Hidden Hanover

“Hidden in plain sight” is a bit too cliché for a place so original, but that’s the essence of the city that Dartmouth built. It’s an oasis of urban sophistication in a pastoral setting. It’s the cultural counterpart to the nearby Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, which provides world-class medical services to its rural neighbors. It’s home to many “world citizens,” young and old, but it’s ours, so we should know our way around the place.

Hanover — it’s an island in a sea of corporate sameness. It’s an oasis in the distance after a long march through a desert of chain stores.

That’s one way to think of a place like Hanover, a classic New England downtown complete with narrow streets and less-than-roomy parking spaces, but also replete with good food, one-of-a-kind shops, theater, music and movies nearly every night of the year.

The Hanover Area Chamber of Commerce’s Merchants Association may describe it best though: “We’re out to prove they don’t make downtowns like this anymore.”

It’s easy to find ways to entertain yourself in a place like Hanover. But it’s also easy to miss a not-to-be-missed, out-of-the-way gem like Folk, Left Bank Books or the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen retail gallery. So here’s an insider’s guide to just some of the best Hanover downtown has to offer. Consider it a legend for your map to an enjoyable day, weekend or week in one of the Upper Valley’s most vibrant and stimulating downtowns.

Getting There

Getting to downtown Hanover is easy. From Lebanon, Route 10 or Route 120 serve the same purpose, or a likely shortcut is to take Interstate 91 in Vermont, exit in Norwich and cross the Connecticut River to the east and wind up smack in the middle of downtown Hanover.

One of the drawbacks to Hanover’s downtown, though, is parking, and more specifically a consistent lack thereof. In the 1990s, Hanover built a multi-level parking garage on Lebanon Street that no one seems to want to use. If visitors can stand the less-than-arduous 30-second hike to Main Street, it’s a cheap and almost-always-available alternative to spending 20 minutes hunting for a cramped and endangered metered spot on street level. A free shuttle bus runs from lots a bit more distant.

Another bonus of the parking garage is it leads directly to a terrific little art shop: The New Hampshire League of Craftsmen gallery. The shop fronts on Lebanon Street and features original paintings, glassware, jewelry, etchings, furniture, ceramics, quilts, photography and wood carvings made by New Hampshire and Upper Valley artists.

Getting Oriented

A stroll up the street from the Craftsmens’ shop is a miniature mall of sorts called Hanover Park that houses more hot spots.

For those with a sweet tooth, a not-to-be-missed spot is the un-ironically named Chocolate Shop on the building’s main floor. The shop’s most popular item, according to workers on a Saturday, are the Green and Blacks — an organic, 70 percent dark chocolate candy bar — but some of the most interesting offerings come from close to and far from home.

The shop offers locally made chocolates by Lake Champlain Chocolates in Burlington, Vt., as well as teas and maple syrup made in the region. There are also artisanal truffles and packaged chocolate from Italy, Sweden, Belgium and France. In fact, all the foreign wrappers can be a challenge to read.

Also in the same building are Clay’s women’s clothing, Essentials for Men and Pompanoosuc Mills. Left is Main Street with more shops and to the right is the amazing Rosey Jekes (more on all these later). Now that you know where you are, why not get a bite to eat?

Let’s Eat

One of the newest additions to the Hanover dining scene is Carpaccio Ristorante. You may have tasted Chef Giovanni Leopardi’s work before at the Potter Place Inn in Andover, N.H., which he closed to move here.

Leopardi buys only fresh, grass-fed Australian meat products and overnights fresh fish from all over the world. Look for the catch of the day that capitalizes on the latest shipments, like plumhead snapper or wild salmon from Alaska. And don’t miss the restaurant’s namesake: the carpaccio di manzo al’olio di tartufo estivo. It’s thinly sliced raw beef tenderloin, drizzled with black truffle oil with shaved parmesan cheese and capers. Five other carpaccios are available, including venison and octopus. Entrées range from $18 to $30.

Popular Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery isn’t a hidden treasure anymore. Its reputation for quality, down-home breakfast and lunch has spread far and wide. It was named in 2005 by Travelocity’s Local Streets, Big Finds as a “Local Favorite.”

The place is an all-American diner with the charm of the past, from the stools and Formica counter down to the pictures of regulars on the walls. Some of the items on the extra-large menu are original — think crullers made into French toast — but a couple of the best items to taste are a cup of uncomplicated coffee and a glazed doughnut. The pie case is astonishing, with apple pies a good five inches above the rim. Be prepared for lines if you show up at peak times, but the line moves fast and the food is worth the wait.

Dirt Cowboy Café, near the corner of Main and West Wheelock, is loud and crowded, but loud and crowded with energy the way a college hangout should be.

There’s world music playing in the background and about a dozen house-roasted varieties of coffee beans in bins lining the wall and, unlike most coffee shops, waitstaff bring your order to you, along with your own set of coffee fixin’s. Don’t pass up the pastries — all are fresh, made in-house daily. If the huge wall menu is a little too much to take in, try a cup of the Jamaican Me Crazy, a great rum-flavored coffee.
Molly’s Balloon is a terrific place to grab lunch or a relaxed dinner. It’s an ideal location to people watch, as several of the tables near the bar overlook Main Street.

