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Jan 7, 2010 03:20 PM

Northampton/Amherst Area Dining . . . a Retrospective

Ten years ago, John Thorne (a food writer of considerable fame) wrote a Chowhound post entitled: "Northampton/Amherst Area Dining...Another View"

The first two paragraphs of his post are as follows:

"When my wife, Matt, and I first moved to Northampton (Noho to collegiate types, Hamp to townies), we had high hopes for the place and ate out a lot. Now, maybe, once a month. To be honest, for a place its size, there's a lot going on: two Thai restaurants, two Indian restaurants, two decent sushi places. Still, the Chinese restaurant that wins "Best of the Valley" every year for about ten years in a row is Hunan Gourmet, a place where the food is so bad that I don't understand how the waitstaff can serve it with a straight face. This isn't a comment on the restaurant but on the taste of the local inhabitants, which is, to say the least, low.

"How low? There was a really GREAT Malaysian restaurant in Amherst (two towns away) that we visited everytime we could when we first got here. However, we noticed that we were about the only customers in there everytime we went -- and, sure enough, they were out of business in a year. The Northampton/Amherst axis is college land, and while college students like to think they have adventurous palates, they go adventuring all together to places which pose little threat to their cool, and where the emblematic is all: if a pizza slice is big and comes with fresh basil and raw garlic scattered over it, that's high end eating for them. Because many college students are vegetarians or at least pro-vegetarian, this word also regularly short-circuits palate attentiveness in favor of political correctness."

The whole thread may be viewed here:

My question is has the area changed much from the above description? I've had an avid interest in this area for over a year to live and work. I love the idea of the food coop. I really like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods and the fact that there are a lot of schools, but I have been hesitant. I think John really hit the nail on the head with his post (of over a decade ago) and if so, why is the area slow to change? Is there a resentment between the "townies" and "college types." Has the food scene remained static overall?

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  1. This is such a good question. I grew up in the valley, and moved away about 10 years ago. While I have to admit that my expectations of good eats has definitely changed since then (7 years in New York City, 3 in Philadelphia and marrying a southerner), I have to say that the fundamental problems of dining in the valley haven't. Every time I visit my folks home, I find dining out more and more disheartening.

    First things first: the Pioneer Valley is a weird place - and you tend to forget it living there for awhile. On the one hand, the colleges in the area give it an air of cosmopolitanism - but at the end of the day, its a lot of 20 years olds who are really only beginning to learn how to eat. By the time they realize that the baked potato pizza at Antonio's is a novelty act, it's time to move on out. So while Northampton and Amherst may have a wider variety of places to eat than the rest of rural New England, they only need to be good enough to impress college students.

    On the other hand, its also still very strongly a bastion of Yankee culture (with a smattering of Polish and French Canadian for good measure). There is not a particularly strong immigrant presence in the area, which real curbs demand for any specialty items or demands on authenticity. Hamden County has Holyoke and Springfield, both of which have prominent Puerto Rican & Latino components, but Hamp is still pretty much a white bread sort of place.

    Northampton started making a name for itself as an arts community about thirty years ago, but that really peaked in the late 80s/early 90s (John Villani's 100 Best Art Towns in America - which put Northampton at #1 - first came out in 1994). Its really been cruising on that rep ever since, and there's really no town nearby large enough to contend with it. Holyoke could - the Open Square re-development has a ton of potential - but people in the Noho/Amherst area just don't drive that way (massive generalization, but its a relatively fair one).

    All this being said, give the valley its due. First, despite the current gastronomic slump, dining is gonna get better. Maybe not today, maybe not in the next few years, but its definitely going to change. Right now it's behind the curve in America's food revolution, but it's in just too good a spot for that to last much longer.

    First, all those sleepy little hamlets are gonna start waking up, and places like Lady Killigrew at the Bookmill are going to become de riguer as opposed to the exception. Those great, stone mill buildings aren't just in Northampton and Amherst, and you'll be driving up to Miller's Falls for Berkshire Pork.

    Second and probably more importantly, when its in season, the produce in the region is probably the best in the country. You might not have the widest variety of stuff (yet), but nothing beats driving along Route 5 on an August day, pulling off the road, sticking a couple bucks in a coffee can and walking away with basket of some of the best tomatoes you'll taste all year. I'd take Atkins over Berkeley Bowl any day of the week. Why someone hasn't moved here and started something like the French Laundry in Napa or Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York is beyond me. Yeah its cold in the winter, but that when you do your best butchering!

