A thriving dining scene plus entertainment options galore make Central Massachusetts’s urban hub, Worcester, shine as a nightlife destination.Photo Credit : Denis Tangney Jr./iStock
By Andrea E. McHugh; sponsored by Discover Central Massachusetts
As the days grow shorter, the nights grow longer — and that suits Central Massachusetts just fine. In the region known as “the heart of the Commonwealth,” late-fall and winter visitors are greeted by a robust roster of things to see, do, and savor when the sun goes down. And while much of the action centers on New England’s second-largest city, Worcester, there are after-dark gems to be found across Central Massachusetts, including restaurants and bars perfect for a dinner out or a cozy nightcap.
Renowned performers at world-class venues, thrilling sporting events, family-friendly happenings … they’re all compelling reasons to explore Central Massachusetts nightlife this season. And for those looking to make the most of their visit, the region’s first-rate inns and hotels can provide a comfy place for travelers to lay their head — which, in turn, allows them to launch into a whole new slate of activities when daytime rolls around.
There’s still time to soak up the best of spooky season at “Phantoms by Firelight” at Old Sturbridge Village, where nightfall brings fire-breathing and flame-spinning performers out of the shadows, and acrobats fly overhead in the inky-dark sky. Gather around the glow of a bonfire in the heart of this re-created 1830s rural New England town for not-too-scary ghost stories and other eerie tales. Meanwhile, a less haunting (but still very Halloween-y) experience can be found at Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon, where “The Great Jack O’Lantern Journey” offers a fun-filled after-hours walk through New England’s largest zoo, with intricately carved pumpkins lighting the way.
Speaking of illumination, the seasonal extravaganza “Night Lights: Starry Skies” makes its debut Nov. 24 at the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill in Boylston. After checking in at the visitors center, immerse yourself and your family in a celestial-themed landscape enchanted by a quarter-million lights. There’s a model-train display, firepits for roasting s’mores (kits can be reserved online when you purchase your tickets), and concessions that include hot cocoa or cider for the kids, and winter-themed cocktails for the grownups. Plus, get a jump on Christmas gift-hunting in The Garden Shop.
There’s no better time than the holidays for creating new family traditions, like getting together to see a classic Christmas show performed live onstage. In the heart of Worcester’s Theatre District, the century-old Hanover Theatre & Conservatory for the Performing Arts showcases the beloved music and spectacular dancing of The Nutcracker on Thanksgiving weekend. A few weeks later, it kicks off a merry run of A Christmas Carol, Dec. 16-23. Hailed as New England’s largest production of the Charles Dickens classic, the show is preceded by tunes from the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, the largest theater pipe organ in New England. (Note: A sensory-friendly performance for adults and children who benefit from quieter, more relaxed environments will be on Dec. 17.)
Families looking to add on an overnight stay might consider The Publick House Historic Inn and Country Lodge in Sturbridge, whose main inn dates back to 1771 and where lodging options include a pet-friendly 63-room motel. Young ones (or, well, anybody) will be won over by the treats made at the 18th-century Bake Shoppe, but there are also two restaurants on-site if something heartier is required. Among Sturbridge’s other casual, family-friendly dining spots are Teddy G’s Pub & Grille and Rapscallion Pub, which serves craft beers from its namesake Massachusetts brewery, and where local music on the weekends makes for a lively evening on the town.
The birthplace of one of the nation’s oldest music festivals in the U.S., Worcester draws both internationally known superstars and up-and-comers to its stages, creating a music scene as exciting and diverse as anywhere in the Commonwealth. Among the hot tickets this season are acclaimed singer-songwriter Dar Williams at the Prior Performing Arts Center at the College of the Holy Cross (Oct. 27); legendary rock band Chicago (Nov. 14) at the Hanover Theatre; and longtime folk duo the Indigo Girls (Dec. 1), also at the Hanover Theatre.
Music fans can have dinner and a show at Off the Rails, a country-flavored restaurant/performance venue that features live music daily. Fill up on down-home cooking like pulled-pork sandwiches and shrimp and grits, and settle in for toe-tapping tunes from tribute bands (Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead) as well as the rock, folk, and country music stars of tomorrow.
