horse Thieves, Dedham is no exception.
HORSE THIEVES TAVERN. 585 HIGH ST., DEDHAM. HORSETHIEVESTAVERN.COM
Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.