The Salem Insider

Insiders guide to food, entertainment & living in Salem Massachusetts for tourists and residents.

Nightlife in Salem

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Categories: art, business, drinks, history, music, nightlife, restaurant, tourism

It seems that there is more competition in Salem for your night-out dollars. Many restaurants have added live music to their late night menu. And it’s getting increasingly more common to see lines of people waiting to get in to places at 11pm Thursday through Saturday nights.

Why is Salem a hot spot for nightlife?

Last year and beyond if you were looking for live music your choices were somewhat limited. Dodge Street offered up Rock music in a dive bar atmosphere, Rockafellas offered dance music in a bit more upscale atmosphere, Bangkok Paradise offered Jazz in a weird atmosphere (for jazz) and occasionally Edgewater, O’Neills and The Old Spot (formerly McSwiggins) would have live music. Sitting just outside the down town area, Bay Bridge was a staple of the Salem nightclub scene with local and national bands, karaoke and DJ’s playing almost every night. Let’s not forget the Lobster Shanty in the nice weather months.

dj spinning records
© Danielle Blue

Competition raises the bar.

As a reader of TheSalemInsider.com you probably know that due to a combination of sprinkler system legislation and non-payment of taxes the Bay Bridge is closed. There has been no movement on this property so it looks like it’s gone for a long while. On the flip side, new establishments in Salem have made others stand up and take notice.

Gulu-Gulu Cafe brought with it a huge beer menu, interesting live music and a packed house of well-tattooed hipsters. A cascading effect of late night changes shortly ensued. Bangkok Paradise shifted their Friday and Saturday jazz to a 6-9 time slot allowing them to promote “rock” bands (rock, hip-hop, roots, metal and cover bands) in the 10-12 time slot. New comer Fresh Taste of Asia, saw an opening and decided to spin the wax with an ambient hip-hop groove catering to a young urban Asian set.

Established locales aren’t impervious to the phenomenon either. The Lyceum has started a live music series on weekend nights, their acts are targeted to their existing clientèle featuring more mellow music and the occasional 70′s rocker. The Old Spot stepped up their bookings also, with live music 3 to 5 nights a week (unfortunately they still are having a hard time getting the word out - get a website people). O’Neills does the DJ thing and packs in a good college-type crowd.

In the “everything thats old is new again” department, Spirits of 300 Derby (formerly Roosevelt’s of Salem) opened recently and has an entertainment license that allows for up to 5 musicians. We’ve seen some great guitar player/singers and Salem favorite, Preacher Jack. Look for changes to happen over at Spirits soon as they work out their menu and eventually open up the second floor. Dodge Street marches to their own drum beat and has been doing live music well before it got trendy.

go-ykui at Dodge Street

It seems like musicians from all around are hip to the new explosion of Salem night life. Musicians contact us through our myspace page asking about gigs or adding us to their guest list just so we can have a listen. Killer Boston bands like The Indefinite Article, Ichabod and the Love Dogs play gigs in Salem all the time. Plenty of local musicians ply their craft here in town also. With all the great venues and opportunities out there I wouldn’t be surprised to see Salem songstress Mary Lou Lord playing out somewhere soon.

If you build it they will come.

Now that restaurants and bars are offering entertainment, where is everyone coming from? Many people are throwing around the phrase “Salem is the new Cambridge” and that just might be true. I personally know a bunch of people that used to live in Cambridge, Boston and Somerville that have recently moved to Salem. Salem offers a city feel, walkability, MBTA access, and rent at half the price of places in Boston and parking is slightly better.

While census stats for this exact information is unavailable it’s a safe bet to say that more young professionals, 20 and 30-somethings have been moving into Salem. You see them walking to the commuter rail in the morning or having a cup of coffee at any one of our coffee shops on the weekend.

An informal poll taken in January by TheSalemInsider.com showed many people are taking advantage of Salem’s night life live North of Boston (from Revere to Gloucester). When asked “why Salem” the answers were varied but revolved around bang for your buck, quality entertainment, safety and less hassle.

nightlife at Rockafellas

What’s next for Salem’s scene?