    1. A lot of that is still correct. In particular, regarding Amherst. Amherst still does not have a single restaurant that excites me, and I think that's largely due to the student population. Miss Saigon is new-ish (Vietnamese) and happily does not try to fusion you but delivers staples that taste good but aren't spectacular. Chez Albert is fine, but never really made my tongue sing like I know French food can.

      Northampton is a different beast. Some new places have opened and been duds, some actually made quite a difference in my dining life. Local Burger and Sam's Pizza are new-ish places that offer the all-important tasty/quick/cheap combination, something that was totally lacking downtown. A new French cafe opened on Green Street which does some things really quite well. Thus a general uptick in quality and availability of food-on-the-go or 30 minute sit-down chow. Toss in Amanouz (Moroccan) to that mix.

      Still in existence, though, is the dead weight of the Claudio Guerra empire (Spoleto, Paradiso, Mama Iguana), far too many Asian fusion/sushi places, two righteously crappy "Mexican" places, a brewery that has managed to screw up pub food, a beer hall that has managed to over-price and over-think its bar menu ($12 mac and cheese, really?), two Thai places that won't impress anyone whose lived on either coast, and some other assorted restaurants that are charging $15-20 entrees that won't really please a foodie.

      There are some places that I haven't mentioned that are worth the time, like Green Street Cafe and Great Wall, but I suspect they have been here long enough that the author you quote was already familiar with them.

      4 Replies
      1. re: fame da lupo

        I moved to Springfield three years ago and travel to Northampton fairly often. While I would agree that fine dining isn't on the menu in this area, I am a big fan of Paul & Elizabeth's. They serve fresh natural food. Mulino's is also good for Italian. No, it's not New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, but there are some decent choices.

        1. re: fame da lupo

          gotta say, i have a certain fondness for siam square, and i have lived in manhattan, l.a. and s.f. not everything is at the highest level, but their strong offerings -- ginger tea (i've never had better) and drunken noodles -- are really choice. i often meet new yorkers there for lunch (easy to get to) and no one has complained yet. i still prefer hattaporn up in greenfield, but i do feel they've lost a certain something by moving into the old tofu-a-go-g0 space. but now they can have tables and stuff, so i know why they did. by the way, they're closed for about a month right now for travel. but a good spot if you haven't tried it.


          1. re: fatheryod

            Pad kee mao / drunken noodles is one of my favorite dishes. I make it myself, have ate it on the streets in Thailand, and of course, at various places in the US. I don't think Siam Square does a very good job of it. Too tame and safe, the flavors never popped for me.

            1. re: fame da lupo

              perhaps i am actually responding to the potential for greatness lurking in the dish. ah well. i find it satisfactory in the context of the valley. as i've mentioned before, the food scene here was so bleak when i first came here to go to college in the early '70s, i have a tendency to grade on a curve, as it were. but, really, every day i thank the stars that the old school new england regional food hegemony (as represented by the various "Inns" of the area) has been broken. perhaps, in this light, i set my sites too low. but really, if i'm jonesing hard for a really good druz meal or something, well, manhattan's just 3-1/2 hours away. and the boss szechuan places of the boston suburbs are even closer. but for today, as i drive my daughter back to williston after winter break, i'll hit captain jack's in easthampton, and i will like it!

        2. have you ever ventured east of Northampton. THe Apollo Grill is very good, as is Venus. Tavern on the Hill is a great place to eat especially in thesummer when the deck is open.

          All places listed are in Easthampton ust a quick trip up rt 10 from Hamp

          6 Replies
          1. re: southie10

            Actually, Easthampton is south of Northampton.

            1. re: southie10

              The Appolo was good three years ago, not now and my one trip to Venus the food was awful! Really awful.
              Butterfly in Hadley is very good if you eat off the "gourmet menu, especially for fish.
              Side Street in Florence serves very good food , usually.
              But the valley is really a place for produce as it says above and not amazing restaurant food.

