Every summer, scores of tourists from near and far flock to the Berkshires to enjoy hiking, water sports, museums and the performing arts. But the Berkshires has even more to offer. Aside from the stunning views and dynamic art institutions, there’s a booming restaurant scene from fast casual to farm-to-table fare. Arts and culture writers Jacquinn Sinclair and Ed Siegel made sure to bring their healthy appetites to as many local eateries as possible as they enjoyed the reopening of the summer arts scene. Between meals and shows, the two took some time to visit other local gems from bookstores to the botanical garden. [Read the first and second installments of the Berkshires Notebooks to read more about the arts and sights of the area.]
Ed Siegel: Jacquinn, I often felt like a character out of Luis Buñuel’s ‘70s film "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise," unable to find a place to eat or having to leave the new restaurant at Apple Tree Inn because they couldn’t get entrees out in time for Tanglewood. We weren’t the only ones looking for a Berkshires post-vaccine getaway. The restaurants were even packed on Monday nights. Reservations were harder to find than a Kyrie Irving fan at TD Garden. Nevertheless, we managed to eat pretty well, eh?
Jacquinn Sinclair: We sure did. I haven’t seen the film, but can certainly relate. The restaurants were packed most nights, but hungry vacationers have a better chance at scoring some seats right at 5 p.m. or after 8 p.m. One night, I waited for a restaurant to open and bee-lined to the bar as soon as it did because I couldn’t get a reservation.
Siegel: My longstanding favorites have been the Church Street Cafe in Lenox, the Dream Away Lodge in Becket and Mezze Bistro + Bar in Williamstown. The Church Street place is gone, replaced by a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations and fills up at 5 p.m., and the Dream Away is closed for the summer and listed for sale. But we did manage a too-quick bite at Mezze in between shows at Williamstown and West Stockbridge. We didn’t get the full flavor of what the usually packed place has in terms of energy. I remember the late Nicholas Martin, artistic director at the Huntington Theatre Company and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, holding court with his usual entourage back when Mezze was in town, or people trying to look casual as stars from the theater congregated before and after shows.
The food has been terrific too. I had been a pretty good boy in terms of food so I indulged in the pork and beef Bolognese with just the right amount of spice. I did get a little tired of it, to be honest, but a doggy bag served me well when I got the hungries back at the inn.
Sinclair: Late night leftovers make the best vittles. My favorites were Cafe Triskele (formerly Chez Nous) in Lee and Mezze but there were other noteworthy moments such as the sweet and savory cucumber, cantaloupe gazpacho at Alta in Lenox and the cornmeal rosemary cake with ginger peach compote, blackberries and nectarine sorbet at John Andrews Farmhouse Restaurant in Egremont. Also, even though it was quick, the visit to Mezze was worth it. I had a simple salad to start due to my too-long list of intolerances, but it was one of the most flavorful bowls of greens I have had in some time.
The beef, with it’s cilantro-kissed slaw and mole sauce, from the pre-fixe menu was nothing to sniff at either. It was the perfect meal after a sweltering hot day in the sun watching "Outside on Main: Celebrating the Black Radical Imagination" in Williamstown.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mixed-green salad with melon, crispy confit duck leg and the lamb chops with piquillo-pepper polenta fries at Cafe Triskele. The meal, which was a collection of small plates, and the service were both amazing.
Siegel: I did find a new best friend. I love restaurants where you can go in alone and feel that you’re part of the camaraderie, even if you don’t know a soul there. The late, great Casablanca in Harvard Square was like that for me; Positive Pie, the to-die-for pizza place in Montpelier, Vermont; not many others.
Mission Bar and Tapas in Pittsfield, with its superb new chef Jeremy Berlin, former executive chef at Blantyre, was that kind of place for me. I ate there before “Chester Bailey” at Barrington Stage Company; they also don’t take reservations so I got there about 5:30 p.m. The people coming in seemed to know each other, the waiters were friendly and helpful; and the food was as tasty as anything I had out west. I had the radish and gem salad and the black tiger prawns. My wife will tell you that when I finish a salad it has to be great. Whatever goes into the “brava sauce” of the prawns I want more of.
