Globe North Dining Out

For sports, new tavern is a big hit

July 12, 2009
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Tavern in the Square
189 Washington Street, Salem
Tel: 978-740-2337
Hours: Monday- Friday 11:30 a.m. -1 a.m.; Saturday, Sunday 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m.
Handicapped access
Credit cards accepted

Forty years ago, Salem hit rock bottom as urban renewal tore through the historic seaport’s downtown. In an attempt to compete with the Northshore Mall and lure retailers back to downtown, 87 buildings were razed - including a large section of 18th- and 19th-century homes. The project did little to attract businesses back to the city.

These days, as cities try to find new ways to draw people downtown, officials often point to Salem as a model. As one of the few vibrant downtowns along the North Shore, dozens of restaurants have opened in recent years, and its latest bistro - Tavern in the Square - opened its doors just a month ago.

Located on the site of the former Salem News building, the restaurant is part of an ambitious new mixed use project - with retail at street level and apartments above.

Tavern in the Square suggests little connection with Salem history. If you like sports bars, then you’ll be right at home. The restaurant, festooned with photos of local sports legends Larry Bird, Carl Yastrzemski, and Bobby Orr, seems better situated for a mall. But, if you’re one of the million tourists who visit the city each year, the place might be a welcome change from all of the history along the walking paths.

The large L-shaped bar and restaurant marks a turning point in Salem’s growing tourist-based economy. Large high-definition screens line the walls, less than a foot apart. TVs are even in the booths so diners can tune into ESPN or NESN while they eat. Just a decade ago, few would have envisioned that a sports bar - with 30 beers on tap - would succeed in downtown Salem. But even with the downturn in the economy, investors still see the city as a bargain.

Last Monday, there were at least 100 people in the restaurant. About 20 sat at the bar. We thumbed through the large menu and quickly understood that this would be an evening of comfort food, although some of us tried to order healthy.

To get in the mood with Big Papi and Youk on all of the TVs around us, we ordered the odd combination of fried kosher pickles ($7) and nachos ($9). The pickles were fried in heavily spiced batter but were surprisingly satisfying - akin to fried zucchini. The heaping plate of cheddar-coated nachos was also good and served as a mild starch to counteract the spicy pickles.

Service is fast here, and our entrees were medium-sized portions. This was more a bar than a restaurant - they have lots of offerings but few stand out and make you want to return right away.

The fettuccine alfredo ($14) was served slightly warmer than room temperature; the alfredo seemed watered down and had little taste.

The sesame salmon salad ($13) earned a higher grade. The salmon was fresh but bland and also should have been served warmer.

The fish and chips ($13) offered a lot of haddock but tasted rubbery - suggesting that the fish was more than a day old.

For dessert, we dug into a fried Snickers bar topped with vanilla ice cream ($7). This was the best part of the meal. I left disappointed with the food overall. Next time, I’ll try a pint of Guinness at the bar.