One of my favorite things to do when I am in the States is to take a road trip! I roll the windows down in my rocking yellow jeep, blast music through the stereo and get real excited to visit friends and family I don’t get to see very often. I don’t have a car in Spain, and even if I did, I couldn’t drive it because I have absolutely no idea how to drive stick, so I definitely take full advantage of my car when I am home, even though gas prices this summer have been KILLING me!
So the last week of August I said adiós to the south and began a week-long road trip up to western Massachusetts, where I went to college. I stopped for the weekend and to wait out hurricane Irene in dirty Jersey with one of my best friends, N. Since the hurricane was lame, we spent our time eating, playing video games, watching reruns of the Jersey Shore, and most importantly, bowling! I then headed up to New England, and on the way got lost in the Bronx for 2 hours because some of the major parkways around NYC were closed. Fail.
I spent a week in the Amherst, Northampton, Easthampton, South Hadley area before heading out to Boston and New Haven and then back down to lovely Virginia. I spent 4 years living in the Pioneer Valley in college, and it is one of my favorite spots on the east coast. This area has a really awesome, young, lively, and liberal ambiance thanks to all the colleges and universities around it, and I thought I would go ahead and share my top 10 favorite cafes, bars, and restaurants around the valley with you guys. The variety of places to eat and drink around here is incredible; they have everything from Moroccan to Tibetan to fancy cafes to hippy cafes to hipster bars; western mass has it all! Enjoy!
Have you ever been to the Pioneer Valley? Do you love New England as much as me? Have any suggestions for other places to eat or drink in western mass?
1. The Bookmill: Seriously this is one of my favorite places in western mass. It is an independent bookstore in Montague, near Amherst and Northampton housed in a former 19th century mill next to a river, and their motto is “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” It is so peaceful and idyllic here, it is easy to spend hours wandering around the old mill, finding new nooks and crannies, tucked away desks and comfy old chairs for reading and studying. Inside the complex there is also a cafe, restaurant, and a few artist studios. The cafe has big windows that overlook the river, and one of my favorite activities is sitting in the sun reading a good book and drinking some coffee, listening to the water outside. Cheesy, I know, but I love it!
2. Amherst, Northampton, and Greenfield Coffees: This small local chain of coffee shops has always been a favorite of mine since I moved to the valley in 2006. It has a very specific kind of atmosphere and caters to a specific crowd, with very high quality drinks and some of the best espresso I’ve had outside Europe. It has minimalist, simple decor with great lighting, and soft jazz music playing, and it’s a great place to study, people-watch or meet up with friends. I read a review on yelp.com about Amherst Coffee that says “there is always the chance you might overhear a really pretentious conversation, but that’s just f****** Amherst,” pretty much sums it up. If you meet a talented barista whose name starts with an F, say hi for me; she’s one of my best friends!
3. Flayvors: Flayvors is a family-owned dairy farm in Hadley, between South Hadley and Amherst, and it is the best place to get ice-cream in the valley. One of my favorite summer activities is heading out there in the afternoon to get home-made ice-cream with friends and then walk around and play with the baby cows. They have 24 flavors to chose from, and I love sitting out at the picnic tables in the fields watching the cows and munching on some maple walnut ice-cream, happy to see a small independent farm thriving. Did I mention maple walnut? Best flavor ever!!
4. The Lone Wolf: Make no mistake, this is one of the best breakfast places in the valley. Located on Main Street in downtown Amherst (I lived a few blocks away from here last summer), it quickly became one of my favorite places to get breakfast or brunch with friends; they have awesome southwest breakfast specials and a great vegan menu to choose from, among many other options. My friend BHK and I used to get mimosas here before work last summer. Good times.
5. The Haymarket Cafe: If Amherst Coffee has a posh, upscale bordering on pretentious vibe, then the Haymarket Cafe definitely caters towards the opposite crowd; it has a low-key, hippie, organic, feminist, liberal academic atmosphere. Popular with the Smith undergrads (Mount Holyoke’s rivals-grrrrrrr), I still love heading out to Northampton and spending a few hours here, drinking delicious Fair Trade coffee and getting work done, or just hanging out with friends. In the summer I’ll swap my typical latte for a smoothie; my favorite is called a Spanking (so embarrassing to order). It is freshly made from raspberries, bananas, frozen yogurt, mangoes and cider, and it will blow your mind, I promise! In spite of its cramped quarters, they have more seating downstairs where they also serve good food.
6. El Guanaco: Located in South Hadley, a few minutes away from Mount Holyoke where I went to college, this Mexican and Salvadoran restaurant will make your mouth water. Literally this place saved me and my friends during finals of senior year, where we would escape the library for an hour to drown our anxiety and depression in chorizo quesadillas and carne asada burritos. Try the bean and cheese pupusas, a stuffed thick corn tortilla. Housed in a ramshackle unnoticeable building, with a few mismatched tables and telenovelas playing on the tv, it is nothing to write home about in terms of atmosphere, but when it comes to the food, it is cheap, big portions, and really flipping delicious. And they do delivery. A win-win.
7. Esselon Cafe: Another independent green local coffee house in the valley, Esselon Cafe is in Hadley between Amherst and Northampton. They serve and sell a myriad of coffee, and they have a mouthwatering menu of pastries and prepared meals. I really love the character of this place, especially in the spring in summer; they have a lot of comfortable outdoor seating arranged next to and within a beautiful garden, hammocks included. It is easy to spend an afternoon here lounging in the sun reading and sipping flavorful coffee and munching on chocolate chip cookies the size of your face.
8. The Dirty Truth and The Moan and Dove: Four years in the Pioneer Valley, and I have finally become a beer snob. No more Natty Ice and Bud Light for me, bring on some independent breweries with some very oddly named beers! I think these two beer bars used to have the same owner but have since separated. The Dirty Truth is in downtown Northampton, and has a chill, low key vibe that can get packed on the weekends. Same deal for the Moan and Dove in Amherst; they have tons of beer on tap to chose from, the taps run the whole length of the bar, and they have a large chalkboard in the back of beers to chose from, along with an even bigger selection of bottled beer. They also have hard cider too, something I have come to adore from all my trips to the UK. The staff is really knowledgeable and you just have to tell them what kind of beer you would like and they’ll help you pick something out; occasionally they come off as being pretentious, but they are just regular bearded hipsters who can be socially awkward and have a genuine love of tasty beer, so be nice.
9. The Thirsty Mind Coffee and Wine Bar: This indie cafe is right across the street from my Alma Mater, Mount Holyoke College, so I am slightly biased, but I love this place to pieces! I spent so much time here in my four years at MHC, and I love it to pieces. The staff know my by name along with my usual toffee nut latter (seriously, so good!). I used to walk over here really early in the morning and grab a coffee and finish up my homework before class and before it got crowded with students, professors, and locals. It was our go-to place for meetings and meet-ups, and grabbing a glass of wine on a Friday night after a long week of classes. I really love this place, and I miss it so much when I am gone.
10. The Northampton Brewery: Probably my favorite place to eat in downtown Northampton, my friends and I used to always come here for special occasions or for big group dinners. It is a huge restaurant and bar, with tons of different rooms, and a great environment for eating out. The pub food is comforting, filling and delicious as well as all the local beer. They spent forever remodeling, but now it looks great! It is the oldest operating brewpub in New England too! Beat that! My favorite thing to do is get the sample of 4 different beers and then chose my favorite, that way I can try several.