The 13 Best Restaurants in Salem Right Now

Massachusetts's most spellbinding seaport is home to some of the North Shore's best restaurants.


Massachusetts’s most spellbinding seaport may experience a peak tourist season every October, but to be honest, the North Shore city’s restaurant scene is strong enough to warrant the quick trip from Boston any time of year. So whether you’re flying up for fall fun or just planning a post-Halloween day trip, here are 13 places you’d be lucky to find.

All Soul’s Lounge

Have you had a happy-cry today? Here, let us help: Gourmet hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, and vintage cocktails. (Tears of joy—activate!) Yes, there is a new restaurant and cocktail lounge in Salem that builds its food menu around franks and melty sandwiches—the former might be topped with sweet brown mustard, remoulade, and bacon, (the Icelandic Dog), and the latter could be stuffed with pineapple, Provolone, and teriyaki sauce (the Luau Luau grilled cheese). The drinks, meanwhile, pull on historic recipes from 1732 (the Fish House Punch of rum, cognac, and peach brandy) to 1947 (the tequila-based El Diablo with crème de cassis and ginger beer.) As for the vibe? When the jukebox isn’t jumping, the place spins vinyls. When you’re done weeping, grab some Kleenex and your car keys.

282 Derby St., Salem, allsoulssalem.com.

Bambolina / Photo by Meiling B. via Yelp

Bambolina

Wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pizzas anchor the rustic Italian cookery at Bambolina, where the pies are topped with everything from octopus to bresaola to gorgonzola dolce. You’ll also find pasta plates and sides, such as mushrooms marinated in lemon, thyme, and crushed red pepper, plus affogato—vanilla gelato topped with a double shot of espresso—for dessert. Also, take note: while its sister restaurant, Kokeshi, is closed for the winter months, Bambolina is also where you’ll find that spot’s menu of Asian street food, including the fried chicken-filled Colonel Sanders’ ramen.

288 Derby St., Salem, 978-594-8709, bambolinarestaurant.com.

Bella Verona

When you’re seeking old-school Italian, you’ll find fabulous red-sauce plates (just like nonna made them!) at this cozy downtown stalwart. The homey interior is matched by bowls of hearty bolognese or seafood linguini, and the plates, bearing big portions of lemon-sauced chicken or pepper-sauced pork loin, taste just as great via takeout as they do over carafes of Chianti in the dining room.

107 Essex St., Salem, 978-825-9911, bellaverona.com.

Bit Bar / Photo by Seth K. via Yelp

Bit Bar

Anytime you need a sweet retreat to the simpler days of childhood, get to Bit Bar—a retro-cool arcade and restaurant that trades on your fondest memories of ’80s Nintendo. The playful eats range from Buffalo-style “Tetris tots” to elk-and-beef burgers with BBQ sauce to caramel-covered brownie sundaes; meanwhile, cocktails like the Princess Peach (vodka with fruity schnapps and cranberry juice) may just give your mood a 1-Up. As for the actual games? Bit Bar recently relocated to a much larger location in Salem, the former home of Salem Beer Works, so now you’ll have much more elbow room for toggling joysticks on the “Pac-Man” or “Burger Time”  machines.

278 Derby St., Salem, 978-594-4838, bit.bar

Flying Saucer Pizza. / Photo by Scott Kearnan

Flying Saucer Pizza

Let your geek flag fly here. From the “Spaceballs” (aka. garlic knots) to the many specialty pies, the menu abounds with nerdy references: The “Audrey II,” for instance— covered in arugula, roasted red peppers, and balsamic fig—nods to the hungry plant of Little Shop of Horrors. But you can also build your own pizza using epic ingredients like sweet habañero sauce, Cajun-style chicken, and a ton of vegan alternatives, including jackfruit disguised as “pulled pork” or “meatballs.” Gluten-free crusts are available too, and trust us: They’re out of this world.

118 Washington St., Salem, 978-594-8189, flyingsaucerpizzacompany.com.

Goodnight Fatty. / Photo by Joyce W. via Yelp

Goodnight Fatty

You need to know about Goodnight Fatty, a weekend-only maker of cookies (or “fatties”) that are wildly delicious. As late as 11 p.m. on Saturday nights, fans show up to the tiny, secret-feeling shop for flavors like Cinnamon Toast Crunch, studded with white chocolate chips, or the Midnight Fatty, a chocolate cookie with toffee and pecans. (Like to dunk? They offer bottomless milk.) Goodnight’s cult following has even supported a new breakfast spin-off, Good Morning Chubby, bagel bite-like buns with fillings both savory (cheddar cheese shallots) and spicy (hot vegan sausage). And if you’re lucky enough to live in Salem or six of the surrounding towns, you can even send for home-delivered “drops”—no pre-ordering necessary—from your phone.

