Adventures in Suburbia

The Improper Bostonian, December 21, 2005--January 10, 2006

Adventures in Suburbia

There’s more to Boston’s suburbs than McMansions and cookie-cutter coffee chains. Venture forth—you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

By Whitney Allen and Tracy Mayor

The suburbs: Statistically, there’s a good chance you grew up there. Culturally, there’s a good chance you moved away as soon as you could. Demographically, there’s a good chance you’ll someday return, like a wild salmon back from the ocean, to spawn there.

In the meantime, it’s likely the suburbs are last on your list of fun places to eat, drink, shop or get groomed, right?

Think again, hipsters! It’s true, some of the outlying towns that ring the Boston-Cambridge-Somerville-Brookline core you call home are little more than vast wastelands of Staples, Targets and Home Depots. But others are far, far cooler than you may have imagined.

We pounded the Greater Boston ‘burbs to dig up a quintet of friendly, walkable little urban centers with tons of cheap (even free!) parking, unique shopping, and an outside chance at a Saturday night dinner reservation. Best of all, these are suburbs done up New England-style, which means that in between your finding and feasting, you can soak up the ambience of cottage-lined main streets, white-steepled churches, historic village greens and other charming visions the rest of the country gets to see only in movies.

Break away from your same-old-same-old for an evening, a day, or even a weekend of suburban insanity. Who knows, you may even catch the fish of your dreams. 

Gloucester

Equally gorgeous and gritty, this working-class city, which bills itself as America’s oldest fishing port, is home to generations of fishermen and artists, and it shows off both influences with frankness and flair.

It’s a ten-minute hike from the commuter rail stop to Gloucester’s oft-painted habor and Stacy Boulevard, where the locals walk, stroll, run and ‘blade past the famous Fishermen’s Memorial Statue (landlubbers might know him best as the dude from the fish sticks box). Further out is Rocky Neck, a narrow spit of land laden with layers of tiny art galleries crammed check-by-jowl with some serious summertime drinking spots.

But the easiest way to get a good feel for the authentic mix of the artistic, the up-and-coming and the lost past is to wander the mile or so of Main Street, one block up from the harbor, where long-closed department stores and granite-fronted banks share space with funktastic used clothing and music stores, eclectic art galleries and high-end restaurants, with the occasional genuine Italian deli or coffee bar thrown in for good measure. While you’re there, detour over to Pleasant St. to the Cape Ann Historical Museum (27 Pleasant St.) a beautiful little space, newly renovated, that houses a pleasing collection of works by local boy Fitz Hugh Lane alongside various maritime and decorative arts bits and pieces. 

Where to Eat and Drink
Steer clear of the seafood mega-joints that cater to busloads of whale watchers, and, for God’s sake, stay out of the fishermen’s bars. (If you ask a local where to find “that bar from `The Perfect Storm,’ ” you deserve whatever happens to you next.) Instead, make yourself happy by heading to The Franklin Cafe Cape Ann (118 Main St.), the northern outpost of the famous South End eatery. The space is warm, dark and cozy, the food is fantastic (pan-seared Atlantic cod with chorizo hash is one local favorite off the winter menu) and the place stays hopping late into the night, thanks to a roomy upstairs bar. A few doors up, Passports (110 Main St.) picks up the Franklin’s overflow, though it’s a destination restaurant in its own right, and newcomer Alchemy Cafe & Bistro (3 Duncan St.) serves up something for everyone with an enormous and eclectic menu and a great bar area laid out around an open wood fire. For java and WiFi, check out the Lone Gull Coffeehouse (146 Main St.).

Where to Shop
Ula Blue (180B) boldly goes where few suburban boutiques dare, carrying such city-sophisticate clothing lines as Citizens of Humanity, Trina Turk, BCBG Max Azria, LA Made and Joe’s Jeans. Tiny Field&Brown (196 Main St.) offers a cute collection of housewares, while the dark and creaky-floored Bookends (132 Main St.) will bring back memories of newsstands past. Local Colors (121 Main St.) offers jewelry, pottery, clothing and accessories, as well as affordable oils, watercolors and pastels, all produced by local women artists. Bananas (78 Main St.) is good for used clothing, both for men and women, as well as any Marilyn Monroe or Elvis tchotchke you might be missing. Stick your head into Virgilio’s Bakery & Deli (29 Main St.) for a whiff of Italy as authentic as anything you’d find in the North End (or Sicily, for that matter), and finally, way down the bottom of the street, check out the new home of Mystery Train (21 Main St.), which sells used records, tapes and CDs to those cool cats still willing to pay for their tunes.

