Salem, MA: In Which A Cafe Named “Coven” Can Be Replaced By A Cafe Called “Life Alive”

Perhaps I am just getting old.

Several clusters of lentil and patchouli-scented gas clouds sprang up all over Salem when vegans and vegetarians (myself included) sighed in despair, but not surprise, at the news of Coven’s “temporary” closing in January. Followers of our beloved eatery’s Facebook feed were told that the owners were shipping off to New York for a “much-needed rest”, something which, they did in fact need, owing to the long hours I would see them working and how empty Salem was in January. Assuming that they would follow suit of Ben & Jerry’s and The Lobster Shanty and re-open when people have shaken off their post-Christmas financial hangovers, we waited with bated barley-spelt-quinoa breath.

The other day, we got an update, but sadly, it wasn’t what anyone wanted to read. No, they hadn’t switched to the new Facebook Timeline; Coven was closing for good, and the owners had permanently relocated back to their native NY.  The clusters of hippie whinging dust had now become full-blown, granola-spitting, organic cyclones, and there was now a Coven-shaped hole in our lives.

My first panicked thought was, “who is going to feed me now?” I am a perfectly capable cook, have never made anything inedible (save for some basmati rice which I was forced to cook without proper measuring utensils) and have an inspired imagination when it comes to sourcing/creating new dishes – even snacks (seriously, try Edamame houmous with some Branston pickle).

But when I get home from an 11-hour workday with most of it in Boston (and no lunch break), I am just too tired to whip up my garam-cashew-raisin masala from scratch, and too much in possession of working tastebuds to sully them with an EasyMac (unless I am drunk). My mother is all the way back in England, and could post me some pakoras, but something tells me the taste and heat would become diminished with transit.

Enter Life Alive, a cafe mini-chain who have taken over Coven’s old spot. I have never been to their Cambridge or Lowell locations, so I could only judge them based on their website. If anyone has an aversion to colour, look away now and don’t click on this website link.

It really is quite a pretty, positive and promising site, and gives the impression that, once the nerdy vintage cereal mascot toys and board games and the TV and alternative art sculptures are cleared out, I’ll be walking into a serene, leafy grotto decorated with Hawaiian-lei-shaped peace medallions, tie-dye wall tapestries and an assortment of re-homed Buddha statues. Gone will be the Depeche Mode or Alice Cooper Pandora station of yesteryear, and instead gently piping in will be the sounds of local sitar artists and experimental poetry activist readings.

A peek at their menu brings more promise. It’s mostly vegan, but fully vegetarian. Ignoring the somewhat patronizing whiff of the portion descriptions (“Filling Bowl”; “Hearty Wrap” etc), I can see they’ve got the usuals – tofu, brown rice, quinoa, sprouts and ginger, but with what appears to be a focus on fresh ingredients and care in preparation.

Could it be? An actual vegetarian restaurant in Salem? One that doesn’t offer items made with vegetables that were actually stewing/frying/baking with the remains of meat and fish? A vegetarian restaurant that actually has a varied menu, doesn’t rely too much on meat substitutes, and that actually seems to have some imagination in its presentation and ingredient selections? I am still staggering at the thought of somewhere I can go eat as a vegetarian that doesn’t laugh at me and tell me I’m too thin (I get enough of that when I go home to see my parents).

An extensive smoothie bar and a lack of alcohol means they are probably going to draw in the crowds who still go to Front Street Coffeehouse because they have the best coffee, but go far less often because they remember when the baristas played Edwin Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes instead of Chris Brown and Jennifer Lopez.

They’ve not set an opening date, and, quite frankly, I don’t know if many people even know about this.  Prices seem more along the lines for what you would pay in a sit-down restaurant ($9 for a meal bowl), so let’s hope they live up to that. I feel a little sad and a little old when stores I like close; it seems to be happening frequently in Salem. I remember feeling this intrigued when hearing of Coven’s construction period, and how soon their “soft open” and “official opening” were.

All that remains is to wait and see. I would rather not put all my free-range eggs in one ethically-woven flax basket.

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