The chalk-white church spire that towers over Central Square in Keene is a testament to the history of the city and a rural icon like those of many small New England towns. But the hip used-CD store, the martini bar and the gourmet take-out shop, all within walking distance, illustrate the trendy changes happening in Keene. There is plenty of history to explore in Keene — more than 250 years’ worth — but there is also a wide variety of other cool stuff to do.
The city is a little off the beaten track, tucked into the southwest corner of the state, but well worth the detour. Travelers on routes 101, 10, 9 or 12 will drive the perimeter of the city (check out the view of Mt. Monadnock). Many visitors arrive to attend shows at The Colonial Theatre, to shop at the Colony Mill Marketplace or to seek out an enormous fabric store located here: New England Fabrics. Still others come to visit students at Keene State College or Antioch New England Graduate School.
Keene has undergone a metamorphosis in recent years with the opening of Monadnock Marketplace, with stores that include Home Depot, Target and Circuit City. That shopping area attracts visitors from all over, in part because of its close proximity to I-91.
First, let’s eat.
We’ll get back to shopping later. First, we’ll explore the most fun parts of the city: coffee shops and eateries.
In downtown Keene, a lovely change began seven or eight years ago when restaurants began offering alfresco dining. Keene’s sidewalks are roomy and well maintained, so there’s plenty of room for tables and umbrellas. Luca’s Mediterranean Café in Central Square offers dining alfresco for lunch and dinner. The menu is Mediterranean, with pasta and seafood dishes, many luscious desserts (the crème brûlée with a crack-with-your-spoon sugar crust is a favorite, as is fruit gelato) and a not-too-pretentious wine list. Next door, the Market at Luca’s offers a gourmet takeout shop with a handful of tables inside and a large assortment of freshly made sandwiches, salads and entrées.
A bit farther down the street is the hip hangout, Armadillos Burritos. There’s nothing Mexican about Armadillos, but they make excellent — if non-traditional — burritos (think rice) that are reasonably priced. Armadillos’ umbrellas and tables are new this year, and offer a prime location for people watching day or night. On most Saturday nights, Armadillos hosts music for a couple of hours during the dinner hours.
Across the street from Armadillos, Margaritas Mexican Restaurant and Watering Hole also offers outdoor dining, enclosed in a curly-cued cast iron fence. The food here is Tex-Mex, consistently good to very good, and Thursdays are ladies night, with a discount on food for women who sit in the lounge. The atmosphere here is hip and fun, and patrons can play a game of pool or plug some money in the jukebox.
Brewbakers, a coffee shop a block away from Margaritas, has a few tables outside, as does Prime Roast, a coffee shop closer to Central Square. The Works Café also offers seating outside, along with excellent bagels, sandwiches, wraps and coffee. Keene Fresh Salad Company serves enormous salads, sandwiches and entrées and offers outdoor seating. Salads come with a big chunk of focaccia bread and, if you go, be sure to grab a chocolate-glazed Rice Krispie square.
There are a handful of other spots downtown with outdoor seating, which just makes a meal or a cup of coffee feel more festive. We can’t name them all but if you visit Keene, park your car and walk the perimeter of the downtown area. It doesn’t take long and you can see all of the choices available in no time at all.
A few other spots are worthy of note, although not necessarily for outdoor dining. The Twenty-One Restaurant, located at 21 Roxbury St., boasts an inventive appetizer and dinner menu as well as a complete martini menu. Nicola’s Trattoria at 31 Central Square offers classic Italian cuisine and features an open kitchen, white tablecloths and candlelight. Chef Nicola Bencivenga is a master with seafood, and his tiramisu is unparalleled in the area. The arancini — fritters made of rice, cheese and peas — are nothing short of fabulous. Thai Garden, at 118 Main St., is popular among locals and tourists for a great place for Thai food. If you are in town and in a hurry or want something easy, try Timoleon’s Restaurant or Lindy’s Diner. Both serve good food in a non-fussy atmosphere.
After a meal, it might be time for something easy and relaxing to do. Keene is home to several lovely parks and the Ashuelot River Park is walking distance from downtown (walk straight down West Street, the park is wedged between the Blockbuster Video store and the Starbucks). This park, built over the course of 75 years and dedicated 10 years ago, is for walkers, joggers, canoeists, bicyclists and picnickers. It’s a beautiful 157-acre spot to just sit and read a book or take the dog for a stroll.