Sinclair: Setting the right atmosphere is paramount. Here in the Boston area, MIDA and Tanám are like that for me. While dining alone at Zinc Bistro & Bar in Lenox, I befriended a personal trainer from the area. Also, the bartender was friendly and she recommended the grilled pork chop with pico de gallo verde with black bean succotash. It was delicious.
Yes, the prawns were a great recommendation at Mission, Ed. Also, the heirloom tomato salad with Ibérico salami and melon vinaigrette was the right combination of salty and sweet.
Berkshire Botanical Garden
Sinclair: The first sunny day of my week in the Berkshires, I decided to do some shopping, and visit the botanical garden, which opened in 1934. I grabbed a souvenir and fresh scented soap from Dory & Ginger in Pittsfield, popped into the Design Menagerie in Lenox, which offers Italian leather shoes and bags, clothing and candles and visited Hoadley Gallery with its art-centered pottery, scarves, jewelry and other gifts.
The 24-acre Berkshire Botanical Garden split by a major thoroughfare offers a respite full of beauty, boasting hundreds of species of plants. There are quiet places to sit where flowers and leaves lap at the feet, fort-like trees to crawl or walk beneath as well as a vegetable garden. The herb garden, installed in 1937, is the oldest area of the park.
Walking through the green spaces, I encountered a mosaic of owls, plant sculptures and a wishing tree. Garden-goers can open a black mailbox filled with brown tags and pencils, write down their wishes and hang them on the tree. I read at least 20 messages before writing my own. Visitors wished for healthy babies, for more kindness in the world and one little girl hopes to become a princess.
At the gift shop, foodies can find things like chive blossom vinegar and piquant sauce made from the herbs and vegetables from the garden. Now through Sept. 20, there’s music on Monday evenings.
Siegel: I wasn't much of a nature boy this time out, except for walking around towns, visiting galleries, etc. I gravitate to both the Hoadley Gallery and Wit Gallery in Lenox. The first was featuring Lucy MacGillis' soulful Umbrian landscapes, which I love on their own neo-impressionistic merits, but I also worked with her late father at the Boston Globe and would often bump into him around the Berkshires, where he lived. And the Wit Gallery more than lives up to its name with scads of whimsical but sophisticated art of all kinds.
Siegel: My two favorite bookstores are in the Berkshires, The Bookstore in Lenox and Shaker Mill Books in West Stockbridge. In fact, The Bookstore is the top postcard in Bob Eckstein’s “World’s Greatest Bookstores: 100 Postcards Celebrating the Most Beloved Bookstores.” In addition to admiring the always thoughtful display of books and chatting up Matthew Tannenbaum, I laugh whenever I look at the Get Lit wine bar. Maybe one of these days I’ll live up to the word play in both senses.
Meanwhile, in West Stockbridge, Eric Wilska is coming up on his 10th anniversary of creating the soulful Shaker Mill Books, but he’s also opened a gorgeous display space next door, open Friday-Sunday, in the old Shaker Mill itself, overlooking the roaring Shaker Mill Dam. With the enormous photography books on easily accessible easels and other creative display spaces, it could be a room at MASS MoCA. And I never leave without buying a dozen literary matchbooks.
Sinclair: Thanks for sharing your favorite bookstores with me. One could spend hours at either. The Get Lit wine bar looks like a great place to bring bibliophile friends to hang out and the Shaker Mill store is a wonderful place to get lost in. There are nooks with big grommet-edged chairs to read in, art constructed from the pages of books to marvel at, and an old Victrola record player that must be cranked before filling the lower level with music. The books aren’t in any particular order, which makes it more fun. Upstairs, there’s a collection of stories about musicians, models, photographers and more. You could return again and again and find something new each time.
Siegel: The Bookstore, by the way, almost went out of business during the pandemic, and Tannenbaum somewhat apologetically started a Go Fund Me drive that raised $124,000, which kept him in business and allowed him to pay off other debts as well. I think he was quite moved by not only how the community came to his support, but summer tourists as well.
To me, that’s what the Berkshires is all about.