Where to Get Gorgeous: Though there are a couple of bona fide salons-cum-day spas in the area, like Adesso Hair and Day Spa (13 Main St.), Tridosha (94 Main St.) or the Deborah Coull salon ( 116 Main St.), Gloucester women tend to focus more on inner beauty. To that end, check out Common Crow Natural Market (just of Main St. at 6 Elm), which sells chemical-free makeup and several lines of high-end holistic skin care products in addition to a wide repertoire of tinctures, teas, supplements and spices.

Hingham

Outdoor types in the know go to Hingham to get back to nature, but leave some time afterwards to stay for its small-town charms. A quick drive south from Boston or ferry trip from Rowes Wharf will put you in Hingham, land of hiking, biking, horseback riding, and cross country skiing, to say nothing of the gorgeous coastal views. And if you can’t manage to get going before the daylight fades, you can go cross country skiing at night.

Of the half dozen or so Hingham parks to choose from, two stand out. You can have your pick of four miles of walking paths and gaze fondly back at the Boston skyline at World’s End, (found at 250 Martin’s Lane, 781.740.6665) or explore the 10 miles of hiking trails at Wompatuck State Park (1 Union Street, 781.749.7160).

Then, after your exertions at the nature preserve of your choice, take in downtown historic Hingham, otherwise known as Hingham Square. You can’t miss it—just head in on Central Street to where it bisects South and North Streets. Free parking is readily available. You’ll notice the construction of the commuter rail line to Boston, but it doesn’t suffocate the charm of the town center. 

Where to Eat and Drink
The name on everyone’s lips is Square Café at 150 North Street (781.740.4060). Open for lunch and dinner, this airy restaurant, tastefully decorated in celadon and soft neutrals, boasts an executive chef and an extensive cocktail menu if you just want drinks. Packed even on a weekday with ladies who lunch, the menu comprises a variety of filling, protein-topped salads and dripping sandwiches for the non-dieters. Try the ginger, brown sugar-braised pork sandwich for $10.50. The dinner menu, slanted toward seafood, is divided into small-plate entrees for under $20 and large plate entrees in the $20+ range.

If you can’t squeeze into the Square Cafe, amble down the street to The Snug at 116 North Street (781.749.9774), a classic Irish pub in appearance (dark paneled wood galore) serving American comfort food. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and calls itself the “Home of the Perfect Pint.” Which perhaps explains why the younger crowd likes to hang out there at night.

Where to Shop
We won’t lie to you, if you have your heart set on whale-embroidered pink and green pants, you’ll find them here. Or maybe you just want to accessorize your preppy look with a canvas boat tote with floral straps? If so, head straight to Vineyard Vines and Lilly Pulitzer on Central Street.

But there is one store worth the trip from Boston all by itself, and preppy is not the word for it. Twenty-six- year-old Chelsea Orr opened Chel Bella on Memorial Day 2005. Located at 28 South Street (781.749.1219), the store looks like a funky vintage boutique crammed with finds. In fact, it’s a mix of New York designers in a range of prices. There’s something for every aspiring fashionista—from the stacks of designer denim (latest arrivals: Citizens) to a shelf full of Michael Stars’ basic tees in a rainbow of colors. We dare you to get out of there without succumbing to an eye-catching bag or one of the Rachel Wassman jeweled watches with fabric wristbands.

Where to Get Gorgeous
Boston Magazine nominated it Best of Boston three years in a row and Allure Magazine wrote it up. AZ Studio/AZure Spa at 63 & 65 South Street, (781.740.9662) should easily satisfy the highest standards. Of especial interest is the Sundari Facial, based on supermodel Christy Turlington’s Ayurvedic Skin Care line. First, you receive an analysis of your DOSHA or skin type. After the more usual facial steps, you will end with the essential oil that is best for your skin.  The spa also offers manicures and pedicures with a floral twist. Choose the “Red Flower Ritual” manicure and pedicure and have your treatment accompanied by a Red Flower scent candle. The Kai manicure and pedicure includes a blend of Gardenia and white exotic flowers.

Lexington

If you were paying attention in history class, you’ll instantly associate Lexington with the Revolutionary War. Sure, there are plenty of revolutionary war sites in Boston, but Lexington is where it all began. This was Paul Revere’s destination. This was where the Minutemen gathered to face the Redcoats.

If all of this is ringing only a distant bell of recognition, you can refresh your memory at the National Heritage Museum on 33 Marrett Road, located at the intersection of Route 2A and Massachusetts Avenue. This museum, which has free admission, has a standing exhibit on the Revolutionary War and regularly mounts exhibits on different aspects of Americana. The museum is open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 am to 5 pm, and Sundays from noon to 5 pm. (781.861.6559 or http://www.monh.org).

Once you’ve finished stimulating your little grey cells, explore downtown Lexington. That famous Minuteman statue at the Battle Green gazes over a wide variety of shops, cafes, and restaurants all up and down Mass Ave. and a few side streets.

