When my wife, Matt, and I first moved to Northampton (Noho to collegiate types, Hamp to townies), we had high hopes for the place and ate out a lot. Now, maybe, once a month. To be honest, for a place its size, there's a lot going on: two Thai restaurants, two Indian restaurants, two decent sushi places. Still, the Chinese restaurant that wins "Best of the Valley" every year for about ten years in a row is Hunan Gourmet, a place where the food is so bad that I don't understand how the waitstaff can serve it with a straight face. This isn't a comment on the restaurant but on the taste of the local inhabitants, which is, to say the least, low.
How low? There was a really GREAT Malaysian restaurant in Amherst (two towns away) that we visited everytime we could when we first got here. However, we noticed that we were about the only customers in there everytime we went -- and, sure enough, they were out of business in a year. The Northampton/Amherst axis is college land, and while college students like to think they have adventurous palates, they go adventuring all together to places which pose little threat to their cool, and where the emblematic is all: if a pizza slice is big and comes with fresh basil and raw garlic scattered over it, that's high end eating for them. Because many college students are vegetarians or at least pro-vegetarian, this word also regularly short-circuits palate attentiveness in favor of political correctness.
A word about my own tastes: I tend to prefer joints because I like my money to go to food, not decor. Ive yet to eat in one pricy restaurant in the area, although I do want to try Green Street Cafe someday...preferably on somebody elses expense account. Also, I dont like nice food--which I dont know if I can describe but I know it when I meet it: tasty but essentially uninteresting, with flavor hints of portion control and with ingredients added for their carefully calculated effect, not because the chefs palate insisted on them. Finally, I have no interest whatsoever in vegetarian fare, as opposed to dishes that just happen to not contain meat. Vegetarianism is not about food but about denial, which kind of poisons a meal for me. For what its worth, I dont go to steak houses either, for the same reason. So:
BREAKFAST. Jakes. The coffee could be better but they serve poached eggs on corned beef hash and the atmosphere cant be beat. I like the apple cider doughnuts at Atkins Farm Stand. Get them hot there in the morning and drive into Amherst for some good coffee. Miss Florence Diner -- lively diner ambiance and decent breakfast chow.
CHINESE FOOD. Avoid any Chinese restaurant in Amherst (including Amherst Chinese), any that has a luncheon buffet, any that serves alcoholic beverages. Also, in Northampton, avoid the Teapot, which is almost as bad as the Hunan Gourmet. This leaves Taipei/Tokyo, which also serves decent sushi. The food isnt great, but the chef doesnt seem to have his spirit broken, either. Also, big plus, you can get chow fun there. If you see a bearish guy with a white beard gorming down beef chow fun at the next table, it is very likely me.
FISH AND CHIPS. Usually, I drive to Greenfield for these, but on Friday, North Shore Seafood in Northampton does a great fry-up.
JAPANESE. Ichiban in Northampton. Avoid the Korean dishes. The rest are hit or miss, but Ive been usually enjoyed my meals there, even if what I liked best is what someone else ordered instead of me. Try the smoked eel. The sushi is also good.
KOREAN. Gohyang (Hadley, on Route 9). This is one of very few restaurants in the area that I really look forward to going to. Two good signs: the menu is limited; on weekends, the place is usually mobbed with Korean college students having a good time. Try the homemade dumplings, the marinated short ribs, the rice and vegetable dish with the fried egg on top.
MEXICAN. La Veracruzana, with only moderate enthusiasm. At least they have the right moves. I havent eaten at La Cazuela...yet.
THAI FOOD. Northampton. I prefer Siam Square to Thai Kitchen, but the latter has recently moved to a funkier locale on the side of the railway bridge and Im going to try them again. At Siam Square, try the beef in coconut milk.
PIZZA. If you like pizza for the crust not the topping, forget it. And if you think the crust is just there to hold the toppings, forget you. No, no, just joking. When, despite myself I get a hankering for a slice, I walk over to Pinocchios. If I lived in Amherst, Id probably go to Antonios (although I once tipped an entire raw garlic pizza from them into a nearby dumpster after one bite. Otherwise, if I want a really funky, downhome pizza experience, I go to Joes and eat an entire pie with a pitcher of beer. Classic 1950s pizza. (Dont remember that, do you? But Joes does.)
PLACES IM CURIOUS ABOUT, perhaps despite myself. Id appreciate word on these places, if you have an opinion to share. Petes on Route 9. Molinos. La Cazuela. Aqua Vitae (pizza crust?). Either or both of Northamptons Indian restaurants, India House and India Palace. Place to get really good fries.
PLACES WHERE ONE VISIT WAS ENOUGH: Bubs Barbecue (not bad, but not good either), Mezza Luna, Panda Garden, Teapot, Fresh Pasta Company, Bueno Y Sano (Sano ma non Bueno), Amanouz Cafe, Pizza Factory, Pizzeria Paradiso, Sylvesters, East Side Grill, Northampton Brewery and the Amherst Brewing (although the brew wasnt bad in either). Et cetera.