Location. Location. Location.
That’s the hoary punch line, of course, to dozens of jokes. The foodie version goes something like this: What are the three top priorities for a restaurant?
Portside Waterfront Restaurant & Bar in Salisbury has all three covered. The second-floor location provides commanding views of the Merrimack River, Newburyport and the harbor, along with plenty of outdoor dining.
Location, however, isn’t the only answer. Vasa previously occupied the same space since 2016, but that eatery closed last fall.
I don’t know what Vasa did wrong — if anything — but I do know that Portside, open since May, is doing plenty of things right.
The new owners of the space operate several other area restaurants, including The Lobster Pool in Rockport and The Farm Bar & Grille, which has two locations in New Hampshire: Manchester and Dover, as well as one in Essex, Mass. Their pledge before opening was to focus on seafood, keep prices reasonable and portions generous, and to appeal to locals, not just the tourist crowd. They also intended to “keep it from being upscale” and to provide a salad bar.
Overall, our recent visit indicated “mission accomplished.” The spot is still new enough to have an air of novelty, yet it already feels established as a smart casual dining option in the Newburyport area, especially if views and outdoor dining are a priority.
The atmosphere, in general, hasn’t changed much since the Vasa days, and that’s not a bad thing. Whites and soft colors dominate, and striking new wall art has been mounted here and there. But in the big picture, it’s all about that low-key summertime “beachy” feel.
Appetizers, sandwiches, flatbreads and soups, full entrees, they’re all available. You can even just do the salad bar thing ($12.95), though you can belly up to this particular bar with any entree, as many times as you’d like, at no additional cost.
I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with salad bars. I love the idea, but far too often I end up disappointed, in part because most places use the salad bar as a way to show off and end up shooting for quantity, not quality.
Portside’s salad bar is hardly the largest I’ve sampled. But there was more than enough variety, and everything looked fresh and inviting. For example, first up were three choices of greens, none featuring limp or listless leaves. There are cheeses, breads, grilled veggies, potato and pasta salads, and more. You can add lobster salad, grilled chicken, and other items for an additional cost.
Beyond the salad bar, the creamy tarragon mussels ($12.95) featured a riotous number of steamed mussels served in white wine and shallots, along with heavy cream and fresh tarragon. The mussels were clean and done right, but the sauce was just a tad thin on the flavor front, even when we dunked the garlic bread that was included. Still, we were served so many of the little guys it was difficult to feel very disappointed.
I like clam chowder that tastes a little, well, clammy. I enjoyed Portside’s version, which leaned toward the traditional New England style, with a rich broth and a good amount of chopped clams and potatoes.
The steak tips ($21.95) included a generous portion of beef richly marinated in a secret barbecue-laced sauce. The kitchen followed our grilling instructions to perfection, and it did occur to me that this item, served with veggies and red bliss mashed potatoes, was a great deal, especially with the unlimited trips to the salad bar.
The New England baked haddock ($19.95) was an even better deal. The fish had the right fresh and clean flavor, and there was plenty of it. The cracker coating needed to be scaled back: I had to scrape much of it off to really enjoy the fish. Still, it would be an easy decision to order it again.
All desserts are made on-site, and both the lemon blueberry cake and the toasted coconut Key lime cheesecake (both $6.95) hit all the right marks.
And that’s what Portside did, too.
Portside Waterfront Restaurant & Bar
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. to midnight