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A Tank Away | Northampton

Culture amidst the calm

Arty vibe sets the tone in college town

Pop musicians play the Calvin Theatre. Pop musicians play the Calvin Theatre. (Patrick Faloon for The Boston Globe)
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / November 17, 2010

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Here is a city with the urban flair of Coolidge Corner in Brookline or the South End in Boston — that is, until you set foot in a crosswalk. Cars stop — magically. Politeness toward pedestrians — and pretty much everyone else — is a way of life. A civility exists here in the state’s west that is rare east of Route 128.

It could be the area’s laidback attitude, left-leaning politics, or simply the slower pace. But the combination of culture and calmness makes this place an ideal escape. For a town of its size (under 30,000), Northampton has a number of good restaurants and unique shops. In fact, the annual food festival, the Taste of Northampton, grew so large and so popular that it became too expensive to stage and was retired.

Even without the festival, a weekend in Northampton is enough to get a taste of what the college town has to offer.

STAY

The Hotel Northampton (36 King St., 413-584-3100, www.hotelnorthampton.com, $150-$250) was constructed in 1927, but founder Lewis Wiggins was interested in avoiding the Art Deco style that was popular at the time. Instead, he built a hotel to reflect the area’s Colonial history. Today, the building on the corner of Main and King streets still reflects that charm. There are less expensive chain hotels available in nearby Hadley, but all fail to measure up in prime location and old-time grandeur.

DINE

The options are staggering, but the must-visit brunch spot in town is Sylvester’s (111 Pleasant St., 413-586-5343, www.sylvestersrestaurant.com, brunch $2.95-$11.95). There will be lines on the weekend, but be patient and you’ll be thrilled. For lunch, try Local Burger (16 Main St., 413-586-5857, www.localnorthampton.com, $4.50-$8.99), a friendly, casual restaurant that purchases as much as it can from local farmers.

Dinner options are plentiful. For a casual meal and a piece of authentic, albeit slightly campy Northampton history, try the pizza at Joe’s Cafe (33 Market St., 413-584-3168, $6-$15). Opened more than 70 years ago, the small restaurant is filled with murals of Argentine cowboys, painted by founder Camella Biandi. It appears that little has changed here since the 1950s. Best of all, there’s still an operating jukebox.

For upscale dining, Spoleto (50 Main St., 413-586-6313, www.spoletorestaurants.com, $5.95-$21.95) offers heartier Italian fare. East Side Grill (19 Strong Ave., 413-586-3347, www.eastsidegrill.com, $3.95-$20.95) makes innovative American cuisine. Be sure to order the Gorgonzola garlic bread. The Brewery (13 Old South St., 413-584-9903, www.northamptonbrewery.com, $2.95-$19.95) claims to be the oldest operating brewpub in New England and sells 15 year-round varieties of beer, plus dozens of seasonal varieties.

DURING THE DAY

Thorn’s Marketplace (150 Main St., 413-584-5582, www.thornsmarketplace.com), a former department store that anchors the city’s main drag, is filled with more than 20 restaurants and shops, including the original Herrell’s Ice Cream. For vintage shopping, Retro Genie (15 Market St., 413-584-4364) is loaded with 1960s and ’70s treasures. Sid Vintage (279 Main St., 413-582-9880, www.sid-vintage.com) has a strong collection of used clothes. For a more modern take on wardrobe, Unite Footwear (202 Main St., 413-585-5774) has limited-edition sneakers and high-end street wear.

AFTER DARK

Thanks to the five colleges in the region (Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst, Hampshire, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst), Northampton has a vibrant after-dark scene. The Iron Horse Entertainment Group (www.iheg.com) runs three clubs here: Pearl Street Nightclub, the Iron Horse Music Hall, and the Calvin Theatre. There are shows most nights of the week at these venues. The Academy of Music (274 Main St., 413-584-9032, www.academyofmusictheatre.com) is a meticulously restored opera house that opened in 1891 with a performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and that now regularly screens films and hosts performances of ballet, opera, and concerts.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.