In Old Menemsha, A Modern Breeze Blows


‘You’ll never believe this,” I said to my sister over the phone from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. “They’re selling cocktails in Menemsha!”

“Cocktails in Menemsha? I do not believe you,” she responded. “Have you actually ordered one?”

Well, no, I had not. And it turned out that the printed menus stacked on the counter at Beetlebung, a gourmet coffee shop and boutique, were promoting the alcoholic libations at a sister venue across the island, in a so-called wet town — one where alcohol is sold. Unlike Menemsha.

The fact that I was even momentarily taken in says a lot about the evolution of this modest-yet-ultra-exclusive fishing village on the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard.

The island prides itself on resisting change in the nicest possible way — preserving scenic landscapes, controlling development, and fostering a multigenerational family vibe.

Nowhere has this tendency been more evident than in the so-called up-island towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury, whose bucolic agricultural character has hardly changed since the English settled there in the late 1600s. They, and Chilmark’s village of Menemsha, certainly haven’t changed much in the 30-odd years I’ve been coming here with my own family.

Which is why I was surprised, on my latest visit, to discover a fresh energy. The lobster shacks endure, along with the yellowed, fishing nets, crusted with seaweed. The signature, weather-beaten shingles are even more so, and the trawlers glide in and out of the harbor, dawn and dusk, as regular as the tides they chart.

But while cocktails haven’t yet made it up-island — Chilmark and West Tisbury are still, officially, dry — there’s a modern breeze blowing through New England’s most time-resistant precincts. And it’s just what was needed, really. There are new things to look at, new foods to sample and new wares to buy during those hours in between beach outings.

I stopped into Alley’s General Store, a 150-year-old West Tisbury institution that claims to sell almost everything. When I was a kid, everything meant bananas and suntan lotion, beach pails and newspapers, candy and insect repellant. Today, it also includes batik dresses, Provençal soaps, gluten-free, kosher and halal frozen meals, and vintage clocks.

A candy bar at Alley’s used to be the only sustenance to be had in West Tisbury, but as the crowd of vacationers attested, the options have multiplied. Out back, there’s a farm store selling fresh produce and a deli where lines of people waiting for sandwiches and soups snaked out the door. The chatter was about the author series of the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival: Alan Dershowitz, Lucinda Franks and Ron Suskind are among those slated to speak this summer at the Chilmark Community Center.

I passed the Beach Plum Inn, where my parents honeymooned, on the sloping road through jungly woods that descends into Menemsha. Long a landmark, the inn’s restaurant had felt fusty and uninspired when my parents returned to dine there a few years back. But in the past year, it has become the island’s hottest table under the direction of chef Chris Fischer, who brought a new farm-to-table menu (direct from his family’s nearby Beetlebung Farm) and a more modern, rustic-chic airiness to the dining room.

The restaurant overlooks Menemsha Harbor, which on a sunny July day is one of the finer sights of a New England summer. Down in the village itself, eating used to be a tough proposition for those who avoid shellfish — all raw bars and fried clams. But that, too, has changed.

I wandered down to the Galley, a takeout lunch spot for soft-serve cones and sandwiches to eat on the back porch, overlooking the boat dock. The wind of change had clearly blown through their menu, too: “Euro tart” frozen yogurt is served alongside ice cream and a large vegetarian menu features such items as spinach salad with salmon, white bean and pesto sandwiches and gazpacho.

I poked next into Pandora’s Box, a venerable boutique that used to feel a bit precious. Again I was surprised: an up-to-date selection of dresses was sophisticated enough for the city, yet cost less than Banana Republic, while the counters were chock-full of appealing giftware.

I continued along the harbor, ogling antiques and buoys at the Chilmark Ship Chandlery. Then I stopped in for a coffee at Beetlebung, the coffee house whose Panini are served alongside a boutique featuring fair-trade beads from Ecuador and distinctive island-themed glassware.

Beetlebung is the name of an intersection in Chilmark, the family farm where Chris Fischer sources his organic beets, and now a brand trendy enough that the coffee house expanded to nearby Oak Bluffs — the small-plates lounge whose cocktail menu I’d originally picked up.

There are still no cocktails in Menemsha, but down by the beach every summer evening, families and couples spread out picnic blankets and watch the sun set as they sip Chardonnay. And at the coffeehouse, for the first time in memory, I sipped a very artisanal, fair-trade, hand-frothed latte.