Drive and Dine in Dover

Good eats — from breakfast to fine dining

Begin your day with breakfast at 2 Home Cooks. Try the buttermilk pancakes topped with chocolate bits and fruit.

Dover has a lot going for it. The Cochecho River threads its way through the city, and a series of historic brick mill buildings lining it are the perfect backdrop for a vibrant downtown.

 I didn’t see any empty storefronts as I dawdled down Central Avenue. The retail scene is anchored by Alie Jewelers, which has been there for 100 years. Then there’s Harvey’s Bakery and the Village Goldsmith, with a history that stretches back 50 and 30 years, respectively. I could have spent the afternoon browsing shops, but I came to eat.

It’s not easy to become a dining mecca, especially when Dover’s cousin city of Portsmouth has claimed the title since it was put on the dining map by Chef James Haller and his Blue Strawbery in the early ’70s. Since then, Portsmouth’s city streets have become paved with hungry diners while Dover waited patiently in the first violin chair.

With Dover’s proximity to Seacoast charm, it just seemed a matter of time. Sixteen years ago, Chef Chris Kozlowski put down roots in a beautiful renovation of an old bank that had anchored the downtown traffic triangle. His Crescent City Bistro & Rum Bar and, later, Orchard Street Chop House, gave a firm foundation upon which to build a great dining town. Unfortunately, he bailed on the bistro about 10 years ago and pulled up his “steaks” again nearly a year ago to hit the road with a food truck. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the void to be filled. But more on that later — I started my Dover pilgrimage in the morning, making for a busy day of dining in the Garrison City.

What a delight it was to find 2 Home Cooks on Chestnut Street, a few blocks off Central Avenue. The breakfast/lunch café was the cleanest operation I have ever seen, the servers the most accommodating, and even the menu was a standout — easy to read and not sticky. I enjoyed a threesome of buttermilk pancakes dotted with bacon and chocolate bits and topped with fresh fruit. A drizzle of maple syrup made it perfect. When an errant blueberry rolled to the floor, it was quickly retrieved, and both the server and I were happy the carpet was spared its first stain. There’s a lot to like here, from the house-made biscuits to slow-roasted corned beef to the waffles and waffle BLT. Somehow I missed getting the bacon maple syrup as a topping. Forgive me.

Breakfast is not in short supply in this city. The diner-reminiscent Fat Dog Kitchen is pleasant enough, giving the appearance that it’s been here a while despite being only a year or so old. I gave the house-made corned beef Benedict a try. It was presented on an oversized English muffin, and the blend of beef and sweet potatoes was tasty. I got the impression that Fat Dog is known for their creative take on standard breakfast dishes, many of which are posted as daily specials.

Venturing further afield in Dover, there are many more choices for coffee and lunch.

I was happy to see that Flight Coffee Co. had found a following and was humming with activity. The place is designed for hipsters, with its rustic woods, Edison bulbs and board games for whiling away a Sunday afternoon. The pour-over coffee spot features lightly roasted single-origin coffees, an espresso and milk bar, beer on tap and even Kombucha tea. The special barista drinks are a brilliant twist. Consider the Ginger Snap Buzz ($4) with ginger soda, cold brew, tonic water and a sugar rim. For nibbling, find house-made bagels and a case filled with appealing sweet breads and doughnuts. The gluten-free peanut butter cookies called, but I covered my ears. Baldface Books is now sharing the space, offering sippers a chance to peruse interesting used books and retro vinyl.

Searching out lunch offerings at cafés, I drove over to the latest Tucker’s location, which is their fourth. It’s on Dover’s historic “Miracle Mile,” a short stretch of shopping malls less than two miles from Central Square. Most of the history has been replaced with new concepts; nonetheless, there are several dining options in the malls. But first, Tucker’s. What a brand Erica and Hale Cole-Tucker have built. People love the place. The interior is bright and fresh, the servers friendly, and the food is just plain good. They strive to put a healthy spin on offerings, sourcing locally when possible and offering light selections alongside classic, decadent dishes such as the Redneck Brisket that features locally smoked beef. Sandwiches are made with artisan breads and can be ordered with superfood greens, a mix of cruciferous raw veggies. There is an array of grilled cheese sandwiches, meal-worthy salads and even a sashimi superfood bowl. Scratch-made soups are offered daily with a rotating selection. The breakfast and lunch menu is the same at all four locations — Hooksett, New London, Concord and this Dover location, which opened in June.

In the adjacent mall, Earth’s Harvest Kitchen & Juicery bakes cheddar chive biscuits for their breakfast and lunch sandwiches, blends up nutritious smoothies and pours a jewel-colored array of juice shots for a quick pick-me-up. They even grow their own wheatgrass under lights for raw juices. Chef George Bezanson has a great pedigree, having opened Mint Bistro and Bridge Café in Manchester, and Pressed Café in Nashua. His food is delicious, beautiful and healthy. Occasionally he really struts his stuff with a tasting menu in the evening.

Heading back to Central Square, I searched for the new Chapel + Main. Of course, it is on the corner of Chapel and Main, but signage is minimal. It’s like their place in Kittery, The Black Birch, a converted government space in an underwhelming setting. But step inside to understand the concept — it’s a welcoming space offering classic New England dishes that are reimagined with a real zip, zing and wow to every bite.

I started with popcorn. Not just buttered popcorn, but tiny kernels popped in rendered bone marrow and dusted with furikake, an Asian spice with a taste of umami from the seaweed, bonito flakes and sesame seeds. It’s a fun start and goes perfectly with their excellent draft beer list. Find classic favorites such as pan-seared scallops or chicken noodle soup prepared with extra love by Executive Chef Skye Bonney, former sous chef at The Black Birch. She has been given free rein to develop her own menu here. Creative cocktails are part of the experience too. Fun retro glassware, one step up from Welch’s jelly jars, put a smile on your face even before the potent potables get to work.

No trip to Dover would be complete without a nod to Chef Evan Hennessey’s Stages at One Washington. He offers an exceptional dining experience, thoughtfully executed and beautifully presented in (naturally) stages. It’s a multicourse experience, mostly locally sourced, occasionally even incorporating greens grown in the next room. This is a reservations-only eatery. Expect to spend the evening — and to shell out a pretty penny. For a fun experience, ask to be seated at the kitchen bar.

Back in the heart of the city, the former Chop House is now Ember Wood Fired Grill, purchased by Chris Serrecchia of the Dover Brickhouse across the street. He put a bar in the lower level and opens the upstairs level weekends only. The upscale menu, tempting cocktail list and 170-strong whiskey list is pretty interesting, and I hope they can stay on plan. Stay tuned for more on this place in the November issue.

Sure, Dover has its share of spots for wings and beer, but in between, rays of light are shining. Certainly this time, new players are making the town something to talk about. It’s time to give Dover a little love.

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