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Northampton vs. Amherst

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Hello everyone,

Soon I will be moving to the Pioneer Valley to start a short contract at UMass. Currently, I'm looking for a place to live. Of course there are many factors involved in deciding where to live but, for me, food is a big one!

Although I am not a student, I tend to eat pretty economical. My ideal dining options are 1) a microbrew with great pub food, 2) decent diner, 3) ethnic! ethnic! ethnic! Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican,etc. Even more important is that I like to be able to walk to restaurants and bars; I try and live as car-free as possible. Also, I would like to have a small or even large grocer/supermarket within walking distance. A butcher close-by would be a bonus!

Of course those are my ideals and I don't expect to have it all. However, given those ideals, where in the valley would you recommend looking. My guess is that Northampton fits the bill more so than Amherst but I've never actually been to the area.

Thanks so much for your help!

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  1. I would agree with Northampton. There are many, many restaurants, cafes, shops, etc in the downtown, as well as a small grocery shop. There is bus service if you need to get to a larger grocery store. I really just love the laid-back boho vibe of Northampton. I was there for four years for college and it is really great artsy town.

    1. I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest Greenfield. Both Northampton and Amherst suffer from extremely high rents which, to me, mean a lack of good dining options. Everything affordable is scaled to the mass, too bland for my palate. Also, just not interesting. Greenfield has, surprisingly, a number of affordable, really good options for food. At lunch, there is The Brass Buckle, which consistently comes out with really delicious, interesting but often seemingly off the wall fare. Open for lunch AND dinner are Mesa Verde - really delicious, not authentic Mexican/Tex/Mex, Peoples Pint - great brewery with really good food and super inventive specials, Hattapon Thai Kitchen - not as good as Thailand, but definitely as good as it gets around here, El Greco for pretty great falafel; haven't tried anything else, so can't vouch for it, Manna House for pretty great Korean, especially for this area. Dinner only, you get Hope & Olive and Magpie. H & O is always one of my favorites. Nice space, very interesting meals, always up on trends, but not at all slavish to them, super service and cocktails. I haven't been to Magpie much, but I always like it there. Similar atmosphere to H & O, but with more of a focus on fancy pizza, etc.

      Greenfield also has Fosters, a local supermarket. Down at the heels in looks, but really surprising in quality. The produce cannot be beat, even in the winter, and it stocks lots of local stuff and interesting ethnic stuff as well, I presume, at the request of the local ethnic population. Also Green Fields Market is a very well stocked natural foods, (also fancy foods, local foods), store downtown.

      Ethnic is this areas biggest drawback; decent Chinese maybe exists, depending on who you talk to, same with Vietnamese, Japanese, etc. You won't find it in the downtowns - rent is too high to justify authentic food when you're feeding college students and the like. You can get to Mi Tierra and Banh Mi Saigon in Hadley in the same amount of time from Greenfield, Northampton, or Amherst.

      Greenfield often gets a bad rap, and sometimes rightfully so, but I really think there is a lot going on there right now, and it is a million times cheaper than Amherst or Northampton and no further away.

      2 Replies
      1. re: hilltowner

        While I agree that Greenfield has much more to offer than in the past, and would certainly be less expensive for living costs, I don't think I'd go as far as to say that it is "no further away". It IS further away....20 miles to be exact. It would be ~30 minute commute to UMASS each way, and would probably require driving everyday and dealing with parking on campus. The OP seemed to want to live as car free as possible. That is easily accomplished living closer to Amherst/Northampton, with numerous/frequent buses and ability to walk/bike in good weather.

        1. re: Science Chick

          Sorry, what I meant to say was that it is no further in time from Amherst than Northampton. You are right, however, that getting to UMASS via public transportation, while not impossible, is a giant PITA with much fewer options than from Northampton.

      2. I live in Northfield, and although I don't care for Greenfield in general, I have to agree that Foster's is THE best grocery store for miles around! They buy for taste, not looks. Best produce and meat, and they will cut to order while you wait and could presumably get special orders with advance notice. Good mac and cheese in the deli. Tucked in a neighborhood, kind of hard to find, only open until 8pm, closed Sundays.

        I'll have to try some of the restaurants hilltowner suggested, although I didn't care for Mesa Verde (not bad, but disappointingly bland, like all Mexican food around here). The popular China Gourmet is highly overrated IMO. Hoping Banh Mi in Hadley is open today so I can try the pho; their sandwiches are tasty.

        1. With all due respect, based upon your stated preferences (pasted in below), I suspect you might want to recalibrate your expectations, or, alternatively, be prepared to deal good naturedly with disappointment. I don't think you will always be disapointed, but I doubt you will be able to consistently find what you want, especially via foot.

          Brooklyn, Manhattan, and San Francisco in the US might satisfy you. In western Europe, maybe Amsterdam, Berlin-(if you are near the Turkische Markt), or even Zagreb, if they still have anything like the outdoor markets and food stands I remember from my youth. Those cities all have great public transportation systems too, which might meet all of your criteria. I suppose Boston and New Orleans might be in this group too (although the NO transportation system, when I lived there, was only adequate. In light of that city's recent problems, it's probably worse).

          Unfortunately, in the US, even cities like Houston and Chicago (which will have the variety you seek) probably can't provide you with what you want without lots of driving. I think it might be a mistake to expect the Amherst-Northampton area to consistently provide what you're looking for.