Any insider can tell you that there is a yearly cycle that Salem goes through. Like many of it’s North Shore neighbors Salem sees a direct influx of people based on the weather. Spring finds more locals that have been hibernating in doors all winter out walking about and making their way to many of our local hang outs. Once June hits and schools close, tourists arrive taking full advantage of our waterfront, the Willows and off shore locations like the Salem Harbor Islands (i.e. Baker’s Island). As the summer draws to a close and fall hits the second wave of tourists hits in full force for the Halloween season.

With spring right around the corner what will the face of Salem nightlife look like? If last year is any indication, outdoor seating will be all the rage. Like Newbury Street in Boston, anyone with a few feet of real estate in front of their place will plop down a table and start serving out side. Last year The Lobster Shanty, Salem Beerworks and Victoria Station had by far the largest patio seating with Rockafellas showing nicely for down town. This year the tide has changed, be on the lookout for Spirits to dominate summer outdoor space. If they book quality live music and are allowed to play outside, they could give the Shanty a run for their money.

Summer finds tourists and locals alike beating a path to Pickering Wharf. Finz and Victoria Station have nice on the water seating but Capt’s open air second floor offers perhaps the best view on the wharf. If you want a more nautical dinner experience than just eating by the water, you can dine on the water at Salem’s floating restaurant the Rockmore which is scheduled to open on May 23rd. The Rock is a perennial party pad pushing a plethora of pleasant pabulum and plenty of potable potions.

Well stocked bar of Spirit\'s 300 Derby

Is Salem’s art and music boom sustainable?

Twenty years ago when the Cambridge music and arts scene started to take off people said that venues like TT the Bear’s and the Middle East would never survive across the river from Boston landmarks like the Rathskeller, Narcissus, The Boston T Party and M-80. If you look at the Boston/Cambridge seen today you’ll find that two of the Boston clubs mentioned are now BU condos the other two are now Lyons Group clubs, changed names, had about 50 face lifts and just last month one (now Avalon) was sold to the House of Blues. In Cambridge, TT’s and the Middle East are still packing people in every night of the week.

I don’t think we will see the migration to Salem slow down for quite a while. New condo housing is being built and affordable rentals abound. More 20 and 30-somethings with disposable income, no kids or very young families are still flocking to Salem. With their arrival you find business that cater to them popping up. Prime examples are hip baby shops like Crunchy Granola Baby, hang outs like Front Street Coffee House and Gulu-Gulu Cafe and new businesses like the recently opened Hex and the soon to open Witch City Ink. When independent businesses open up focusing on a college/post college/young professional demographic it makes the city more appealing to that demographic.

With available retail space, new space coming shortly (Old Salem News building, and Courthouse area redevelopment) there is no question the night life scene in Salem can grow. One fear many people have is corporate establishments encroaching on down town. Salem’s unique charm is in part due to it’s independent businesses. When local pizza chain The Upper Crust moved into Salem last year there was plenty of talk regarding their “corporate” status. Will future restaurant/bar/nightclub owners in Salem keep an independent spirit alive? That remains to be seen.

Flaming Cocktail

What is missing from Salem’s scene?

One aspect lacking in Salem is a true “night club”, one with great sound and lights that focuses on entertainment every night. While this type of place can’t realistically exist in down town Salem, there are plenty of locations that would work.

Where is the Salem Art scene? In the summer, Klopp Alley is full of artists, sculptures, jewelry makers and musicians. Through out the year The Salem Art Association throws a few events promoting art and their artists in particular. The Art Corner, Front Street Coffeehouse and Gulu-Gulu Cafe always have something on exhibit but is this enough for our city? Often during Halloween season the old Newmark Gallery on Essex Street is taken over by locals and puts on quite a show. This year that wont happen as it will house the Lizzie Borden Museum (why? I didn’t know she was from Salem). There are plenty of local artists and the only galleries to be found in Salem are devoted to miniature ships and maritime paintings. With all the talent in our own backyard it’s too bad there is no daily way to showcase it.

Salem could also benefit from a “local only” night. In some smaller cities you will find venues that promote from within, by featuring only local musicians and artists on a particular night (every Thursday for instance). Given the number of bands and artists that call Salem home this could be a successful concept for a mid-week night.