Dive head-first into the magic of the Christmas season with the Boston Pops’ Holiday Pops concert (Dec. 2) at the Hanover Theatre — look for Santa Claus himself to make a guest appearance! Historic Mechanics Hall begins to ring with seasonal tunes that same weekend, with the Worcester Chorus’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah” (Dec. 2) and the Boston Conservatory Orchestra’s blend of Christmas and Hannukah music in “’Tis the Season: Annual Traditions” (Dec. 3), and continuing with many other Yuletide highlights through December.
Even the DCU Center will take on a holiday feel with the return of the rock supergroup Trans-Siberian Orchestra on its “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve” tour (Nov. 25), for which Worcester is the only Massachusetts stop.
For classical music performed in an intimate, historic venue, Gilbertville’s Stone Church Cultural Center is well worth seeking out. The grand 1872 Tudor Gothic structure, formerly a house of worship, is now a home for music and community spirit. On Nov. 5, organist and pianist Malcolm Halliday and clarinetist Chester Brezniak perform “A Keyboard Celebration: The Boothman Memorial Concert”; the following month, Dec. 10, the soaring voices of bass-baritone Daniel Brevik and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Fijal Brevik join together in “Winter Songs.”
If you’re in Worcester, why not take advantage of the chance to sample the city’s “Restaurant Row,” aka Shrewsbury Street? There’s steak (111 Chophouse), Italian (Nuovo, Via Italian Table), eclectic American (Flying Rhino Café), and dozens more, so let your stomach be your guide. And when it’s time to call it a night, there are trusted chain hotels in the heart of downtown (such as the newly renovated Courtyard Worcester and the reopened Hampton Inn & Suites); just minutes away from the business district in a quiet, parklike setting is the locally owned, award-winning Beechwood Hotel.
Originally opened as the Franklin Square Theatre in 1904, the Hanover Theatre has long been rooted in the heritage of American stage and screen: From the outset, it regularly booked live shows, from burlesque to Broadway tours, then introduced silent films and, later, “the talkies.” Today, that rich tradition continues, with performances of the Broadway hits Pretty Woman: The Musical (Nov. 10-12), based on one of best-known movies of the 1990s, and Beetlejuice: The Musical (Jan. 2-7).
There’s live comedy at the Hanover, too, with such top names as Brian Regan (Nov. 2) and R-rated comic hypnotist Frank Santos (Nov. 10). The laughs continue at the DCU Center, which welcomes comedian, actor, and host Bert Kreischer (Dec. 7).
The chance to see young talent on the rise is the lure at The Center at Eagle Hill in Hardwick, part of the Eagle Hill School campus and a vibrant local arts hub. Its latest production is The Laramie Project, a powerful look at the real-life story of Matthew Shepard (Dec. 9-10). And if you want to explore this area further, one-of-a-kind dining awaits at the historic Salem Cross Inn, a mere 15 minutes away in West Brookfield, while a good night’s rest can be had at the stylish Southbridge Hotel & Conference Center, just outside Sturbridge.
Though baseball season is over and all is quiet at Polar Park, home to the Red Sox Triple-A team (affectionately called the WooSox), there’s exhilarating sporting action to be found in the colder months — especially on ice. Worcester’s DCU Center is the place to go to catch the Worcester Railers, the ECHL affiliate of the New York Islanders, and enjoy the giveaways, theme nights, and electrifying team spirit that make Railers games a thrill for superfans and first-timers alike. On the amateur side, Hart Center Rink at the College of the Holy Cross has all the college excitement you seek, courtesy of the Holy Cross Crusaders men’s and women’s squads.
Rather play than spectate? Spend the evening knocking down some pins at Whitinsville’s Sparetime Recreation, a candlepin bowling alley complete with air hockey, pool tables, and arcade games. Or try your hand at indoor golf at Worcester’s X-Golf, billed as the world’s most innovative and accurate golf simulator.
Then toast the home team’s success, or your own, at some of Worcester’s favorite watering holes, including The Mercantile Rooftop Bar & Restaurant, The Oak Barrel Tavern, and Wachusett Brewing Co., which is located in the humming Worcester Public Market — just minutes away from a sleek, modern overnight stay at the AC Hotel Worcester.