The Berkshires are beloved for beautiful mountains and lakes, warm country inns, antiques shops, fine restaurants and theaters, and hiking trails and ski hills galore.
Time to add another plus: burgeoning night life.
Two recent evenings in the region confirmed that the after-dark vibe has taken a big step forward. Much of the appeal lies in restaurant-bar-club combinations, but the action doesn't slow down once the last meal is served.
Pittsfield and Great Barrington are the most dynamic spots, perhaps because each has a 2 a.m. license compared with 1 a.m. in Stockbridge, Lee, and Lenox. Pittsfield has undergone a profound rejuvenation - the exciting Spice and festive Brazilian Restaurant & Pub have opened in the past year. And while Great Barrington continues to soar with the ever-fresh Club Helsinki (the top live music club in the area), it now shares the stage with the elegant Celestial Bar (featuring jazz acts and adjoining the stylish Castle Street Café), and the new Allium, with a best-and-brightest Berkshires clientele and a drink menu ranging from fine wines to Belgian ales.
I stayed at a decent Comfort Inn in Pittsfield, which afforded an equidistant launch point to most venues. I hit a dozen sites and was struck by their mounting variety. For years I've stayed at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, then made the nightly rounds from the Olde Heritage Tavern in Lenox (a cool sports bar as long as you don't mind sharing stools with Yankees fans) to the Lion's Den in Stockbridge (a great subterranean folk bar), to Club Helsinki. But I didn't think there was much else around. Lenox has some great restaurants in Bistro Zinc (where I had a terrific omelet brunch) and Firefly, but is not known for clubs.
For my first night, I explored some places that were new to me, starting with the spacious Asters Steaks & Raw Bar on Route 7 in Pittsfield. It has a couple of romantic rooms with meals running from Idaho brook trout to Asters' signature steak. It also has a modern lounge where the acoustic performer Justin Allen was playing his heart out (he's a clever, Jack Johnson-like singer), but sadly, most people were talking, not listening. From there I went to another Route 7 steakhouse called Dakota, which has a hunting lodge flavor and a small, friendly bar with overhead TVs. It was quiet and peaceful, but I wanted more.
I got it in Great Barrington, which has an almost surreal sense of innocence. I eased into the Celestial Bar, where the smooth Armen Donelian Trio played for a mixed-aged crowd amid photos of jazz greats on the walls. Close by is Allium (the name means "anything that comes from a bulb," said manager Halle Heyman), which featured a casual-chic decor with a personal choice of Velvet Underground records played by a bartender. A visiting wine exporter was offering samples at the bar. This is a convivial spot that offers live Brazilian jazz every other Friday, as well as an attractive restaurant in the next room.
Next up was Club Helsinki, a short stroll away. It's a dark hideaway but very cosmopolitan and adjacent to the Helsinki Café. Both the club and cafe are co-owned by Deborah McDowell (granddaugther of the former manager of Hotel Helsinki in Finland) and Mark Schafler. The club has a capacity of only 100, but has booked Norah Jones four times, plus Jamaican legend Burning Spear and African-American star Olu Dara, along with Bostonians from Sarah Borges to Chris Smither. Many acts are persuaded to play between gigs in Boston and New York, partly because the owners are able to trade free lodging with local innkeepers for dinners for inn patrons at the Helsinki Café. It's a nice barter system and the consumer is the winner.
On this night, Club Helsinki was grooving to the Homegrown Band, a reggae group that includes a couple of members from Bermuda and Ian Evans from Great Barrington. They pump out the reggae while clusters of dancers take to the floor.
The next day, I started early in North Adams, where I visited MASS MoCA, then hit the Mohawk Bar across the street. The Mohawk is a working-class, no-frills place, but it also attracts artists from some of the nighttime concerts at MASS MoCA. And next to it in the same block are the Gramercy Bistro and a great coffeehouse called Brewhaha.
Pittsfield was the next stop. First up was Sabor, a Latin restaurant-bar owned by a couple from Ecuador, Paul Soltana and Digna Gonzalez. Her brother, Jose, mans the turntables under the name of DJ Master Mix and the place is known to be hopping late at night. Nearby is the new Brazilian Restaurant & Pub, which has a buffet menu and a band led by Mexican native Octavio Hernandez. Called Mighty Mouse & the Stray Cats, the group also contains his sons, Eric and Nico, performing a strong cross-section of Latin-Caribbean rhythms. And later, a DJ comes in for dancing.
Pittsfield's main street used to be nearly deserted at night, but recently added an excellent new sports bar-restaurant called Bobby Hudpuckers Grill & Pub, and a block away, the swinging new Spice, a modern restaurant so crowded that all the tables had been reserved. Diners sampled an American-style menu from sautéed calf liver to spaghetti with poached Hancock Shaker Village egg and speck, garlic, truffle, and Parmesan cheese. Spice was opened by partners Joyce Bernstein and Lawrence Rosenthal, who left New York after 9/11.
Spice also boasts an artsy lounge with French posters on the walls and contemporary couches. Sparking the night was a Latin jazz band called the Berkshire Bateria, a talented troupe of dancers and musicians that ranges up to 17 pieces. It is led by Jim and Teri Weber, and includes their drum-playing daughter, Raina, who stated the obvious: "Pittsfield was once considered the armpit of the Berkshires, but it's becoming the place to be."
It was time to hit Stockbridge, so I drove to the Lion's Den, part of the famed Red Lion Inn complex (dating to the 18th century) that also houses the upstairs Widow Bingham's Tavern, where a gentlemanly bartender in tie and vest dispensed drinks. But the music is in the Lion's Den. It has a New Orleans feel and a red decor with old-fashioned lanterns on the walls. The music is an entertaining mix, this night led by Bev Rohler and John Colby, who played soul tunes with panache. I love this place and wouldn't think of visiting the Berkshires without stopping by. Friendly bartenders, too.
Around the corner in Stockbridge is Michael's Pub, a lively, mostly townie hangout where a band called Balance played well-received, classic-rock tunes from Pink Floyd to U2. Patrons also bounced between an outdoor patio and an upstairs billiards room.
I topped off the trip with another visit to Great Barrington, about 10 minutes away. I ended up again at Allium, from whence an afterparty developed at an apartment up the street that went until dawn. Attendees ranged from a local filmmaker to a soldier who had just come back from Iraq. It was a great time.
As I happily discovered, anything can happen in the Berkshires.
Steve Morse, a freelance writer living in Cambridge, can be reached at email@example.com.