Where to Eat and Drink
Lexx (1666 Mass. Ave.) sports warm woods, an unintimidating upscale pub menu, and a subdued, understated dining experience. The front of the restaurant feels most free-wheeling and date-friendly, with high bar tables and stools looking out onto Mass Ave. Across the street, Not Your Average Joe’s (1727 Mass. Ave.) lures in the bar crowd and more with a 2-page cocktail list. Yes, it’s a chain, but a chain that delivers fun drinks, decent wine and good, affordable food, with an Asian-Italian-Cajun-American-Fusion menu broad enough to keep both parties happy on date night.

Where to Shop
Start at The Crafty Yankee at 1838 Massachusetts Avenue (781.863.1219). This locally owned shop sells New England gifts and crafts. Right next door at 1844 Mass. Ave. is Small Indulgences, a sister store that sells women’s clothes. Don’t miss the other Small Indulgences down the block at 1806 Mass. Ave., which focuses on accessories, including bags and jewelry made by local artisans. (Get a preview of all three stores at http://www.craftyyankee.com and http://www.smallindulgences.com. )You might also want to take a pass through Cohoes at 1690 Massachusetts Avenue. Described by one local as “a high-end Marshall’s,” the two-story women’s department store sells discounted fashions from Fendi, Valentino, and Calvin Klein to 9 West and 1928 jewelry. If you’re still wanting to seek out local artists, cleanse your palate from shopping at the Lexington Arts & Crafts Society at 130 Waltham St. (781.862.9296, http://www.lexingtonma.org/LACS), and on your way out of town, grab a fresh-baked pick-me-up at Rosie’s Bakery (32 Waltham St.).

Where to Get Gorgeous

Local residents love Indulgence Day Spa in the Mews at 10 Muzzey St. (781.674.9300, no relation to the Small Indulgences stores). Investigate their weekday specials at http://www.indulgencedayspa.com. They also have some tempting packages--if you have two and half hours to spare, for example, you can sample the Mini Indulgence. For $120, choose between a spa facial and Swedish massage, plus get a manicure and “footial,” which includes an herbal soak, manicure of the toes, foot filling and sloughing, and foot massage.

Newburyport

Ah, Newburyport. Gateway to the beaches of Plum Island and birding grounds of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, this almost too perfectly picturesque town at the mouth of the Merrimac River is home to a thriving theater and live music scene, majestic examples of New England architecture, and a wide choice of parks and other preserved wild space.

None of this will matter one whit, however, if you are a shopper, because the brick and cobblestone streets of Newburyport offer up shopping choices deep and wide enough to keep even hardcore shopaholics in a daze for days. Clothing and shoes, housewares and food, jewelry and accessories and cosmetics and gifts, all intermingled with a pleasingly wide range of restaurants and watering holes mean the only thing it’s easy to part with in Newburyport is your money. 

Where to Eat and Drink
Particularly in the summer months, waterfront stalwarts like Michael’s, The Black Cow and, at the end of the causeway to the beach, the Plum Island Grille are filled with a rocking crowd of 20-somethings showing off their tans and slurping up the cocktail of the moment. But even the most toasted are willing to venture away from the waterfront to try the new venues that seem to perpetually pop up in town. Two relatively recent additions worth checking out: The Kiwi Grille and Agave’. Formally called The Kiwi Grille at Steeple Hall (26 Green St.), this a funky eatery in a colorfully painted church-like building dishes out New Zealand favorites like ostrich, rack of lamb and lamb fore shank intermingled with dishes like peekytoe crab salad, spiny lobster lemongrass bisque and lobster-crusted halibut, all in a room that’s minimalist and modern-looking. Agave’ Mexican Bistro (50 State St.) goes upscale on the south of the border theme, with grilled salad and tampiquena appetizers, caldo tlapleno soup and mariscos del caribe for a main meal, all of which can be washed down with any one of 60 tequilas. The restaurant sports a warm and inviting bar downstairs, a second floor dining room, and a fireplaced third floor lounge area with leather couches. If thirst is your main concern, pop into Rosie O’Shea’s (84 State St.), a spacious and authentic-looking Irish pub, for a pint of your favorite brew, or head down near the water for a blast of caffeine from Plum Island Coffee Roasters (54 Rear Merrimac St.).

