A Chef’s Guide to Eating Well in Concord

Carolyn Johnson and Ben Elliott gave us their picks for all the best ice cream, tiki drinks, and picnic essentials in their verdant neighborhood.

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Chang An’s shrimp chow mein. Photo by Ruby Wallace-Ewing.

History seeps out of Concord’s every pore. From the steeple-studded hillsides and verdant river meadows to Walden Pond’s sleepy terrain sprouting oaks and resiny pitch pines, it’s no wonder that Concord’s natural beauty has inspired some of this country’s greatest poets, pundits, and philosophers. Now the same surroundings that influenced Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott, are helping to shape Concord’s growing restaurant scene as high-profile chefs from Boston are heading inland to escape the bustle and stress of the city. That Alice Waters-esque, back-to-the-land migration has included the likes of Jason Bond, who now spends a majority of his time at Bondir’s newer Concord outpost and his burgeoning gardens in nearby Carlisle, as well as Rialto alum Carolyn Johnson, the town’s de facto farm-to-table pioneer who helped bridge the divide between forager, farmer, and finished plate.

To help us delve into Concord’s ritzier landscape (as well as its humble gastronomic underbelly), we enlisted the help of Johnson, a Food & Wine People’s Best New Chef nominee in 2014, and Ben Elliott of the soon-to-open Saltbox Kitchen, to find out what the accomplished chefs like to eat when they’re off the clock. Their choices ranged from stiff tiki drinks and Chinese take-out of the more guilty-pleasure variety, to grab-and-go farmstand sandwiches and the most over-the-top, gluttonous ice cream sundaes imaginable.

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Chang An’s crispy pineapple shrimp. Photo by Ruby Wallace-Ewing.

Chang An

Elliott: I am a sucker for fruity rum drinks and I’m not afraid to admit it. There are so many incarnations of the Mai Tai, but Sam, the bartender at Chang An, makes a version of this tiki classic that will put hair on your chest. He will not share his recipe—believe me, I’ve asked—but let’s just say there isn’t a lot of fruit juice in it.

Johnson: This place is literally across the tracks from us; we can actually see it from the kitchen window. It’s our guilty pleasure take-out and super-potent Mai Tai joint. The menu is enormous, but some of my favorites include the Szechuan wontons, Peking-style pork loin, and chicken with Chinese eggplant. 

10 Concord Crossing, Concord; 978-369-5288 or changanrestaurantandbar.com.

Concord’s Colonial Inn

Elliott: I think in a previous life I must have lived during Colonial New England. I feel so at home in places like the Wayside Inn in Sudbury and our own Colonial Inn right here on the square in Concord Center. Despite the flat screen televisions in both the Forge and Tap Rooms, you feel like you have gone back in time. The Tap Room is a bar with a fireplace, high-top tables and benches, and this wonderful old world feel. In the wintertime it’s a really cozy place to get together with friends for a couple of beers and burgers. The Forge room always has live music and the front porch of the Inn is a great place to sit on a warm summer evening and watch the world go by. 

48 Monument Square, Concord; 978-369-9200.

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A Mai Tai at Chang An. Photo by Ruby Wallace-Ewing.

Haute Coffee

Johnson: This is a relative newcomer to town, but the baristas are well-trained and make perfect espresso drinks, pour-overs, and cold brew. They use Counter Culture coffee, and regularly switch up the origins of the beans to keep it interesting.

12 Walden St., Concord; 978-369-9900 or myhautecoffee.com.

Asian Gourmet

Elliott: Yes, Asian Gourmet has the expected Americanized versions of what Chinese food might be, but, more importantly, they also have beautiful, authentic Taiwanese specialties like soup dumplings, and house-made dumplings with shrimp or pork and cabbage. Some of the wonderful items—like the Ko-Cha dish, a combination of pork, squid, and dried tofu, or the dried mini anchovies with peanut sauce—are such a refreshing change of pace from what you usually find at so many other Chinese take-out spots. 

794 Elm St., Concord; 978-369-8114 or asiangourmetma.com

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Photo by Ruby Wallace-Ewing.

Bondir

Johnson: This is definitely my top choice for a great meal in Concord. I had long been a big fan of Jason Bond and the original Bondir in Cambridge, so I was really excited to have him come to town.  The atmosphere is always charming thanks to the eclectic [events director] Monica Higgins. And I just love exploring the menu, because even though we utilize a lot of the same local products and producers, our food so different. It’s fun to experience that contrast in styles. 

