It began in the 1930s as a little candy shop that came to be loved by students in Nashua's then-nearby junior high and high school. Later, it expanded to include a lunch counter. Still later, it grew into a full-service restaurant. And finally, in the 1990s, it expanded again to become Nashua's first brew pub.
And the candy shop is still there.
Martha's Exchange, a pioneer of downtown Nashua's restaurant renaissance, remains a comfortable, reliable and delicious place for lunch, dinner or just a brew and a snack. The Dining Companion, who remembers the original Martha's Sweet Shoppe from her days at the now long-gone Spring Street Junior High, and I stopped in on a recent Saturday night for a fun and casual dinner.
The restaurant, which extends across a long chunk of storefront on Main Street (and out into the sidewalk when the weather allows) is divided into three main seating spaces — a dining area, the bar and the brew room, separated by half walls and the bar itself. The lighting is low and the decor is something of a 1920s pub with a little art deco and some contemporary touches, including tall rectangular pillars lit from within that look like glowing columns hewn out of quartz.
The menu is substantial, covering lunch and dinner items with a full complement of appetizers, soups, sandwiches and pizza as well as entrees. Nine house-made beers are currently on tap, making choosing a beverage as difficult as choosing a meal.
I started with Lemon Cilantro Mussels ($11), served in a large bowl with slices of delicious garlic toast on the side. The white wine-based sauce was rich with garlic and butter, with just enough lemon to make it bright without taking over. I hesitated to order this, as I'm not a big fan of cilantro, but the herb was largely a background feature, there as much for color as flavor. An excellent first course.
TDC's first course was a Greek salad, which she added to her entree order for $4.50.
The salad was a base of mixed greens, topped with onions, olives, pepperoncini, cucumbers and tomatoes, served with thick, tangy emulsion-style Greek dressing. TDC thought the salad mixture was distinctive and the dressing excellent.
For her entree, TDC chose the Black Jack Salmon ($21), a pan-blackened salmon filet with shrimp and scallops, finished in a lemon honey tomato cream sauce with shredded crab meat. Though the salmon was blackened, it wasn't especially spicy, but it was nicely seasoned; the scallops and shrimp were perfectly done, tender and just cooked through. TDC loved the flavors in the sauce and the generous portions of seafood.
I was sipping a house-brewed "De-firred Dougie's Winter Ale," a deep, opaque maroon-colored beer that put me in the mood for steak, so I ordered the Petite Filet Trio ($22) for my entree.
The dish consisted of three beef medallions, each wrapped in bacon and grilled, served on a Merlot demiglace with balsamic sauteed vegetables and a choice of starch (I chose mashed). Presentation was fine, the sauce was rich and beefy, and the veggies were nicely done, just cooked to the tooth, though some red onion pieces were extremely strong.
The beef itself was good, but not as good as it should have been. I've ordered this dish elsewhere, and the meat has been melt-in-your-mouth tender and full of well-marbled flavor. The texture of these medallions was somewhat stringy, reminding me more of chuck than tenderloin or filet mignon.
I was also a bit frustrated by the dessert selection. A card on the table showed eight or nine attractive (though likely outsourced) desserts, but our waitress told us that they were in the process of changing out the dessert menu and only three were available. When she came back to take our order, she told us they were down to two choices, so I picked the Salted Caramel Cake ($7). I may have been disappointed by the limited selection, but not by the cake itself. It was a light, three-layer yellow cake with globs of caramel blended throughout the cake and the creamy, sweet custard filling.
My disappointments were not deal-breakers by any means, nor did they rise to a level that would keep us from coming back. I wouldn't order the Petite Filet medallions again, but our overall experience, including the appetizers, the atmosphere, the beer and the expansive menu, was positive and fun.
Martha's is far more than just a candy shop nowadays, but it's still a pretty sweet spot in downtown Nashua.