Mid-Cape low key

When summer fades and the crowds disperse, there remain temptations that relax and entertain visitors

By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2011

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DENNIS - We didn’t come in search of clams, T-shirts, or sun.

As a brilliant fall afternoon blazed, we clicked off our laptops and headed south on Route 3 for a taste of Cape Cod in autumn. Sailing over the Sagamore Bridge at an impressive 45 miles per hour, it was hard not to feel elated.

Why visit New England’s summer playground when the party’s over? This time of year the light is softer, the air is sweeter, and it’s possible to slip into a wine bar, catch a show, and have a gastronomic experience without the scrum of the Cape in July. From the 15 towns dotting the peninsula from the elbow to the extremities we settled on Dennis, a friendly village with a vintage bohemian vibe.

The Cape is not flashy off-season, Dennis even less so. Although Route 6A is a main thoroughfare, there is something about this easy-to-blow-by town that makes it feel like a discovery. You have to get out of your vehicle and nose around. Tucked behind the Post Office, the Harvest Gallery Wine Bar was our first stop.

When wood smoke mixes with salt air, the desire to hunker down with friends, a glass of wine, and live music is strong. If the Chandler Travis Three-O is playing at the Harvest you are in luck.

Sipping a merlot to the eclectic jug-jazz-ragtime sound of this happy-go-lucky foursome is the most fun one can have without hopping a jetliner and landing in Montreal. Travis, a well-known Cape crooner whose band The Incredible Casuals rocked the Beachcomber in Wellfleet in the ’90s, plays here frequently. The barefoot guitarist strums in the middle of the gallery-turned-dining room as jack-of-all-trades Berke McKelvey strolls around the tables playing his clarinet. It’s an authentic dose of Cape Cod cool. The band’s Appalachian-era singalongs had the all-ages crowd grooving in their seats.

Painter Michael Pearson is a Dennis native who has been gradually turning this gallery into a happening mid-Cape joint. In the seven years the Harvest has been open, it has become as known for its musical lineup as for its hidden stock of mind-blowing wines.

On the night we visited, a man who had just flown in from Chicago was in awe. “It’s the coolest place around,’’ said Paul McCarthy, who considers the musical acts at the Harvest on par with the best clubs of Chitown.

It’s worth hitting the Harvest on a Thursday for its unorthodox wine tasting. For $20, a knowledgeable distributor delivered a sequence of five 2-ounce pours from Merriam Vineyards to our table over the course of two hours. It was leisurely, personal, and graceful. Served with a pitch-perfect cheese plate of brie, fontal, and cheddar from Shelburne, Vt., and a basket of extra crisp gourmet crackers, it was a sophisticated start to a last-minute getaway.

Could you do this in Boston? Perhaps. But the atmosphere is distinctly Dennis, upbeat with an off-the-mainland feel.

Behind the Harvest is the Cape Cinema, where independent films play twice daily in a one-room theater. Built in 1930 on a greenway anchored by the Cape Cod Museum of Art and the Cape Playhouse, it’s a throwback institution screening films that you might see at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline or Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge. You could hit the 4:45 p.m. show and pop into the Harvest for the wine tasting and have a full experience within a pleasing, five-minute walk.

Fall is the perfect time to ramble through Dennis Village, where an ancient cemetery gives way to a classic white church on the town green. On the evening we traipsed around the tombstones of seamen and soldiers under starry skies, a woman in Colonial dress appeared outside the Dennis Union Church. A white-haired man in a long coat followed. Apparitions from the grave? No, actors back stage at Eventide Arts, an independent theater group that takes over the Fellowship Hall in the offseason. This trusted troupe takes summers off, allowing locals to see their neighbors again.

The Cape is filled with thespians, artists, and writers who give it its cultural edge. Without the competition of the beach, the art scene becomes more cohesive and prominent in the fall and winter. A few blocks from the Harvest, Cape Cod Chat House is coaxing locals out of their homes with a heady mix of coffee, art, and community.