24 Walden St., Concord; 978-610-6554 or bondirconcord.com.

Country Kitchen

Johnson: Just across the tracks from from 80 Thoreau is this little shack that has been serving breakfast-and-lunch-only since 1981. Go for any of their turkey sandwiches, especially the club. They roast whole turkeys fresh every morning, preparing each of their sandwiches with nice thick slabs of breast meat.  

181 Sudbury Rd., Concord; 978-371-0181

bedford farms

Photo by Ruby Wallace-Ewing.

Bedford Farms Ice Cream

Elliott: Ice Cream, or anything else dairy-based for that matter, is definitely on my favorite foods top 10 list. Here in Concord, we are so lucky to have three fantastic places to visit and indulge. Kimball’s at Bates Farm [actually in Carlisle] is the quintessential old school ice cream stand. My mother even used to go there when she was a kid. Bedford Farm is another wonderful spot. And Reasons To Be Cheerful in West Concord is yet another stop on the ice cream circuit, where the ingredients for each house-made flavor are carefully procured. I love them all and I have a hard time controlling myself when I go to any of them. Even when I say I’m just going to get a small ice cream cone, I inevitably get the largest sundae possible with extra hot fudge and peanut butter sauce and M&M’s. It’s disgusting! I’m a dog. 

Johnson: When we first opened 80 Thoreau, sans pastry chef, we sourced all of our ice cream from Bedford Farms. They even prepared custom flavors for us. I’ll occasionally hop over there to grab ice cream sundaes for our staff. And, of course, we frequently treat ourselves to a cone or milkshake on a hot summers day.

68 Thoreau St., Concord; 978-341-0000 or bedfordfarmsicecream.com.

Helen’s Restaurant

Elliott: I have two small kids, so I would be kidding myself if I did not admit that we, as a family, eat at Helen’s more frequently than any other restaurant in the Boston area. Nothing says good old fashioned fun like playing hangman with crayons on placemats while you wait for a cheeseburger and an extra thick strawberry frappe. I make just as much of a mess as my three- and eight-year-old children, so, this kind of relaxed, family-friendly place is just that much more appealing to me. Another attractive draw is that it is a true family restaurant in every sense. Opened in 1936, it’s now run by Helen’s grandson, Paul Denisevich, who is helped in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations from his brother, two sisters, two nephews, cousin, and two daughters. 

17 Main St., Concord; 978-369-9885.

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Steve Verrill (right) the owner of Verrill Farm. Photo by Ruby Wallace-Ewing.

Verrill Farm

Johnson: We source a lot of produce from Verrill at the restaurant, but the farm and farmstand are really not to be missed.  The farmstand is not only packed with all of their gorgeous produce, but other local products, meats, eggs, and flowers. The bakery and prepared foods counters have tons to offer—you can even pick up a sandwich and go eat it by the fields. My husband, Bill, worked in the kitchen there in the late ’90s, so we even served their pies as the dessert at our wedding.  

11 Wheeler Rd., Concord; 978-369-4494 or verrillfarm.com.

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Photo by Ruby Wallace-Ewing.

The Concord Cheese Shop

Johnson: Needless to say, the highlight at this wonderful shop is its amazing cheeses, which are sourced from all over the world, as well as here in New England. They also have a nice selection of specialty products and a deli area where you can pick up a hearty sandwich, then stroll over to the North Bridge for a picnic. My favorites are The Black Stallion with roast beef, swiss, and horseradish mayo and The French Picnic with ham, brie, apples, and champagne mustard.  They have lots of prepared salads too, which is great for the indecisive, like me. My go-to is the Fregola Salad with almonds, capers, and cranberries dressed in a white balsamic vinaigrette.

29 Walden St., Concord; 978-369-5778 or concordcheeseshop.com.

Nashoba Brook Bakery

Johnson: They are making real, artisan-crafted loaves at this amazing bakery in West Concord. The one real standout for me though is their Pugliese bread, which, made with with lots of durum semolina, has this really phenomenal flavor and texture. Some of their breads, like the olive and pepper jack breads, they only bake a couple of days a week. So definitely hit up Nashoba when they have those kind of rarities on offer. 

152 Commonwealth Ave., Concord; 978-318-1999 or slowrise.com.

verrill farm

Photo by Ruby Wallace-Ewing.