Thursday August 30, 2012

LEE -- The Locker Room Sports Pub. Ruminate on that name for a moment. It says a lot more than I first realized.

"Locker Room" could be interpreted as generically sporty, or conjure sense memories of post-gym class sweat. But those who have been on any sort of team will remember the locker room as the ultimate clubhouse. It's where victories were raucously celebrated and defeats were intensely discussed. If you were in the locker room you were part of the family. Come as you are.

Then there's "Sports Pub." Don't mix this up with "sports bar," a place focused mainly on alcohol and TV. A pub, though, is a community center of sorts. It's short for "Public House," and for hundreds of years in both Britain and the United States, pubs have hosted political gatherings, celebrated joyful victories, and served as incubators for community movements.

Google "Revolutionary War" + "pubs" if you don't believe me.

So, as I evaluate a gourmet bistro against its own projected identity of shiny shoes luxury and deferent service, and estimate a dive bar by the quality of its vintage pinball machines and bathroom wall wit, I'd like to tell you why the Locker Room has exactly what I look for in a pub.

As for the "public" part, I'm not sure I've ever been to another establishment that so strongly emphasizes sports (there are big-screen TVs hanging from every free spot on the ceiling, showing various matches) but forces it upon no one. I saw all manner of people eating and chatting, tucked in their high-backed booths that create a sense of privacy, undisturbed by booming volume.

The TV crowd leaned forward on the bar's stools and stared at the drama, but that scene was hardly the restaurant's focal point. Nor did I get the icy stares and glance-away snickers that I've received all over the country when stepping into a saloon with my skinny jeans, 90s slacker hair, dopey grin, and ever-present notepad.

To the contrary, two warm waitresses invited me to sit anywhere. I missed the tryouts, it seems, but somehow still made the team.

A sports theme runs throughout the place, but in an earnest and charming way. There are framed black-and-white photos of Lee high school teams from the 1950s, glory shots of baseball's all-time greats, and some signed souvenirs on proud display. I've never in my life watched a complete professional game of any sort, and simply couldn't care less about a conversation on the subject (I'm not smug about this, instead feeling left out), but was nonetheless taken by the pub's
museum.

The Locker Room is divided into three areas; an entryway lined with booths ideal for families and dates, a bar full of baseball enthusiasts watching intently, and a large dining room with tables large and small, four well-maintained dart boards, and muted televisions pointed in every direction. I'm told that rock bands play here from time to time and I imagine this space would suit such an event well.

A pub's menu can range from stale nachos and canned salsa to hearty and quality-oriented cuisine. The Locker Room's kitchen opted for the latter approach. I've been wowed by their pizza when family members brought it home, but tonight I wanted to size up the kitchen on my own terms, going with dishes I know well; French onion soup and a burger with the works.

A few winters back I devoted a blog to finding the Berkshires' best bowl of French onion soup. I hit at least six joints, each one recommended.

That night I found the Locker Room's steaming creation to tie in first place with that of Lenox's Bistro Zinc. But the Locker Room's steaming crock pot of cheese, onion, bread, and broth was only $4.75 while Zinc's costs $8, giving the Locker Room the extra point to claim victory.

I also feel qualified by experience to size up a burger, so I chose the "Locker Room Deluxe," a half-pound steak burger smothered in fixins. The thing is huge.

Coupled with the accompanying stacks of fries this meal can fill two stomachs. I made it to the halfway mark, and that was only through perseverance and gluttony. 

The tender, savory beef patty was larger than expected, and piled with a mountain of bacon, cheese, and vegetables that were all crispy, crunchy, and clearly fresh. This feast came in at a mere $8.75.

The Dream Away Lodge's burger may always be my local favorite, but the Locker Room Deluxe takes the silver.

Some may be dumbfounded by my past dismissal of local culinary institutions, but in my estimation they failed to live up to their stiff upper lips and extravagant price tags. The Locker Room, though, does quite the opposite. It exceeds its self-definition. It takes a generic format -- the sports pub -- and delivers really good food at greasy spoon prices.

I simply cannot relate to the person who leaves The Locker Room dissatisfied, and instead want to high-five the entire staff.

I care infinitely more about Leonard Cohen's early discography and Woody Allen movies than how the Red Sox perform, but I may yet become one of those regulars leaning forward on a Locker Room barstool.