Another spot to chill and shake off a busy workweek is the Thorne Sagendorph Gallery at Keene State College. This serene gallery is home to an enormous and diverse collection. The gallery is closed in August, but worth an afternoon visit, Wednesday through Sunday (the gallery offers expanded hours during the school year). While at Keene State, stroll through the campus, home to 5,000 students. The landscape of the college has changed over the years, specifically with the addition of a new student center, dining hall, science building and an addition to the gymnasium. It’s not a big school, and the campus is beautifully constructed to place the old and new in sync.
From Keene State’s campus, cross Main Street and stop by the Historical Society of Cheshire County at 246 Main Street. Throughout the summer months, an exhibit of toys made in Keene is on display. In addition, there are more than 300 maps of the Cheshire County area, thousands of pages of newspapers, some dating back to the early 1800s, and more than 11,000 photographs, mostly of Keene. History buffs will love the place, but even those who aren’t interested in anything that happened before the year 2000 will enjoy the calm interior of the stately brick building.
Left of center
Sure, Keene is full of nifty places to shop. There are clothing stores, book stores, hardware stores and consignment shops, but every city has those. What makes Keene cool is the small stores that sell groovy things you just might not find elsewhere. Here are a few:
In the Company of Flowers: Right in downtown Keene, this is primarily a florist but there is, as they say, so much more. The shelves are stocked with stationery, glassware, toys for children, funky eyeglasses and sunglasses, fragrant soaps and handmade slippers. On the shelves last week: a plastic lime green garden gnome with a light inside and a box filled with interlocking squares of plastic grass, complete with plastic flowers growing out of them.
Turn It Up: The original store is in oh-so-cool Northampton, Mass. Turn It Up is a store selling and buying used music. There are some cassette tapes, videos and DVDs and a wall of vinyl, but mostly CDs fill the racks. This shop is attractive for many reasons: The prices are excellent, there are thousands of CDs to choose from and every genre is represented. Oh, and when you walk down the stairs, there’s always something good and obscure playing on the stereo. If you are short on cash, bring in your old CDs and you might walk out with some pocket money. If you break up with your lover and all your music reminds you of him/her, bring your CDs in, get a store credit and replace those loser tunes with a whole new collection.
Earth Treasures: This store started out selling fun science stuff — telescopes, plastic dinosaurs, games, glow-in-the-dark posters. It still has lots of that stuff (Venus flytrap anyone?), but now includes one of the largest collections of beads in New England. There are beads from all over the world, all lined up in wooden trays, hanging from hooks on the walls or packaged in plastic sleeves. Here’s a place where $10 can buy you a bag full of goodies. And the store offers beading classes to boot. Earth Treasures is right on Main Street.
Ivy: This store, located at the Colony Mill Marketplace on West Street, is one of the best places in town to buy a gift, card or doodad for your desk. The owner stocks an enormous collection of bath products, soaps and skin care goodies. There’s also jewelry, glassware, holiday decorations and decorative items for the home. Ivy offers snazzy-looking gift wrap; most people in the area recognize the Ivy sticker on a box or bag — it’s a coveted symbol.
Keene is home to many baseball fanatics. The Swamp Bats, a wooden bat collegiate-league baseball team, plays at Keene’s Alumni Field, and to quote one fan: “It’s like a big lick of ice cream.” The Swamp Bats (there’s a big swamp behind the field, thus the name) play and work in the area for a short period in the summer. Team members live with host families in the area, including at a local home for the elderly. The games draw thousands of fans and Ribby the Bat, the mascot, conducts games for kids between innings and dances in the bleachers during breaks (to Fenway-worthy tunes on the speaker system). There’s a snack bar that serves pretty good food and hawkers sell peanuts and flavor-ice sticks in the stands. Beyond all of that though, it’s very good baseball. And the cost for this big slice of Americana? $3.
The Colonial Theatre in Keene is quite simply a jewel in the heart of the city. The space, renovated and brought back to its original beauty in the early 1990s, is host to world-class performances and film. The 2006-2007 season will include performances by Bo Diddley, The Commitments and the Moscow Theatre Ballet. Tours are available by calling ahead. NH