HINGHAM - Since Greenbush rail service got rolling from Hingham this fall, residents have had easy access to Boston. Yet the reverse commute is also possible. City dwellers should consider hopping the train to this South Shore town that is much more than just a sleepy suburb.
These days, downtown is buzzing. Chic upscale boutiques located in antique storefronts offer clothing, accessories, and home decor, and stylishly designed restaurants entice diners with cutting edge cuisine. Hingham Square is a pedestrian's paradise, now that all the railroad construction is done.
"It really was a nightmare," says Patty Libby, owner of Square Café, about the building of the underground railroad tunnel that disrupted business downtown for the better part of three years. Business owners experienced disrupted phone service, power outages, shaking buildings, loud noises, not to mention traffic congestion and parking problems. "But we all survived and now it's really good here." On the menu of Libby's establishment, you'll find New American cuisine with an Asian flair. Dishes include miso citrus marinated black cod, red curry shrimp and vegetables, and ancho chili and brown sugar braised short ribs.
"There's lots of good food in Hingham now and that wasn't always the case," says Libby, a 17-year veteran of the town's restaurant industry and one of the original owners of Tosca, the restaurant that started Hingham's food revolution. Located at the end of North Street, Tosca is housed in the 1910 Granary Marketplace building overlooking Hingham Harbor and has a decor of exposed brick, imported tiles, and mahogany. From the open kitchen (which serves dinner only), chef Kevin Long prepares Italian-inspired entrees: Bolognese of wild boar, beef tenderloin "on the bone" with crisped Yukon potato gnocchi, spicy capicola pizza.
At Tosca's sister location across the street, Caffé Tosca, there's a simple assortment of Italian comfort fare (wood-grilled pizzas, homemade goat cheese ravioli, chicken parmigiano). Scarlet Oak Tavern, the town's newest restaurant, housed in an 18th-century Colonial on Main Street, is getting rave reviews. A $1 million renovation created an expansive dark wood bar and accompanying seating area that accommodates up to 100. The dining room features glamorous leather banquettes. Known for its steaks, with six cuts available daily, and an assortment of sides - butternut squash with maple syrup glaze and cornbread stuffing - the restaurant also prepares inventive seafood dishes.
"The town has changed a lot since I started doing business here," says Libby. "Hingham went from being real conservative to being a little more cutting edge, a little more modern. It's progressive now; the crowd here is a little younger. The town is really on the map, and yet it still has that classic New England feel."
Indeed it does, with its 5-mile-long elm-tree-lined Main Street (once called by Eleanor Roosevelt "the most beautiful Main Street in America"), broad village green, and 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century architecture. The town's collection of well-preserved antique houses includes Federal, Georgian, Greek Revival, Shingle-style, and Victorian. Each spring, visitors are invited to tour a sampling of these private homes during the Hingham House Tour, an 80-year tradition hosted by the Hingham Historical Society.
Incorporated in 1635, the town is full of historic treasures. A shining example is the Old Ship Church, a glorious Elizabethan Gothic building on Main Street. It was built in 1681 by Puritan settlers who drew inspiration from the church architecture of England, but who lacked stone for the construction. Ship carpenters by trade, they fashioned the beams made from large virgin timbers the only way they knew how, like a ship's hull turned upside down. Today, the church is the oldest continuously worshiped-in church in North America, and the only surviving example in this country of the English Gothic style of the 17th century.
Another Main Street presence is Loring Hall, which was constructed in 1852 as a lecture hall, with a vast stage, velvet curtains, gilded fixtures, and plush seats. Ralph Waldo Emerson and other 19th-century intellectuals addressed packed crowds here. The building was converted to an art film house in the 1930s and today continues showcasing offbeat, independent movies on its single screen.
The Old Ordinary, on Lincoln Street, was an 18th-century destination for hungry travelers. The impressive Colonial structure is now a museum operated by the Historical Society. The interior is filled with furniture, dishes, and toys from various centuries donated by the town's oldest families. There is a Federal style dining room and a fully supplied 18th-century kitchen, equipped with antique utensils and tools, including a Colonial mousetrap and an early washing machine.
A couple of blocks away, shoppers have their pick of modern wares. Crossing Main carries trendy women's sportswear and high-end business attire, as well as special-occasion dresses and wraps by designers including Vera Wang, Nanette Lepore, and Michael Kors. The boutique's owner, Sue Payne, opened Crossing Main . . . for shoes across the street last fall so shoppers would be able to get the "whole look." In the tiny treasure trove, you'll find Stuart Weitzman and Kate Spade shoes, along with handbags and jewelry artfully displayed.
On South Street, Zuzu's Sisters showcases a delightful assortment of gifts and accessories for the home. In addition to Pine Cone Hill linens and Dash and Albert rugs, the eclectic stock includes handcrafted belts, bags, and jewelry in vibrant shades along with luxurious bath products and plush animals for the little ones. Many gift-givers head here not only for the selection of goods but also for the way shop owners Tricia Russ and Robin Aborn beautifully wrap items.
There's a sharp focus on the home at Kate Dickerson Design on North Street, where offerings include lamps, hand-painted and custom-upholstered furniture, wallcoverings by Scalamandré and Brunschwig & Fils, china, and artwork by Dickerson's husband, Jack. Dickerson, an interior designer, opened her storefront about three years ago, but she has lived in town for 21 years.
"Since then Hingham has grown a lot, but with a deep sensitivity to the feel and history of the town," Dickerson says. This is largely due to the Hingham Historical Commission, which strictly mandates the six historic districts. "You can't change the color of your shutters or even your landscaping without approval," says Dickerson, who lives on Main Street.
"When I moved to Hingham, there was a 5 and 10, a laundry, and a bakery downtown - that's it," she recalls. "Now the area is much more sophisticated. It's all boutiques, all very nice and interesting, and they are owned by people who live here. Owners work in their shops, and that makes a big difference in regard to customer service. You'll find that residents are so helpful and friendly here."
That's a sentiment Gary Nisbet agrees with. A mixed-media collage artist and owner of the Dot Gallery a few doors down from Dickerson's, he moved here from Seattle in 2004 and opened his gallery last summer. He somewhat expected the locals "to be reserved and distant, you know that old impression of how stodgy New Englanders can be," Nisbet says. What he discovered, however, was the opposite. "My wife and I moved in during an awful thunderstorm. And the neighbors were all rushing over to our house, asking what they could do to help," he says. "It was really wonderful." Nisbet's gallery showcases collage art, his own and others. The current exhibit, "Family Connect," pairs artists in the same family, exploring various aspects of family heritage - genetics, environment, family history - that inspire children to follow their parents' artistic paths.
"I think the train is great," says Dickerson, who admits that she was not on board with the idea to begin with. "It's made Hingham and other towns in the area more attractive not only as places to live, but as destinations, places to visit, and that's terrific."
Jaci Conry, a freelance writer and managing editor of South Shore Living magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.