Where to Shop
Where to start? The Tannery (50 Water St.), a collection of old mills that has been transformed into a mini-shopping haven. Inside, Red Bird Trading Co. specializes in a explosion of the baroque for the home—furniture, bedding, linens, pillows, incidental pieces, as well as clothing, jewelry, lingerie and bath products. A few doors down, Wishbasket takes a slightly preppier approach to housewares and hostess gifts; The Ruby Slipper offers costume jewelry with an emphasis on the fun and the funky; and the wonderful and welcoming Jabberwocky Bookshop makes you remember why independent book stores are so much better than mega-chains. Head a few blocks back to the center of town for some serious, and seriously high-end, clothing shopping, primarily at Azure (37 State St.) and Native Sun (11 Market Square). Mary Jane (20 Pleasant St. and 46 Inn St.) offering clothing that’s slightly less stratospheric, price-wise, and a good selection of cool footwear as well. When all the opulence starts to get to you, recharge at the beautifully old-fashioned Fowles (17 State St.), part newsstand, part lunch counter, where a grilled cheese and a Spiderman comic book should return you to your senses.

Where to Get Gorgeous
Hands-down, Interlocks Salon & Day Spa (58 Merrimac St.) is the place in town—the place on the entire North Shore, in fact—to spend the day getting cut, highlighted, primped and primed. The huge, well-lit, sparkling clean space feels less like a salon than a boutique hospital (only without the bloody parts) and the spa menu, which runs to several pages, serves up such goodies as facials from Decleor (Paris), Dibi (Italy) and Plantogen (New Zealand); ultrasound and microdermabrasion; hot stone and maternity massages; Vichy showers; and tanning. Downtown, Be Pink (15 State St.) sells such high-end lines as Nars, Bliss and Farmaesthetics, and offers of-the-moment beauty treatments like eyelash extensions.

Wellesley

We admit it--we have a soft spot for touring college campuses. All those beautiful grounds and architecture, all that history, usually with a tasteful little museum or two thrown in the mix. Plus performing arts, and the requisite theater playing an obscure art house movie—make that “film”—that you’ve always meant to see.

One hundred thirty-five year old Wellesley College has all of that. Sure, there are plenty of college campuses in Boston. But Wellesley has room to spread out over 450 acres with space for botanical gardens. Check out the web site at http://www.wellesley.edu before you go to see what exhibits are going on at the Davis Museum and elsewhere around campus.

When you’ve finished touring the campus, walk out the main gates onto Central Street and you’ll find downtown Wellesley spread out before you.

Where to Eat and Drink
The town’s crown jewel is Blue Ginger (583 Washington Street), one of the top-rated, most famous restaurants in the Boston area. You’re probably familiar with the name Ming Tsai, even if you haven’t seen either of his two Food Network shows, East Meets West and Ming’s Quest, or his latest venture on PBS, Simply Ming.  Try his cuisine for yourself at Blue Ginger, described as his “east meets west bistro.” You’ll be best off making reservations before you leave Boston—make that several days before you leave Boston.

Though Wellesley is a dry town, Blue Ginger does serve wine, and the dining experience definitely counts as a splurge for most pocketbooks. Dinner entrees start at $21 and run into the $30 range. Try the pan-seared scallops with miso Koshi-Hakari risotto. And be sure to save room for Blue Ginger’s take on Boston Cream Pie with jasmine tea cream. If you’re on a budget, lunch might be the way to go. Sake-miso marinated Alaskan butterfish is $33 at night and $21 during the day. A smaller portion, but still the same dish. (Blue Ginger, 781.283.5790, http://www.ming.com/blueginger, closed on Sundays.)

If you can’t manage to get into Blue Ginger, pop into that other celebrity chef’s place: Todd English’s Figs at 92 Central Street (781.237.5788). Satisfy your hunger with pizzas and pastas all under $20 for both lunch and dinner.

Where to Shop

Central Street is lined with stores. Don’t miss the independent book store Wellesley Booksmith, sister store to Brookline Booksmith, at 82 Central Street (781.431.1160). The shop boasts a newly opened used-book cellar (through the children’s section) and prides itself on hosting a wide range of author events, like a recent evening with Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.

Wellesley has its share of suburban soccer moms, but college girls average out the rest of the customer demographic, which means it is possible to find some suitably stylish clothes. For a young vibe, pounding music, and lots of bags, visit Luisa, Luisa at 68 Central Street (781.235.1833). Or stop in down the street at Betsy’s (100 Central Street, 781.416.1800) for a selection of hip, casual clothes.  For any kind of sports gear you could possibly need, explore the cavernous Thunder—the Sports Source at 19 Central Street (781.237.0400). When you need to take a break, the ever popular Peet’s Coffee and Tea and Starbucks punctuate Central St., one on each side.

Where to Get Gorgeous

There is plenty of choice for spas. One local favorite--the original Grettacole spa at 95 Central St. (781.237.5201). If your friends have been calling you Caspar the Friendly Ghost of late, try the Gretta Body Bronze with Exfoliation for $115—or without exfoliation for $60. Also, all first-time clients receive a personalized Trish McEvoy makeup consultation after services.