          Your original statement:

          "Although I am not a student, I tend to eat pretty economical. My ideal dining options are 1) a microbrew with great pub food, 2) decent diner, 3) ethnic! ethnic! ethnic! Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican,etc. Even more important is that I like to be able to walk to restaurants and bars; I try and live as car-free as possible. Also, I would like to have a small or even large grocer/supermarket within walking distance. A butcher close-by would be a bonus!"

          ajust for the record, I grew up, for the most part in Amherst. I still think it's a great place to live, go to school, etc. I've also lived and/or worked in all of the other locations I've mentioned. So, in conclusion, don't expect too much and be willing to explore on your own: there are, occasionally, some hidden gems to be discovered in the Pioneer Valley.

          1 Reply
          1. re: mchametzky

            Hello all. Thanks for the replies! Yes, I do know that what I stated was extremely idealistic and more indicative of the culture of larger cities. I just wanted to see how close I could get, even being satisfied with getting 50% toward my ideal. I actually don't eat out a heck of a lot but food is a good way to get to know the culture and layout of a town.

            With regards to Amherst, everything I've been reading is that it is "overrun with students." Is this truly the case or is the crowd more mixed, say at a local pub or typical restaurant in the center. I've lived in college towns before so I know there can be bars that are really meant for 21 year olds...but the restaurants tend to serve a diverse crowd. Also, I'm not looking for places that are frequented solely by students being taken out by their visiting parents. Overall, I just appreciate diversity whether it is in the food itself or the clientele. Is that possible in Amherst Center? Seems it won't be a problem in Northampton but in Amherst? Thanks so much!!!!

          2. Food considerations aside, as a long ago alum, I would think a daily commute to the UMass campus would get very old, very quickly. Especially where you're apt to having to travel some anyway to get varied decent chow.

            1. My best suggestion for you: bring (or buy and bring) a couple of ethnic cookbooks with you. Raw materials --- veggies, meats, chicken, eggs, etc --- all excellent in the Valley. It's the cooking process that gets screwed up. So if you cook, here's the place (and the time of year) to try it.
              You may think I'm kidding --- I'm not.
              Signed: Thoroughly disillusioned about restaurants in N'hampton and Amherst both.
              (One GOOD place, but you'll need a car, is the Vietnamese on Route 9 in Hadley. Banh mi is delicious.)

              2 Replies
              1. re: BerkshireTsarina

                I really like Miss Saigon in Amherst Center. Get their curry broth on anything, including cardboard...it's yummy. I lived in Minneapolis for 29 years where there is a lot of Vietnamese food. Came out here in 2011 and only recently moved to Amherst (was in Northampton before that). Was very happy to find Miss Saigon..............they have some great vegetarian things and reasonable prices. great lunch deals for $6.95 that include soup and egg roll or spring roll. no msg! and they are very friendly, I always want to tweak everything and they cooperate, and remember me the next time! also have had some great fries and homemade veggie burger at High Horse, up the street from Miss Saigon. As for Northampton....love Paul and Elizabeth's for salads, veg platters, soups , desserts, everything.. occasionally go to Bela (completely vegetarian , small place). love the farmer's markets in both places. good luck, don't despair....

                1. re: faith

                  hi again, just want to add MiTierra in Hadley to the yum list. And although I'm not walking to all these places from my home, I don't have a car and can take a bus to all of them...Mi Tierra is homestyle Mexican food. They make their own corn tortillas, have really good guacamole, and will make most dishes vegetarian if you want....excellent salsa verde comes with their homemade chips... Hadley is between Northampton and Amherst, on the busline.

              2. Thanks all for the helpful discussion. I returned recently from a visit to Pioneer Valley and I was pleasantly surprised! I guess the comments here prompted me to go in with fairly low expectations. However, Northampton was great! It was very walkable and lively and with a large number of restaurants and cafes.

                I understand how living in a small place for a while can make one jaded about the food scene. Currently I live in a similarly-sized city and at the start I was excited about all the restaurants. Two years later and I am craving something new and innovative. Small-town restaurants tend not to stray too far from the mainstream. However, there seemed to be enough in Northampton to keep me going for a while even if I might end up disappointed more often than not.

                I was very impressed by Amanouz Cafe; Moroccan is not something we have in my current town. The Northampton Brewery did the job. The Bluebonnet diner was classic in every sense. The Vietnamese place in Amherst was so-so but fine for a cheap lunch.

                So I make my move with a sense of optimism. We'll see how long it lasts.

                1. As a native SF Bay Area gal, I have to agree with much of the responses here about the quality of restaurants in the Valley. But there are some absolute gems. I wanted to concur with the vote for Miss Saigon in downtown Amherst -- pho that is *almost* on par with much of the pho that I had in the Bay Area. And, there is a little-known Mexican and El Salvadorean place in south Amherst, called El Comalito. My husband and I searched in vain for good, California-style Mexican for many months before our lives were saved by this place. It's a hole-in-the-wall, tucked behind The Moan and Dove (excellent bar by the way, where you can bring your food from El Comalito in to eat there) and a Jazzercise, and it's a family-run joint. Burritos are EXCELLENT, their salsa is actually hot and not sweet (a strange New England trend that sort of disgusts me), and their housemade pupusas are also delicious. Go there!!

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: La Chispa

                    La Chispa, thanks for your comment! I was feeling a bit bummed that the OP only felt 'so-so' about Miss Saigon. assuming that is where he went in Amherst, he didn't name the place. but I had rec'd it. And thanks for recommending El Comalito, I've seen good yelp reviews but haven't gotten there yet.