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A Berkshires hub that's a magnet for New Yorkers

Email|Print| Text size + By Christina Tree
Globe Correspondent / August 24, 2003

GREAT BARRINGTON -- A body shop in this town used to be about cars, but no longer. In Great Barrington's current Shopper's Guide, the only auto-detailing ad is buried deep in three pages of listings for massage, beauty, and other human body treatments. More to the point: The town's former auto parts store is now "Pearl's," the hottest restaurant in a community with more than 40 places to eat.

If Stockbridge has Norman Rockwell and Lenox has Tanglewood, Great Barrington has restaurants. With surprisingly varied shopping, it's also the hub of this state's southwestern corner, a rolling landscape salted with antiques shops, summer theater and music, and places to stay that would cost more in the Berkshires' famous tourist towns.

By far the largest town in Southern Berkshire County, Great Barrington (population: 7,288) has always been a place to buy a wrench, catch a bus, and see a dentist or a movie. Recently it's also become a place to shop for linen clothing and country furnishings, for antiques, artist materials, and vintage posters, to rent a kayak or a find a guide for fly fishing. The tiny visitors center has opened a "Half Tix" window, selling same-day, half-price tickets for musicals and plays at The Barrington Stage Company, dance at Jacob's Pillow, and music in numerous South Berkshire venues.

Relatively few Bostonians, unfortunately, find their way to Great Barrington. It's said to be equidistant from Boston and New York, two hours and 15 minutes from each, but Great Barrington is south (just 15 minutes down Route 7) of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Bostonians tend to turn north off the Pike, heading for the summer home of the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood in Lenox or to MASS MoCA in North Adams. For New Yorkers, however, Great Barrington is the southern gateway to the Berkshires, and many get no farther.

"In summer Manhattan's entire Upper West Side is empty," says Michael Ballon, chef-owner of the Castle Street Cafe . "Everyone is here." As it turns out, that is not a bad thing. The Upper West Side, Ballon explains, is a neighborhood that eats out.

Downtown Great Barrington's first high-end restaurant when it opened in 1989, the Castle Street Cafe, has since doubled in size, adding The Celestial Bar, featuring jazz nightly. Neighboring Railroad Street, Great Barrington's restaurant row, is visibly booming.

Bizen, the town's first Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, is expanding into a neighboring storefront. Owner Michael Marcus spent four years studying the distinctive pottery of the Bizen Province of Japan and has been producing it for more than 20 years at his Joyous Spring Pottery in nearby Monterey. Several years ago he opened this restaurant to serve the food for which his pottery is made, soon expanding it to include a "robata bar" featuring sushi and sake. The current expansion will feature tamari mat rooms set in a traditional garden setting and a sampling of Kaiseki cuisine.

Up the street, Verdura Cucina Rustica is also expanding. Chef-owner William Webber, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, is a devotee of the "slow food" movement and takes pride in using local produce and house-made pastas. His addition will feature light Italian dishes.

Railroad Street has been evolving steadily over the past decade, but it's Pearl's that has everyone taking notice. An offshoot of prestigious Bistro Zinc in Lenox, it fills the ground floor of a former NAPA Auto Parts store. Come evening, the town's most coveted seats are those in Pearl's bar, with views through the plate-glass window down the length of the liveliest street in the Berkshires.

Railroad Street is just the right mix of funk and glitz, of reliable standbys and intriguing newcomers. When it opened in 1977, 20 Railroad Street was the first visitor-friendly pub in what was one of the dingier corners of town. Invitingly spacious and cool, with an impressive mahogany bar moved here from the Commodore Hotel in 1919, it's still the best bet in town for a brew and burger. And next door to Pearl's is Martin's, the spotless eatery Lewis Martin has operated for 14 years, open morning to mid-afternoon for imaginative specials as well as omelets, sandwiches, and salads.

At The Snap Shop, Steve Carlotta and his nephew Tony have been processing the region's film since 1972. Across the street, Gatsby's, an eclectic emporium, moved into a former appliance store in 1975, retaining the pink neon "HOTPOINT" sign. Through the '80s and into the '90s a storefront or two was frequently vacant. Now even second- and third-floor space is tight and boutiques with names such as "Byzantium" and "Crystal Essence" seem here to stay.

Restaurants and specialty stores have spread from Railroad Street out along Great Barrington's Main Street. Dining choices range from the dependably excellent Union Bar & Grill, now owned by a Manhattan restaurateur, to equally dependable Baba Louis Sourdough Pizza Restaurant, and Cheesecake Charlie's, with "55 flavors of cheesecake" and frequent cabaret. Hidden away at the far end of Upper Railroad Street, the Triplex Theater is another destination while the neighboring Club Helsinki is widely known for jazz and blues. The colorful Cafe Helsinki is noted for Scandinavian and Russian specialties.

"This is a very sophisticated community," says Steven Picheny, a former New Yorker who rehabbed the 19th-century building that houses Pearl's. "They know music. They know food, and they know philanthropy. Just look at all the arts organizations around here." Picheny is vice chairman of a campaign to transform The Mahaiwe, Great Barrington's vintage 1905 vaudeville house, into a performing arts center. While it's not yet air-conditioned, the 700-seat theater is staging performances ranging from individual artists sponsored by Club Helsinki to 17th-century opera.

St. James Church, around the corner from the Mahaiwe, is the venue for the Aston Magna series of chamber music concerts, and Searles Castle, the vast 1880s stone mansion just across Main Street, is the setting for the Stockbridge Chamber Music series.

With so much compressed in so few blocks, parking can be a problem, but nothing like in most resort towns. You may just have to walk a block or two.

While you're at it, take a few minutes to stroll the new River Walk along the Housatonic as it flows behind Main Street. The river spirals lazily on south of town, through a broad valley, hemmed by hills to the east and by Mount Everett, this state's second highest mountain, and its neighboring peaks to the west.

Appealing places to stay are widely scattered. We keep returning to Windflower, a hospitable country inn set in landscaped grounds, and to Baldwin Hill Farm, with the longest views in South Berkshire. Then there's the classic old South Egremont Inn at the heart of its historic village; Broken Hill Manor, a luxurious hideaway in Sheffield; and the Old Inn on the Green in New Marlborough with its fine dining and more than 200 acres.

Many more lodging and dining places deserve mention, along with several waterfalls and many places to paddle and to hike. The trick is to turn south off the Pike at exit 2. Better yet, take exit 3, follow Route 57 west through serenely scenic villages back-roaded since the mid-19th century, and discover why New Yorkers find this lively, beautiful corner of Massachusetts so endearing.

Christina Tree of Cambridge is coauthor of "Massachusetts, An Explorer's Guide."

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