Owners Brett Warren and John Parke converted a vacant 1853 Colonial into a community space six months ago and customers have helped them co-create what the Chat House has become. “Since we opened, it’s been basically a love fest,’’ said Warren, who met Parke, a Craigville native, in California, where they lived for years. “It’s like having people in your house every night for a party.’’

On the night we visited, local musician Alicia Mathewson had just finished wrapping up a set of original songs and Indigo Girls covers. A handful of local women lounged on leopard-print chairs. The fireplace, festooned with candles, and the colorful canvases splashed across the walls made us feel we had sneaked into a home concert.

Although it feels like a cafe, the Chat House keeps patrons satisfied with ale from Mayflower Brewing Co. and affordable wine by the glass. Fig and goat cheese flatbreads, pumpkin muffins, and blueberry scones round out the offerings. It’s the kind of place where you could while away an afternoon and return for a poetry reading, beer tasting, or to catch an edifying talk on herbs and the Salem Witch trials.

Low-key is the name of the game in Dennis, but that doesn’t mean you won’t eat well. The culinary caliber is rising across the Cape, and Fin is a newcomer that’s turning heads.

Those in the restaurant industry traverse the Cape for chef Martha Kane’s garlic thyme marinated shrimp and herb-roasted monkfish. Kane’s husband, Jonathan Smith, is a fisherman who grows his own oysters and they rule the menu. The buzzy bistro will make you feel as though you never left the confines of Cambridge, except you won’t have to fight a sea of undergrads to get to the snug bar.

Another reason to visit the Cape off season is lower rates.

We spent the night at Sesuit Harbor House and took advantage of a last-minute $89 room. Our chamber had two large beds and a pleasing beach motif, right on 6A. It was dead quiet. We opened the windows and let the sea air fill our lungs as we nodded off.

Breakfast is not included this time of year, but that gave us an excuse to try the Underground Bakery for egg wraps and pumpkin spice biscotti. I wouldn’t have found this subterranean grotto if a resident hadn’t tipped me off. It’s in a network of home-turned businesses that you need to explore on foot to find. It was well worth it.

There are some gift shops and galleries in town, but don’t leave Dennis without paying homage to Scargo Pottery and Art Gallery. Perched above its namesake lake, this inviting space reflects the vibes of a simpler time. The sprawling grounds built by Harry Holl, known as the godfather of pottery on the Cape, is a captivating ramble.

The koi pond greets you as do vibrant vases, tiles, and fish-shaped bird feeders in the al fresco gallery. No matter when you stop by there is almost always a demonstration going on, pottery coming out of the kiln, or someone working the potter’s wheel. Holl’s daughters Tina, Kim, and Sarah Holl and Mary Peabody have taken over the pottery design for their father, now 89.

The gift shop sells Vance Kitira candles and stunning flower votives in deep purple hues. From black sand stoneware to oxblood red vases, to fashionable Saki sets, Scargo pottery, like Dennis itself, has earthy élan.

Our last excursion before we headed home was a trek up Scargo Tower. Gazing out over sparkling Cape Cod Bay, it was hard to turn away.

Kathleen Pierce can be reached at

Where to stay
Sesuit Harbor House & Motel
1421 Main St., East Dennis
Comfortable inn a few miles from Dennis Center. From $89.
Where to eat
800 Main St.
Contemporary bistro specializing in fish and oysters, $9-$29.
Underground Bakery
780 Main St.
Panini and great biscotti, $2.50-$6.50.
What to do
Cape Cod Chat House
593 Route 6A
Creative events several nights a week. Beer, coffee, wine, flatbreads, $2-$12.
Harvest Gallery Wine Bar
776 Main St.
Live music, wine tastings, art gallery, and local, organic bistro fare, $5-$15.
Cape Cinema
35 Hope Lane
Scargo Pottery and Art Gallery
30 Dr. Lords Road
Eventide Arts
Historic Dennis Union Church
713 Route 6A

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