Last Call

As more people come to Salem for their night out the venues need to keep up their great offerings while simultaneously ensuring client safety. By keeping patrons safe from harm (usually due to fisticuffs and/or over imbibing) the city licensing boards and police will allow a greater expansion of this city’s night life. When people come to Salem and have fun, everybody wins.

Right now is a great time to live in Salem, Massachusetts. Night time fun is in style and choices are abundant. If you want to have a quiet bottle of wine with friends, see live rock music, dance to a hip-hop DJ, or sit in on a jazz set – Salem has it all. And it’s only getting better. With the proliferation of patrons, establishments are seeing a bump in their bottom line which means they are more willing to offer you what you’re looking for, a good time on a night out.

17 Responses

  1. vudu:dj says:

    Unfortunately, Salem is no Cambridge. With no real music hall, except for Dodge Street, (which is on the decline0, there’s no where for the real rock demographic to go, and very few people will come here when they can go to Boston, which has its arms wide open. When tourists come to town, they’re forced to choose the overpriced drinks and jazz clique-ness at Rockafellas or post-mallrat crowd at O’Neills. Without a set nightclub of any kind, do we as a town really have a any real entertainment draw? I’m a goth-industrial DJ/promoter, and I run into many tourists asking me where they can go to listen to their Bauhaus, Cure, and Nine Inch Nails when they visit our town. I always have to give them the same discouraging reply. What they were hoping for isn’t a reality. Even my New England friends overlook Salem due to this cultural absence. There goes a few patrons…
    With Lynn being forced to have last call earlier, Salem establishments can make a few more dollars, but if we accommodated a few more cutlures, reggae, freestyle techno, goth-industrial, Salem would be more marketable and have a more attractive performing arts-image.

    Matt Richard

  2. Joey T says:

    Well, it’s about time. I’ve been around Salem for long enought know that every 4-5 years the nightlife gets good, then goes under, then comes back in some form or another.

    I just hope the the bars that are doing bookings will be artist friendly and want to book more local, original bands. For the past few years the only real place to see music has been Dodge Street.

    And, the last thing Salem needs is a nightclub. Isn’t O’Neils enough?

  3. Glen Hughes says:

    Matt,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. If I had the bankroll I’d open up a mini manray in Salem where locals and toursist could get their goth on. Other cultures are geting exposure here. Reggae/world bands like Mamadu and experimental music like RSVP are finding gigs. Openings in existing venues are available for those that go after them.

  4. Glen Hughes says:

    Joey,

    O’Neills isn’t a nightclub, its a restaurant that does a couple of good club nights- for musicians and entertainers that is a huge difference. I wouldn’t suggest a big club in the down town area but if something popped up on the outskirts of downtown that could hold a decent number of people the possibility of getting better bands in Salem would increase.

  5. DJ Cee Block says:

    I myself, being somewhat if not entirely responsible(on Saturdays) for the nightclub appeal of Oneills, would like to see a dedicated nightclub. one with an amazing sound system, huge dance floor , great bars, all for the awaiting clientèle…..I am the biggest advocate for Salem nightlife for obvious reasons…..i see a mini version of Avalon here as a great fit. offering a great venu for live performance by bands and musicians, and DJ’s alike……

    come down and see me, Saturday nights at Oneills.

  6. Glen Hughes says:

    DJ Cee Block

    I heard from the Bay Bridge the other day. Apparently they have been doing work over there and are trying to open back up by June. While I realize this is far from a mini Avalon it might just give a bump to the night life scene if they book the right bands and DJs.

  7. DJ Cee Block says:

    Being a regular at Bay Bridge a long time ago, I dont ever see it being even close to the caliber of half a mini avalon. they are good for booking small local bands, thats all……. DJ’s never survive over there… .i have myself turned down many an opportunity to play there. just for the simple fact that there is a local crowd there that would never appreciate what i do…

    I’m talking on a bigger scale, nationally toured bands, international DJ’s, same kind of line up that Avalon used to schedule….