1 Washington Sq., Salem, goodnightfatty.com.

Gulu-Gulu Cafe

Right next door to Flying Saucer Pizza is this boho-style sandwich shop and coffee klatch, the kind of place where laptop warriors hammer out emails while sipping on draft-poured cold brew coffee, or toe-tapping music fans vibe out to local musicians while tipping back craft beers. Stick around for drag brunches, game nights, and open-mic shindigs, or just grab a global-inspired sandwich (such as the Barcelona with turkey, manchego cheese, and apple butter) or crepe (like the Athens, filled with artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and goat cheese) and nosh it in the grass park out front, where you’ll find the photo opp-friendly Bewitched statue.

247 Essex St., Salem, 978-740-8882, gulugulucafe.com.

Howling Wolf Taqueria

Behold the massive burritos at this Mexican joint—including the signature Howling Wolf, a fork-and-knife-required beast filled with shredded beef, salsa, and beans that sits in a sea of chili sauce. The scratch-made tortillas are some of the best around, especially when they’re deep-fried for delicious chimichangas. Just don’t sleep on the menu’s other “wolf snacks”: say, avocado fries or chicken wings served with jalapeño ranch. Need even more spice? Sip on margaritas infused with red-hot ghost peppers.

76 Lafayette St., Salem, 978-744-9653, howlingwolftaqueria.com.

Ledger, a Salem restaurant inside a former bank. / Courtesy photo

Ledger Restaurant & Bar

Even Ledger’s glitzy interior, a former bank, is outshone by the truly radiant, upscale New American cuisine from chef-owner Matt O’Neil and executive chef Daniel Gursha: You might find cider-glazed pork shank with grilled apples and honey nut squash puree, herb-brined chicken with salsa verde and pepitas, or Maine mussels with pork belly, curry, coconut, and lemongrass. Some of the biggest surprises, though, are saved for the brunch menu—more specifically its rotating doughnuts that are filled with malted cookies and cream, or given an apricot glaze with sprinkles of maple-roasted pistachio.

125 Washington St., Salem, 978-594-1908, ledgersalem.com.

Opus

The transportive, ashram-meets-speakeasy downstairs area, dubbed Opus Underground, is a fabulous escape for live music and DJ dancing. (“Y2K Dance Party,” anyone?) But don’t let it distract you from the actual restaurant, a groovy destination for mostly Asian-leaning options like miso- and orange-glazed salmon, massaman and coconut curry tofu, and a wide selection of super-fresh sushi. Thirsty? Cocktail cure-alls include Head Wound, a walloping combo of whiskey, Averna amaro, elderflower liqueur, and dry vermouth.

87 Washington St., Salem, 978-744-9600, salemopus.com.

Mercy Tavern

It’s good-vibes-only at Mercy Tavern, a sunny, friendly hang serving excellent (and eclectic) comfort food. There’s coconut fried haddock in fish tacos, garlicky French fries covered in tzatziki sauce and feta cheese, and pumpkin ravioli in a brown butter sauce with cherry drizzle and fried leeks. Meanwhile, potions like the Hocus Pocus—tequila with autumnal fruits and spices—keep us energized for Friday Blues jams and more live music.

148 Derby St., Salem, 978-741-4436, mercysalem.com.

Sea Level Oyster Bar / Photo by Christine F. via Yelp

Sea Level Oyster Bar

Water views beckon to this harbor-side spot, where the seafood-focused menu is wide-ranging: Hoisin-glazed salmon and Italian cioppino stew—loaded with shrimp, mussels, clams, and more—shares space with New England classics like the Salem Sound Clambake, which is anchored by a one-and-a-quarter-pound lobster. Of course, you’ll want to start off with the eponymous bivalves, served freshly shucked on shellfish platters or baked with edamame soy butter and pickled ginger.

94 Wharf St., Salem, 978-741-0555, sealeveloysterbar.com.

Turner’s Seafood

A fabulous, family-run seafood restaurant inside Salem’s historic Lyceum Hall, Turner’s wholesales its super-fresh New England catch to customers around the country. But we’d argue it’s best enjoyed at its Salem restaurant, where our favorite has to be the Finnan Haddie, house-smoked haddock in a pearl onion au gratin sauce; every preparation is excellent, though, so swim on by for similarly stellar Gloucester hake marsala, crumb-topped lobster pie, or salmon pasta in cream sauce. And if you opt for curbside takeout, you can always add on-ice swordfish, scallops, and other seafood for creative cooking at home.

43 Church St., Salem, 978-745-7665, turners-seafood.com.