The waitstaff are almost overly friendly and the entire atmosphere is relaxed. In addition to the tasty, though not spectacular, dishes like burgers, fish and chips and other American bistro standards, it may be the only restaurant left in America with “Omaha” by the Counting Crows and John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” on the stereo. (And the homemade cheesy foccacia bread served with a meal is almost worth the trip itself.)

Another great place to eat in Hanover is the Canoe Club, opened three years ago. The Club features live music six days a week and food made from scratch. The desserts are mind-blowing. Owner John Chapin opened the restaurant because he wanted to relocate in the Upper Valley, then added a busy entertainment schedule to make it a fun place to work.

Retail Therapy

For shopping, fashion fiends will find their Graceland at JuliAna’s. The women’s high-fashion clothing store brings top designers to rural New Hampshire. JuliAna’s also sells accessories, jewelry and bags.

Through a glass door next to the Dirt Cowboy Café on Main Street and up a set of steep stairs, Left Bank Books is a good alternative to Barnes and Noble’s surreptitious presence in Hanover, i.e. the Dartmouth Bookstore, which has virtues of its own, chiefly an enormous selection. But Left Bank Books is a book-lovers bookstore, a place for book snobs to find fascinating used and out-of-print copies they’d never find at Walden Books or Borders. You won’t find Stephen King or Danielle Steele here.

You will find books such as “The Code Breaker,” a history of secret communication by David Kahn; “Lancelot” by Walter Percy and “The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell.” Many of the volumes have the original owner’s names scrawled on the inside cover and they all have that dusty smell old books should have.

There’s also a large, relatively speaking, collection of books about Dartmouth and a small collection of, get this, LP records for $3 a piece.

Folk is an easy shop to go unnoticed, but one not to be missed. Located just off Main Street on Allen Street, it’s small but packed with clothes, knickknacks and charms from all over the world.

Great finds there include dozens of figurines and wall tapestries, jewelry and organic-material clothes like hemp pants and alpaca sweaters.

In the Nugget Arcade is the Woof and Hoof, a great place for animal lovers. In addition to pet and horse food, bowls and beds, the place is stuffed with animal-themed items like dog toys, stuffed animals, pictures and frames, postcards, coasters and sweatshirts — all, of course, with furry friends featured prominently. There’s even “Dog-opoly.”

Also don’t miss Clay’s women’s clothing (well designed for both comfort and style), Essentials for Men, Pompanoosuc Mills for custom, Vermont-made furniture, and Rosey Jekes, an International clothing store and café where locals and visiting celebrities can rub shoulders while shopping or sipping cappuccino. And if, in the midst of all these local treasures, you’re somehow hankering for a chain, fear not — Gap and Talbots are both on Lebanon Street.

Looking for Fun

Entertaining yourself isn’t hard in a place like Hanover.

The Canoe Club has local acts playing mostly blues and jazz tunes six nights a week, and Marco the Magician’s table magic on Monday evenings.

But for some better known, bigger names, Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center (the Hop) is the place to be. Along with top-notch shows by a variety of Dartmouth performance groups — glee club, symphony, orchestra, theater department and choirs — the Hop attracts musicians and performers from around the world.

In February, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Feb. 2, tickets $45), the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble (Feb. 10, tickets $14) and the World Music Percussion Ensemble (Feb. 24, tickets $18) will all come to Hanover. In between, the Dartmouth Theater Department will perform “Arms and the Man” on Feb. 15-17 and 21-24, the Glee Club will perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” and the Wind Symphony will play “Blowin’ In the Wind” Feb. 18. The college’s Chamber Singers and Symphony Orchestra will also perform.

Another college-owned Hanover staple is the Hood Museum on East Wheelock Street. The museum bills itself as the largest fine art museum in the region and admission is free. They have a nice condensed version of art through the ages and an impressive collection of reliefs from Assyria dating back to 3,000 B.C.

In February the museum will be hosting “Thin Ice: Inuit Traditions within a Changing Environment,” which explores global warming as it impacts the Inuit concept and perception of climate change as part of their culture.

There will also be “El Anatsui: GAWU,” an exhibition displaying 10 pieces by El Anatsui, an African artist who uses recycled items to celebrate Africa’s culture and heritage.

Another Hanover hot-spot for art lovers is Spheris Hanover, opened recently by 10-year art veteran Cynthia Reeves. This new location replaces the Bellows Falls, Vt., gallery. She also maintains a gallery in Chelsea in Manhattan.

Spheris focuses on Connecticut River Valley artists working in all mediums and attract artists, who show their work all over the world.

The Nugget Theater, which is in the Nugget Arcade on Main Street, is a great place to catch any sort of flick you prefer. It shows first-run hits, but is one of the only theaters for miles in any direction where you can see foreign and obscure independent films, aside from the theater in the HOP.

For winter fun there’s also Campion’s Ice Rink on North Main Street with public skating and instructional programs, and the Dartmouth Skiway on Grafton Turnpike Road in Lyme Center, just a few miles up the road. If you’re visiting in the summer try the Hanover Country Club on Lyme Road, an 18-hole public course and driving range. The Storrs Pond Recreation Area on Reservoir Road is a great place for camping, swimming and hiking.

So there you have it: a map to the oasis of Hanover. Remember to drink long and hard from the local pool while you are there, because for too many visitors, upon leaving its sheltering streets, the chain store desert awaits. NH