LENOX -- I am smitten by the discovery I made on Saturday night. I decided on a whim to visit the Piano Bar at the Gateways Inn, a place I associated with antiquated stuffiness; instead, I found my new favorite bar.
The night was windless, hung with a mist that siphoned light from each street lamp to refract a dreamy luster around every object in sight -- within a 20-pace radius.
I felt as though I was walking in a snow globe, alone but peaceful. It was nice to know that friends would join me later on, but much nicer that they hadn't yet arrived.
The Gateways dwells in a hulking Gilded Age cottage that appears more sterile than inviting.
The inn has an established reputation for providing high-end lodging and gourmet dining, but new owners took over in January and unveiled the Piano Bar in April.
From the street, things looked quiet. I doubted whether the place was open. But once through the utilitarian entryway, I suddenly popped into Technicolor and found myself inside a bright and impeccably decorated check-in area near the base of a truly grand staircase.
I still saw no bar, lounge, or people, just framed prints and tourist pamphlets. But then the honey-mellowed voice of an unseen chanteuse beckoned from around corners and down a short hall.
I followed the molten golden notes and saw what the Piano Bar actually is -- two adjacent rooms serving two separate, but related functions. The lounge is a large rectangular room, made to feel massive by high ceilings and a Gilded Age-appropriate decorating scheme, lit by shimmering brass chandeliers. At the far end of the room the grand-piano player and the singer seducing a microphone held the gaze of everyone present.
Voice like sea breeze
Sherri James Buxton's voice flowed through and around each note like a sea breeze. Together with pianist Andy Jaffee, head of the Williams College Jazz Department, she sang jazz standards and favorites from the Great American Songbook from 8 to nearly 11 p.m., with only a brief intermission.
Buxton performs at Piano Bar regularly, as do a roster of local musicians who rotate Thursdays through Saturdays during the winter, and all seven nights during the summer.
The music cast a romantic, almost cinematic mood. One large party of about 15 sat together on long couches. A few isolated couples leaned together on beautiful leather love seats facing a lit fireplace.
I chose an antique mahogany chair with leather upholstery, my glass resting on a granite tabletop, gazing out the window to my right, which reached all the way down to lap-level, into the misty night.
People could have conversed. The atmosphere was casual enough to permit mindful speaking levels, and a waiter periodically came through to deliver a cheese plate or take drink orders. But no one chose to talk. The music said plenty.
Moved into the bar
But there was plenty of speaking in the other half of the Piano Bar. Along the back left wall of the lounge, to the left of where Sherri crooned, a giant pair of open doors leads to the barroom. After an hour lost in the music, I saw my friends arrive and I moved into the bar.
Although the two rooms open into one another visually, aurally, and spatially, the doorframe establishes a cultural demarcation. Seated at the many barstools or at the other chairs in the room, couples and other smaller parties were in a more goofy, talkative mood than those in the lounge.
This is in part due to the bar's dizzying array of scotch whiskeys, bound to drive the novice mad and the expert madder. One bottle, about which I shall wonder for the rest of my days, dates from 1956 and sells for $600 a dram.
My glass of Glenmorangie 12-year Sherry Wood, $12 neat, was a powerful little thing that started off with fireworks and revolutionary cries and then, sip by sip over the course of an hour, matured into fine woodwork and sweet bedtime stories.
The menu was also a topic of discussion. Dishes are geared toward being shared, with titles like "The Tel Aviv Plate" and "The Tanglewood Crudités and Dips," ranging from $10 to $16.
I ordered "The Barrington Sliced Steak Sandwich" on French bread with roasted tomatoes and horseradish sauce. It was a tender, and surprisingly sweet meal, flavored largely by the tomatoes.
The dill-heavy potatoes, served cool, were quite good. This $16 dish was satisfying, but erred on the expensive size. A conversation with a couple I met convinced me that splitting platters is the best way to approach this menu.
Bartender Pete Evangelista also helped keep the atmosphere lively, as if he was born to become friends with everyone. Far from playing up the Gateways' panache, he wore a Zildjian T-shirt and showed me photos of himself playing bass in an Aerosmith tribute band, replete with wig.
He also shared some thoughts about the live music.
"Thursday nights are usually the best." he said. "Bob Kelley plays, usually with a female vocalist. It draws a good crowd every time."
Buit by Procter family
I asked Pete about the building. He said it was built in 1912 by the Procter family (of Procter & Gamble fortune). The reason the windows extend so close to the ground -- just what I'd wondered earlier -- is because Harley Procter's wife used a wheelchair and wanted to see outside from her seated position.
The Piano Bar impressed me. The music, lighting, seating, décor, scotch, clintele, employees, cleanliness, comfort, location. All of it. I've literally discovered my favorite local spot to get a relaxed drink and blend into the shadows, or to bring a date.
There are better places to celebrate a 21st birthday or see a rock band, but I just want a nice whiskey, a comfortable chair, pleasing music, and a bit of solitude.
I don't bestow 5 mugs unless I mean it, so you know where to find me on the chilliest weekend nights.
No, the round isn't actually on me, but you can try a sip of my single malt if you insist.
If you go
The Piano Bar at the Gateways Inn, 51 Walker St, Lenox. (413) 637-2532, www.gatewaysinn.com.
Dress: Smart casual attire suits the bar's jazzy, relaxed, after-hours spirit.
Cover: None, though listeners are encouraged to tip the musicians.
Food: A large menu offering upscale re-imaginations of shareable bar platters.
Entertainment: Live music starting at 8 p.m. on Thursdays through Sundays during the winter. By summertime there will be live performances seven nights a week.
Our rating: 1 mug, Run away; 2 mugs, Yawn; 3 mugs, Cheers; 4 mugs,
"I'll be back"; 5 mugs, "Round's on me!"
Your rating: You can rate The Piano Bar at the Gateways Inn at www.berkshireeagle.com /The413