              Side Street Cafe
              42 Maple St, Florence, MA 01062

              1. re: magiesmom

                i have to agree. my two visits to venus have been bummers, both for food (not bad, but not interesting) and truy lame service. i'll be hitting it again soon with a friend who lives in easthampton, so i'm hoping things are better. butterfly's gourmet menu is quite good (love those big szechuan dishes), as is the gorumet menu at great wall in florence, and the veggie options (especiallly at amherst chinese. but really, the best restaurants are in franklin county -- gypsy apple, hope & love, alina's, night kitchen, etc.
                although, one again, i will scream for the pleasure of capt. jack's clamshack iin easthampton. will pick up my daughter at williston tomorrow and hit it hard!

                1. re: fatheryod

                  I really don't like Gypsy Apple, though i know most do. I find it pretentious and boring, And uncomfortable.
                  Night Kitchen is another story, always a treat.

                  Night Kitchen
                  440 Greenfield Rd, Montague, MA 01351

                  Gypsy Apple
                  65 Bridge St, Shelburne Falls, MA 01370

                  1. re: magiesmom

                    interesting. i don't know all that many people who hit the gypsy apple on a semi-regular basis, but everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion. yr description reminds me of my own assessment of the blue heron, but that's another kettle entirely. i'll be curious to hear what you make of alina's if you make it there. for me it was a great alternative to di paolo's in turners, which started great but has really been a bummer the last couple of times we tried. admittedly, that's been a while now. i'll ask if anyone has anything new to report.

                    1. re: fatheryod

                      We had planned to go to Alina's tonight but it is too cold to drive 45 min to dinner. another time... I don't like Blue Heron for exactly the same reasons.

                      Blue Heron Restaurant
                      112 N Main St, Sunderland, MA 01375

            2. Judy's in Amherst has the most wonderful popovers and delicious food! It is always crowded and very popular.

              1 Reply
              1. re: judyd

                popovers are great. the rest of the food tastes like applebee's to me.

              2. It is tough finding a good restaurant in the area. The emphasis seems to be more on the micro brews then food. I always enjoy the meal at Carmelina's. They do a very good Osso Buco. It seems like you can get better food at the hot bar of Whole Foods then at most of the sit down places in the area. Another good place for Cajun is "The Big Mamou's" in Springfield. Very good cajun and a fun place to eat.

                Big Mamou
                63 Liberty St, Springfield, MA 01103

                3 Replies
                1. re: awm922

                  there is a big Mamou right outside of Northampton in williamsburg.

                  1. re: magiesmom

                    I completely agree with the Stone Barns/ French Laundry concept.I find that the culinary resources and creativity in these parts are more often found on the farms than in the restaurants. There are amazing conversations happening around food in this area and an incredible amount of ethnic groceries (for what is still pretty much a rural, white community), and it is a huge shame that the dining scene is plagued by such mediocrity. For some reason, the bar is set so low here, I can only surmise that it is because the cost of serving people locally grown, expertly prepared, unique foods is expensive and with salaries and job opportunities being what they are here, people just can't or won't spend the kind of money it takes to create great meals. Stone Barns is a stone's throw from New York, French Laundry can lure customers from San Fran and Oakland. The Valley is a long way to travel for dinner, and most of the people who live here will not and can not pay $100 for a meal (that's per person), no matter how memorable it is. That said, I have never had a bad meal at Circa. The chef there really incorporates local food into a very creative, delicious menu. Can't speak for Night Kitchen, although the menu looks awesome, same goes for Chez Albert. Green Street is always reliable, H&Olive, solid and I'm looking forward to trying Magpie. Gypsy Apple, Side Street, fine but nothing to get excited about. I love the ambition of Bistro Les Gras, but it doesn't quite translate. Apollo, Venus, Judie's, well, if you can't say anything nice.....

                    As for cheap eats, this area is way way behind with its bad pizza, bland Asian fusion, crappy Tex-Mex and awful pub food. Vietnamese sandwiches, real ramen, panini, dumplings, crepes, tacos-- all super cheap, super easy to do and part of the food landscape in many parts of the country. Universal appeal for college students, lunch breaks and post-collegiate budgets.

                    There is so much potential here, just getting really antsy waiting for it to take hold, and I want to have faith that it will.

                    1. re: herefornow

                      All the places you mention are capable of serving good food, sometimes very good food, but never great food. That is the problem with the valley - lots of $25 mains that leave you vaguely dissatisfied.

                      And then you have the problem when they deliver a dud on your plate, like overcooked burgers (Le Gras) or seared scallops that have no sear (Green Street).