Emily Dickinson said it first: “I think New Englandly.” That phrase has inspired Yankee writers and editors for decades. We wonder what it means to think, travel, work, create, govern, and even eat New Englandly.
And that last item seems more urgent now, as we witness the very slow fading of a once-common facet of New Englandy life: the classic tavern with roast beef on the menu and Indian pudding for dessert, or the old-school red-sauce Italian restaurant in Boston, or the diner serving johnnycakes made with flint cornmeal. We believe that eating locally should embrace not just the produce grown in nearby fields, but traditional regional foodways. It’s time to celebrate the places that still do.
So we set out to find places that serve authentic New England foods in their many forms. We found that they not only exist, but that each one captures a unique thread of the rich fabric that makes up the New England table.
WHERE TO FIND THE BEST NEW ENGLAND FOOD | ERA BY ERA
Plimoth Plantation | Plymouth, MA
The atmosphere may be a far cry from a traditional Wampanoag feast, but the cafeteria-style Patuxet Cafe at Plimoth Plantation does serve a rotating lineup of Native foods (alongside English Colonial dishes like peascods and pumpkin pie and modern sandwiches and snacks). There’s succotash, venison stew, stuffed quahogs, squash, mint tea, and nasamp (corn porridge) with berries. And at the nearby Wampanoag homesite, Native interpreters are usually cooking foods over live fire using traditional methods and truly local, seasonal ingredients.
Plimoth Plantation.137 Warren Ave., Plymouth, MA. 508-746-1622; plimoth.org
THE COLONIAL ERA
Salem Cross Inn | West Brookfield, MA
If the earliest New Englanders knew the sting of hunger, their grandchildren enjoyed comparative bounty. By the 1700s, the typical Colonial New England diet for a prosperous family included a midday meal of meat, vegetables, and maybe a soup, pudding, or tart. You can enjoy just such a 1700s-inspired meal at the Salem Cross Inn’s “Fireside Feasts,” cooked in the open hearth of a large fieldstone fireplace.
The Salem family prepares mulled wine and cider with a traditional mulling iron, made red-hot over the same fire where prime rib roast turns on an 18th-century roasting jack (ask Bo how he tells whether the meat is done). On snowy days, guests enjoy a horse-drawn sleigh ride around the working farm; in the warmer weather, it’s a hayride. Before dinner is served, Bo restokes the fire and makes fish chowder in an iron cauldron; guests are invited to stir using a long paddle, and even then the heat is fierce.
Dinner in the barn upstairs concludes with terrific apple pie and a giant bowl of whipped cream. “Fireside Feasts” happen every weekend from November through April; reservations are required.
Salem Cross Inn.260 West Main St., West Brookfield, MA. 508-867-2345; salemcrossinn.com
THE REVOLUTIONARY ERA
The Griswold Inn | Essex, CT
A few hundred yards from the banks of the Connecticut River in Essex, Connecticut, the sound of cheerful voices fills the street outside The Griswold Inn, where on many nights, regulars gather by the fire for live music and sing-alongs.
“The Gris” first opened its doors in 1776, while nearby crews built the Revolutionary warship Oliver Cromwell; it has served both water and land travelers since then. Self-dubbed “The Oldest Continuously Operating Inn in America,” its dining-room walls are lined with maritime art and firearms used during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The inn’s historic dining rooms serve seven days a week, but one special treat, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, its roast prime rib of beef, is served only Friday through Sunday nights. Great local taste: The butter served with bread at each table is sweetened with a dash of maple syrup. —Jocelyn RuggieroThe Griswold Inn.36 Main St., Essex, CT. 860-767-1776; griswoldinn.com
Old Sturbridge Village | Sturbridge, MA
Old Sturbridge Village gives visitors the opportunity to not just eat in 19th-century style, but to cook using authentic period ingredients, tools, and methods. In their “Dinner in a Country Village” event series, held in the Parsonage building weekly, January through March (with additional dates in November), costumed interpreters show guests how to cook soup over a fire, roast meat using a tin reflector, bake bread and pie in a wood-fired oven, and whip cream with birch twigs. As evening settles in, guests enjoy the fruits of their labors by candlelight.
A similar program, called “Families Cook,” is offered periodically for visitors with children ages 8 and up. And if you prefer to let the experts do the cooking, “Hearthside Bounty” dinners in the Bullard Tavern (November, January, February, March) let you watch as interpreters prepare pounded cheese, prime rib, roasted vegetables, gourd soup, and trifle over the hearth. —A. T.Old Sturbridge Village. 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, MA. 800-733-1830; osv.org
THE SHAKER MOVEMENT
Hancock Shaker Village | Pittsfield MA
At Hancock Shaker Village’s autumn “Shaker Suppers”–the last of which this year takes place on Saturday, November 29–early-19th-century interpreters begin by leading guests on a tour of the Village’s many historic buildings, including the iconic 1826 Round Stone Barn. Following a cheese-and-cider reception, supper is served by candlelight in the Believers’ Dining Room. Guests sit “family-style” to enjoy such traditional dishes as lentil soup, cranberry pot roast, carrot pudding, scalloped parsnips, and bread pudding. Many of the vegetables and fruits served are grown in the gardens that still thrive at Hancock. —J. R.Hancock Shaker Village,1843 West Housatonic St., Pittsfield, MA. 413-443-0188; hancockshakervillage.org
THE INVENTION OF THE DINER
Haven Brothers | Providence, RI
Every afternoon at 4:30, a weathered silver truck rolls up to Providence’s City Hall. Sal Guisti climbs a ladder to string a power cord from the truck to an electrical outlet on a nearby building. Minutes later, his diner is open for business.
