GREAT BARRINGTON -- Writing these After Dark columns has prevented, at times against my sleepy will, 30 years and an out-of-my-league girlfriend from excusing this cold-hating Berkshirite from making every dark and snowy night a night in. This is a good thing; it chases the cobwebs away. And this week it reminded me what makes The Well a local favorite on Great Barr ington’s Main Street, just south of the turn onto Railroad Street, that fills up like a beach in summer.
Ralph and I sat in my bedroom scratching our heads as snow clinging to our pant cuffs melted into a dampness that won’t leave until May. On the kind of night when your ice scraper vanishes from the backseat of the car only to reappear on Thursday, 40 minutes after you buy a replacement. He’d helped me lug several carloads of heavy belongings to my new place in Stockbridge over the preceding few days, which doused us in precipitation and sinister gusts of dry and icy air. Did the Puritans write about the immorality of this bitter wind? Perhaps Mary Dyer was kind enough to forgive it.
The two of us were famished and double-socked, in need of hot dinner and fresh beer but dreading the sprint from house to car. Such temperature extremes demand efficiency, so our plan had to be cemented before the chilly doorknob was touched.
Restaurants tend to be closed Mondays, especially this time of year when quite a few are closed for the season. I checked three websites and called two more to find "closed for the season" or "open weekends only until May" messages.
The Well? It had been four years since I’d visited, maybe longer, and I pictured a narrow subterranean bar organized around televisions and dartboards. I thought of it as the go-to destination to keep the party alive for an extra half hour on summer nights after other bars in Barrington start counting the register. The Well, as in "well drinks." Right?
No, said Ralph. They have a full pub menu and good beers on draught. I cocked my head at his mention that The Well houses a full kitchen and is lined with dining booths and subdued light; not the busy and clamorous watering hole of my faint recollection. Perhaps if I’d noticed their menu in the past, those memories would have been more accurate.
I gave them a call to make sure.
"We’re serving food until ten," said a friendly voice. This is why I’m grateful for the After Dark column. The Well, a business I pass by several times a week, is nothing like I’d remembered. It’s a welcoming and comfortable bar, and offers a menu of cuff-drying indulgences that are portioned more like appetizing challenges than quick bites. But the pub’s façade is what you’ll first encounter and is worth mentioning for its clever and whimsical use of a unique space.
The bar is below street level at the bottom of an iron-railed set of steps, well illuminated and decorated in blue with and white icons of people, forks, knives and cocktail glasses that borrow their simplicity and universal significance from airport signage. At the bottom of the stairs, between the retaining wall that holds Great Barrington a story away and the plate glass façade of The Well, sits a private nook where smokers and others who need a social break may sit in solitude or gather for some isolated conversation. This also allows a bar-hopper to scope out the scene from street level.
It was a pleasant one on 9 p.m. on this wintry midweek night, confirming Ralph’s claims. The space is deeper than it is wide, but the left side holds a row of comfy booths large enough for four adults or a family and the right offers high pub tables and stools near the front and an L-shaped bar at the back, opposite restrooms.
A large flatscreen above the bar was the evening’s focal point for the jovial bar crowd, eight in total and assuming the physical and vocal language of regulars. Another television hangs above the dining area, but the subdued classic rock soundtrack foments an easygoing atmosphere that the sports naïf in me found immediately accessible and warming.
"Sit wherever you’d like," the bartender said. None of the regulars craned their necks to gander at the newcomers, too involved in their conversations to worry about ours. We chose a cushioned booth against the exposed brick wall, glowing with the shifting hues of a multi-colored lava lamp. Each table had a different one, which fuse with neon beer signs and blue and red holiday lights to balance and soften the white light of hanging ceiling fixtures. One other booth was full of stylishly clad twenty-somethings engrossed in chatter, and others burst in from the outside, shivering, as we dined.
The menu is appetizing, extensive and topped with the motto "Eat. Drink. Be Well." I misinterpreted the name. Our waiter, the bartender again, had to return for a third time before we’d made up our minds. Authentic Oaxacan guacamole, French onion soup, "Award-Winning Well Wings," seafood, burgers, sandwiches, steak, pan-seared tuna. How had I missed this?
We started with two pints of noticeably fresh tasting Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA ($6) and four-cheese nachos with chili ($11), which arrived quickly as a platter of melted cheese and flavorful beef, corn and beans over fresh and crispy chips. I took my last bite, literally, as the waiter returned with my "House-Smoked BBQ Pulled Pork Quesadilla" ($11.50) and Ralphs "Western Burger topped with BBW sauce, beer-battered onion rings + Pepper Jack cheese ($13).
"I don’t know how we’re going to eat all of this," he said with a tone of ambition, desire and mature hesitancy. Those nachos buried us both to our waists. I shoveled through three fourths of the fantastic pork quesadilla, generously portioned with sweet and tangy slow-cooked meat, and Ralph hit the brakes at the halfway mark.
"Hey look," he said. "Our leftovers will make a perfect meal for Nick."