WEST STOCKBRIDGE -- As a child I spent summers at a camp deep in the southern Berkshire woods. It was charming and rustic, a bit rough around the edges but in a pleasing, "you're learning important skills, kid" sort of way. The summer's highlight was its final week, Family Camp, when our parents and siblings were invited to join in, sleeping in the cabin bunks and practicing archery or canoeing alongside us -- and to grill exquisitely uncomplicated comfort food by evening firelight.
These memories came to mind as I took in the atmosphere and menu of the Shaker Mill Tavern. The Tavern is isolated -- a block or so away from West Stock bridge's downtown stretch -- but was overflowing with people of all ages, laughter, excited chatter from the barstool crowd, and delicious aromas. These people were on vacation, even if just for an hour or two.
This was a Monday at 7 p.m. The tavern's floor plan accentuates a four-sided bar lined with stools and bartenders pouring pints and joshing with the regulars from within.
Dining tables radiate out from the bar toward a wall of large street-facing windows that allow natural light to fill the room. This section alone is large enough to constitute a pub, but around the corner is another complete dining area, a bit quieter with muted lighting and booth-style seating, which doubles the capacity. West Stockbridge was quiet this evening, but both rooms of the restaurant were packed.
I was a thoroughly all-ages affair run by staff that tended toward the young and countrified. An enthusiastic teen took our order. He returned to the table twice to ask follow-up questions regarding our meals. Our busboy also twice tried to clear plates before we were done with them, but like the waiter, he was clearly a youngster eager to do a good job.
The Tavern's cooking is full of details and insights that would come from a caring grandparent cooking for the family. Given the place's down-home character, I expected wings and burgers. Not so. The kitchen seems to specialize in authentic Italian cuisine and bistro dishes served at bar-food prices. My mother and I (yes, Mom was my dinner date, the final clue that this was a Family Camp for my late 20s) split the P.E.I. mussels appetizer. It arrived swiftly and was dynamite from the first bite until the last.
The plate's description in cludes the expected butter and garlic, but what arrived was a semi-sweet Mediterranean sea food dish ideal for sharing. This huge portion consisted of large, tender mussels in a flavorful yet light broth that highlighted white wine and leeks. The "large garlic croutons" are in fact big hunks of fresh grilled bread packing as much savory potency as the rest. A more chic joint might offer this as an entrée for $22, but here it was a $12 appetizer.
Our entrees kept this trend going. My Medallions of Beef Tenderloin with roasted red potatoes and fresh, colorful veggies was tasty and satisfying. The beef's texture was its shining quality, with the subtly seasoned green beans coming in at a close second. For $21, you can fill yourself on half now and eat the rest at midnight when memories of the steak entice you to the refrigerator. This one isn't cheap, but large portions of fresh ingredients explain why.
Mom tried the Build Your Own Pizza, settling on a mushroom, spinach, and garlic 10-inch pie costing $10. Once more we were both impressed by the tastiness and lightness of this thin-crust pizza topped in fresh vegetables and the exactly right amount of cheese.
All three dishes bore detail-oriented touches suggesting a skilled kitchen staff with a sincere passion for affordable cuisine. That seems to be what the tavern really is: welcoming, satisfying and bucolic in a charming way. Though the staff is not yet on par with the kitchen, they'll do just fine as this summer matures. By that time, the Shaker Mill Tavern will be poised to satisfy the whole gang, young and old.
If you go ...
What: Shaker Mill Tavern
Where: 5 Albany Road,
Hours: Monday to Thursday,
4 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, lunch noon to 4 p.m. and dinner 4 to 10 p.m.; Sunday dinner noon to 9 p.m
Handicapped accessible: Yes.
Price range: Appetizers start
at $4; dinner $7 to $21
Credit cards: All major
Information: (413) 232-8565, www.shakermilltavern.com.
Rating: 3 chef's hats