    I hope you’re right, but i wouldn’t hold my breathe. I know the owner John, doesnt have any intentions of being a “mainstream nightclub” he would rather book small local bands and thats all….. he’s not going to shell out a 5 grand to bring in an internationally toured DJ.

  8. Forrest says:

    I’ve worked in the nightclub industry for about 15 years and I can’t see anyone putting in a “mini Avalon” in Salem. The location is too out of the way, and I couldn’t see the city approving zoning and licenses for a club of that size (1000 people). Ever since the Station nightclub fire capacities have been tightly monitored, in order to have a large scale club you need not only the space but parking and neighborhood approval.

    I haven’t worked in any Salem venues but knowing about the city I would suggest that if BayBridge could open with a decent staff and management they could set their sights higher than small local bands (maybe larger local bands like Bang Camarro or DKM) and do well.

    I’m sure the club owner like most club owners has limited knowledge of who to book, what to charge and how to promote. They are owners and its not their job. The right person would surround themselves with the right people to build up the club.

  9. DJ Cee Block says:

    Forrest, I whole heartedly agree on everything except that a mini Avalon wouldn’t work. …I’m talking a venue with capacity of 500 max.,(Avalons capacity is 1500 legally i think) great sound system and the ability to book big, mainstream acts…. If people will drive an hour and a half for a concert in Foxboro. People will drive to Salem for a show… and im not talking about this venue right smack in the middle of town. it would have in an area that would accommodate all the factors you discussed, parking etc etc.

    and your key statement is “The right person would surround themselves with the right people to build up the club”………

  10. DJ Cee Block says:

    ……..and Forrest, please email me in regards to photography, your work is amazing….

    Cblock1@live.com

  11. Roseanne Flannery says:

    Four irish girls coming over in june!!!! CANNOT WAIT WOO!!!!!!

  12. Ken Mooer says:

    I lived and worked in Salem for 5 years in recent years..Gorgous town, but gets a bit overwelming in October with the countless throngs of Halloween tourists..That seems to bring out the drunken townies, who harass and at times mug the tourists……
    As for a night life in salem…I didnt’t know there was one..I thought all the interestring things to do and see were open in the day- Most people I knew who lived in salem hopped the train for Boston if they wanted to hit the clubs…

  13. admin says:

    Ken,

    The nightlife in Salem has been on the rise. I know people from Cambridge and Boston who are now coming up to Salem for club nights. With the recently opened Murphy’s and Tavern In The Square Salem is seeing a big spike in night time revelers. This is good and bad at the same time, but hopefully things will all work out for the best.

  14. Jor-El says:

    Well, I start grad school at Salem State College (night classes), so *hope* there is some semblance of a night life in Salem….Some have told me the city only comes alive during October during ‘Halloween season’, and is a ghost town the rest of the year. (No pun intended).

  15. Kidbilly says:

    I live in Portland Maine and we have an amazing nightlife here. Everything from reggae out on the islands to rock to dance to rockabilly. We have to smaller concert venues to have brought the likes of Fitz and the Tantrums, Robyn, Elvis Costello and 30 Seconds to Mars. We have a lot of great local bands, tons of DJs and great places to dance and hear live music. All in the tiny Old Port section of town. I’m one of the many DJ’s. However, I’d be hard pressed to tell someone where they could go to hear The Cure and Bauhaus unless they caught an 80′s night somewhere. We don’t have an industrial dance club here. We used to, but business died off. I go to Salem on occasion and I really like the place. A friend of mine grew up there. I like the place. It’s not a place I’d go for live music. I’d hit up Salem to hang in the local bars. Getting to know locals is my favorite thing to do in another town. Think about this, if you get a big trendy dance or industrial club in town, do you have the clientele to support it? Do you really want that kind of crowd? If so, open one or two, but just realize you have to be careful what you wish for. Despite all of this, I think Salem is a great town and I’d choose to spend a weekend there over Boston or Cambridge any day.

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  1. [...] Nightlife in Salem – One of the great things about Salem is the abundance of nightlife.  This past year we have seen the good and bad side of having a thriving scene.  Hopefully 2009 sees none of the uglyness that made national headlines. [...]

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