Haven Brothers began in 1888 as a horse-drawn lunch car, and it’s one of the first diners in America. (A young Providence resident named Walter Scott preceded Haven by 16 years and is credited as the true originator.) The carts morphed into commercially made lunch wagons, which eventually took the form of the chrome-and-formica charmers we know and love today. Like those, Haven Brothers serves greasy-spoon fare such as hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, and milk shakes–its charms are more contextual than culinary. Regulars go for the “Murder Burger” with bacon, cheese, and chili and wash it down with a coffee milk. Although afternoons are tame, the scene turns more eclectic in the wee hours. There are only a handful of indoor seats, so dress warmly. —J. R.Haven Brothers,12 Fulton St., Providence, RI. 401-861-7777
Portugalia Marketplace | Fall River, MA
Their mass immigration to America may have peaked in the late 19th century, but Portuguese fishermen and explorers first set foot in the New World hundreds of years before; the first permanent settlers put down roots in the 1600s. Perhaps this is why Portuguese flavors–salt cod, kale soup, sausages–are so woven into New England cooking. Growing up on the south coast of Massachusetts, New England’s biggest Little Portugal, I cherish these foods as the flavors of childhood. We ate at home; no chef could ever cook better than our mothers. But there was one place that satisfied even my mom: Sagres, the oldest Portuguese restaurant in the area, destroyed in a fire in 2013 but reopened this past fall.
Now I go to Portugalia Marketplace, a specialty shop/cafe, whose charcutaria offers an enviable collection of cured meats, including chourico and linguica (smoked pork sausage made with paprika, wine, and garlic); alheira (smoked sausage made from any meat other than pork); and farinheira (smoked sausage made with flour, pork drippings, and spice). Nearby are barrels of pickled vegetables, including onions, lupini beans, and olives. The jewel of the marketplace is its salt-cod room, which carries desalted loins and steaks (sold frozen), plus salted whole fish, cheeks, bits, and tongues—a delicacy. —David LeitePortugalia Marketplace.489 Bedford St., Fall River, MA. 508-617-9820; portugaliamarketplace.com
Dolly’s | Frenchville, ME
Like the tricolors of their star-kissed flag, faith, food, and family have bound generations of Acadians together since the mid-1700s, when British troops expelled them from Acadie, in present-day Maritime Canada. Sixteen families resettled in the Upper St. John River Valley. Rural isolation helped preserve their traditional fare–hearty food that favors simple one-pot meals, with ployes (thin buckwheat pancakes) substituting for bread at every meal.
Ask locally about where to get the best taste of Acadie, and the answer, aside from “my mother’s house,” is usually “Dolly’s.” Since 1988, this homespun Frenchville restaurant has dished out scratch-made chicken stew with dumplings; cretons, a pork-based spread; and, on Fridays, yellow pea soup. “It’s comfort food, for sure,” says second-generation owner Keith Pelletier. Arrive early, he advises, or risk that the chicken stew, made fresh every morning, will be sold out. —Hilary NangleDolly’s.17 U.S. Route 1, Frenchville, ME. 207-728-7050
Marliave Restaurant | Boston, MA
Boston’s North End wasn’t always a Little Italy, but massive waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries left a seemingly permanent mark on the neighborhood. The food options there are good, but we prefer Restaurant Marliave in the nearby Theater District for its Old World patina and excellent cooking overseen by chef/owner Scott Herrit.
“The Marliave” first opened in 1885, the life’s work of a French immigrant named Henry Marliave. Today’s menu is studded with excellent riffs on Italian American classics, such as gnocchi served in “Sunday Gravy” (a meaty red sauce), osso buco (here it’s made with pork), and shrimp scampi. The menu doesn’t stop there–Herrit’s beef Wellington is also worth a try–but if you stick to the Italian classics and choose a booth on the more-casual second floor, with its pressed-tin ceiling and original mosaic floor, it isn’t hard to imagine your nonna and nonno coming here 80 years ago for a big night out.
Marliave Restaurant. 10 Bosworth St., Boston, MA. 617-422-0004; marliave.com
The Druid | Cambridge, MA
For all the political and cultural influence that Irish immigrants have had on New England and, especially, Boston, it’s surprising that Irish cooking throughout the region is mostly limited to pubs. Of course, famine chased many of our ancestors from Ireland, so perhaps the modern Irish cooking revival simply hasn’t yet reached these shores.
If it’s going to be a pub, then, choose The Druid in Cambridge’s Inman Square neighborhood. You’ll find your potato leek and oxtail soups, beef stew, shepherd’s pie, and terrific fish ‘n’ chips–plus a barkeep with a brogue as thick as the chowder, and live music on Saturday afternoons and Tuesday nights. Don’t like noise? Go for lunch.
The Druid. 1357 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA. 617-497-0965; druidpub.com