Thursday October 25, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- On the long booth tables in the bar area of Michael’s Restaurant, propped against the wall next to the pepper shaker and a stack of Keno cards, stands a small placard listing specialty cocktails.

As is the trend with mid-range family restaurants serving Italian cuisine, but flirting with a pub-style identity, the drinks bear cute names. The second one down, a gin and fruit concoction, is named "The Double Agent."

Were this Twitter instead of The Eagle, that phrase would be my entire review since it cuts to the heart of this Stockbridge mainstay’s character.

Michael’s occupies a beautiful, well-maintained building in the town’s old-monied center, a fixture on the tourists’ walking loop.

Through the front door rests a beautiful dining room, simple and functional, with dark wood arches framing the open entryway.

This room was vacant when I went Tuesday night, however, since the crowd preferred the friend ly, dim-lit, nearly bustling bar area.

The bar itself is a thing of beauty, built of four dark wood counters forming a square around racks, shelves, and draught handles housing the whole gamut of libations. If the bartender’s chops are as well-rounded as her inventory, then a picky mixologist might find a proper Vesper Lynd or well-poured sazerac. But beer is clearly the bar’s focus, with chalkboards advertising draught specials and vintage beer signs speckling the walls.


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There are several TVs running on mute, but the scene is far from a bedlam of sports-based hollering. Instead, the silent blinking of Keno numbers and muted red and blue lights cast a leisurely glow of ease. Some game was playing, but it hardly captivated the collective gaze.

This setup creates a room within a room, the square bar forming something like an enclosed VIP lounge with drinkers casually chatting, gazing at the TVs’ glow with clutched Keno cards in hand, or even reading a newspaper in solitude.

In this same room, just feet from the bar, is a wall of brightly lit diner booths. They’re deep with high backs, creating nooks of privacy despite their location in the middle of a populated barroom.

The aura of semi-solitude makes each booth seem private, permitting intimate conversation and subdued candor, even though the next tableful of diners sits mere inches away.

This is one of the Double Agent tricks that Michael’s pulls off; housing a subdued beer-and-Keno bar scene just feet from a row of bright dinner booths built to accommodate the whole crew. And somehow the separate spheres each hold up.

There’s another whole room packed with tables just a few steps down from the bar. This is where Monday’s karaoke parties and the hootin’ and hollerin’ summertime bar scenes are hosted.

Despite sitting in plain sight of the bar area, this room is separated from the rest by a short drop and counter-height partitions flanking the steps.

I’ve seen this room packed with tipsy camp counselors belting out "Total Eclipse of the Heart" while mid-summer diners seated in the bar booths, and especially those eating in the separate dining room near the entrance, are blithely chattering over a family dinner. Double Agent, indeed.

The menu is equally divided. Half is greasy bar food; mozzarella sticks, bacon and cheese potato skins. But the entrees are of a different ilk. I ordered Veal Parmesan ($18.95) and my companion chose Linguini and Whole Clams in White Sauce ($14.95).

The clam dish was large, but dwarfed by my meal.

The steak-sized cut of veal was caked in crispy breading and covered in a blanket of melting cheese, surrounded by a mess of spaghetti drenched in oregano-heavy marinara sauce, was enough to sate two adults. Both entrees were hearty and flavorful, but also heavy and oily.

This isn’t a complaint. The veal dish was decadently rich and the clam’s buttery broth simmered with unctuous sapor. Each plate was a challenge, or at least a commitment. I may have to bore a new notch on my belt.

The food is tasty and abundant, but largely made of diner-caliber ingredients. The noodles were cafeteria grade, and the marinara sauce lacked that ineffable kiss that characterizes authentic Italian cuisine. While my veal was quite tender, its breading may have come from a box.

Our house salad of iceberg lettuce and store-bought dressing could just as easily have been purchased from a carnival food truck. But these criticisms are not borne of dissatisfaction. All in all it was a good meal for a fair price, and half of the veal and pasta is in my fridge right now.

So, back to the Double Agent idea, Michael’s Restaurant stacks two styles of restaurant -- two cultures, really -- on top of each other. But it actually works, tenuous though the equilibrium may appear. A beer spilled on the bar could splash a couple on a quiet date, but the separation between these two worlds is surprisingly effective.

Whether you’re out for a jolly night of pints or aim to feed the family, Michael’s can satisfy for a fair price.

But while you’ll easily find the stool, nook, or table to suit your mood and mission, folks experiencing a completely different sort of evening may squeeze past you on the way to the coatroom. You may have to think like a Double Agent to cooly navigate this schizophrenic landscape.