43 Church St., Salem
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m.; Sunday brunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Credit cards accepted
Even during the economic downturn, Salem has somehow been able to stay on a roll. People are still buying condominiums in refurbished old brick buildings; the state is spending $150 million to construct a new judicial center and parking lot. During the last several years, dozens of restaurants have opened downtown and thrived.
The Lyceum - the estimable restaurant and tavern that sits at the same location where Alexander Graham Bell held his first public demonstration of the telephone in 1877 - also is gearing up for the downtown revival. In recent months, the former lecture hall has been carefully renovated. Plush leather banquettes and olive upholstered chairs have replaced the rickety wooden seats, and the bar now has hardwood floors and padded bench-style seats.
Still, the renovation did not detract from the simple charm that exudes within its walls. For the last two decades, the Lyceum has stood out as one of the best restaurants in the area because of its mix of quality food, drink, and service. Yes, it’s pricey, but it’s about the ambience, right? Where else can you gather and schmooze on the same slice of land where John Quincy Adams, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, and Daniel Webster once held court?
Over in the bar, Salem’s new downtown condo owners - a decidedly over-40 crowd - tell stories over Grey Goose martinis ($9). Diners have the choice of eating in the bar area or the main dining room. We chose the main room and were seated promptly.
Below the restored tin ceilings and wrought-iron chandeliers, we sampled the fresh and crisp half-loaf of sourdough bread as we considered the revamped menu. The Lyceum has a well-stocked raw bar, and nearby diners feasted on an offering aptly titled The Grand Plateau ($28). It includes six oysters, four littlenecks, and four jumbo shrimp.
We stuck with light fare, beginning with a roasted beet salad ($9). This was not a huge portion but the presentation was exquisite - with circular beets stacked between wedges of goat cheese and surrounded by sprinkled arugula and diced beets, and topped with a goat cheese crema. The combination produced a sweet, sour, and bitter flavor that served as a positive challenge to my taste buds.
For entrees, we chose the sole and salmon. The sole meuniere ($24) was drenched in a brown butter and overly fried. The brown butter was an excellent choice for the white fish, and was accompanied by a tasty risotto.
With some hesitation I order the farm-raised filet of salmon ($22). This was a disappointing choice. Pan-seared, it was heavily breaded and fried a minute too long. Also, a side of green lentils was served al dente, but they were too firm and inedible. The accompanying broccoli rabe, however, was smoky, crisp, and delicious.
For dessert, we ordered an old favorite, the house lava cake ($7.50). Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, the cake was warm, spongy, and filled with chocolate sauce. I didn’t expect to have ice cream and cake on a 20-degree night, but somehow the dessert’s warmth and chill was able to satisfy even on one of the darkest days of the winter.