Portsmouth Book & Bar

Sip and dine amidst the shelves of used books

Photo by Michele Duval

Up a few steps of the imposing granite Old Custom House Building you enter a new bookstore-café that feels very modern and hip and, at the same time, like it's been here for awhile. The Portsmouth Book & Bar harks back to an earlier time in downtown Portsmouth, like the 1970s, with people scattered around comfortably reading and sipping beverages in a cool, old building.

The afternoon light comes through the extra large windows, illuminating the great architectural space with plaster cornices, columns and a coffered ceiling. A soft Fleetwood Mac song moves into an old Willie Nelson tune; a large Serrano ham sits on a carving board in the open kitchen behind the bar tiled with soft-gray veined stone; tap handles wait to be pulled. The books are used at 50 percent or more off but this is no Annie's Book Stop. The flannel-gray-painted bookshelves hold 15,000 gorgeous books of every subject matter. The owners want you to know that, first and foremost, they are booksellers with 90 years of experience between them. All well and good, but they appear to also know how to hire and keep a chef.

Chef Amy Mehaffey was with them at their store in Amherst, Mass., too. The nicely affordable menu ($1.25-$12) lists breakfast, house granola, a fruit plate and baked goods; salads, cob, house, southwest and beet and chevre; pressed sandwiches, carved turkey with cheddar and cranberry chutney and three vegetarian choices; small plates, veering towards Spanish classics such as assorted olives, Marcona almonds, charcuterie, a Spanish tortilla (potatoes, eggs and Iberico cheese with romesco) and others; and dessert, chocolate and red wine cake with honey mascarpone and an olive oil cake with lemon curd.

The bar menu ($2.50-$11) is just wine, beer and hard cider but with standout beer choices and a small, internationally varied wine list. Of course, there's excellent coffee and espresso, wi-fi and they will even buy your old books by appointment.

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