By Sara Fullerton
No matter the time of day, if you’re looking to go out, take a trip down State Street. As you head towards Riverfront Park, you’ll soon find Taproot Cafe and Lounge to your left. You’ll know it by the flashing lights and the outdoor seating that sometimes loops around into the alley around the corner. They’re open from 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. or later seven days a week, closing to minors at 9 p.m. so they can operate as a bar.
Located in a historic 1860s building, Taproot opened in 2015. It’s a place whose specialty seems to evolve with each time I return. My first time there, not yet of drinking age, my friends and I came for some tea and a couple appetizers to share. We marveled at their looseleaf menu, which featured 32 varieties. We also tried their lentil samosas and fried brussel sprouts, which came paired with a creamy and spicy sauce and somehow manage to be an iconic menu item, even among staunch brussel sprout skeptics.
Taproot features an extensive menu, and they somehow manage to put care into every corner of it. Their specialties include fresh juices and smoothies, breakfast, espresso from local beans, tapas, dinners, desserts, craft beers and cocktails ranging from the classics to bold new concoctions. They also showcase live music nearly every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, and turn the stage over for an Open Mic on Tuesdays.
As stated on their website, “Our goals include supporting local farms and businesses, while providing an additional outlet for musicians and artists to perform in and display their talents.”
As you walk in, the atmosphere is immediately vibrant and inviting, much more so than might be suggested by the building’s exterior. The main cafe manages to feel spacious even when it’s packed, illuminated by natural light streaming in through tall windows. It has a laid back energy, with an eccentric ambiance that is artsy and playful without being alienating or overbearing.
On the website they sum up the environment with, “This historical landmark has been transformed into a ‘vibe’ that emanates Salem’s unique culture.”
The espresso bar is fun to look at, with potted plants perched at top shelves, their vines sprawling out below. The highest shelves are devoted to a book collection. The cafe bar itself is decked out with kombucha on tap, a pastry case, colorful tealight candles, an old fashioned coffee grinder and much more, all on an expansive wooden bar made from the cross-section of a tree, complete with a craggy edge where the bark had been.
The brick walls and wooden floors and tables create a warm mahogany glow that sets the tone for more colorful details, like the local art. Each booth in the main dining area has a unique, colorful painting on its back.
If you’re coming in the morning, Taproot’s full espresso bar features hot drinks, cold brew and four choices of alternative milk. The morning menu includes several inventive egg scrambles, smoothie bowls with generous options for toppings, huevos rancheros, breakfast tacos and burritos and banana bread pain perdu.
Later in the day, there’s a wide array of appetizers, tapas and main dishes. Their innovations incorporate the comforting, whether your version of comfort food is a burger or a brown rice and quinoa bowl, and the adventurous. For example, you can either go for classic fries, or dress them up with chili lime salt, cajun seasoning, cheddar/jack cheese or their garlic vegan parmesan. My personal favorite dish is the spaghetti squash, which comes with crispy, flavorful housemade vegan “meatballs.” Make sure to get it with the pesto, which is rich and lemony.
Most importantly in my mind, though, the Taproot staff never get so caught up in their craft that it overshadows connecting with people. Every experience I’ve had has suggested that creating a joyful space and focusing on interaction is their primary interest.