Berkshires After Dark: Lion's Den hidden treasure

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STOCKBRIDGE -- Olya and I ran down a mental checklist of our options. It was nearing 9 p.m. on a frigid and drizzly November Monday and our options for food and drink in South County looked slim. I Googled some alluring haunts but most were closed, leaving our list in tatters.

We drove through downtown Lenox, peaceful and locked up like an amusement park after hours, and even walked up to the darkened manor entrance of Wheatleigh's library.

"Oh," I said as the penny dropped, "There's always food and music at the Lion's Den."

We couldn't tell whether the tavern, tucked underneath the sprawling 18th century geometry of the Red Lion Inn, had any life in it as our car nosed in the parking spot from Route 7.

The 240-year-old building, of which the Lion's Den is just one charming and storied nook, has changed little in outward appearance since Norman Rockwell famously committed its broad façade to canvas in his 1967 painting "Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas." Cars lined the block Monday, as they do in August, but were the weary drivers already asleep in the inn's luxurious quarters?

Not by a long shot. At the bottom of a half flight of steps we opened the heavy entrance door to reveal a warm, bustling, music and firelight-filled lounge brimming with activity. I glanced at Olya and we nodded to each other. This was the right choice, even if our only choice.

I counted 25 diners already seated when we arrived, and several more trickled in behind us. This left various tables free -- several small booths along the back wall, scattered two and four-top tables, tall stools at the elegant antique bar backed by a mural of painted lions, even the spacious and cushioned booth at the room's rear that directly faces the stage. We grabbed a small table in the center of the floor, five feet from a smoldering fireplace.

"It feels like " I began to say while surveying the room and inhaling deeply through my nose.

"Like Christmas," Olya completed without missing a beat. Maybe the whitewashed brick walls, deep red carpeting and upholstery, rustic browns of the exposed ceiling beams, and the Den's smoky and appetizing aromas nudged at faded Christmas morning memories of my Berkshire youth, hopping from home to home of family friends through snow and pines, cooing by a changing backdrop of fireplaces and folk music as plates of homemade New England delicacies were placed into my small hands by adults who spoke in soothing murmurs.

Or maybe it was the night's thin, dry air, hinting that its drizzles would freeze and clump into snow in a few short hours, that primed our Yuletide mindset. Whatever evoked our childlike delight, it did a bang-up job because Olya and I were both raised Jewish. Regardless, we made a toast with two glasses of Maker's Mark ($9 each) and sank into wood backed chairs to half read the menu, half listen to Woodstock, N.Y., singer and guitarist Erik Erikson perform winning renditions of some great folk and classic rock punctuated by darkly funny banter.

I read through the lunch/dinner menu's sections, each boasting rib-sticking wintertime food -- chowders, chili, and cheesy "noshes" ($8), charcuterie & cheese ($9), salads ($13), sandwiches, paninis and sausages ($12), and pub specials ($10) -- but repeatedly lost my place as Erikson's jokes caught me off guard.

After a beautiful rendition of Stephen Still's "Love the One You're With," he said with a straight face, "I try not to play that one for newlyweds." I looked around the room to see if any of the other tables picked up on his quick and cynical joke ("If you can't be with the one you love / Love the one you're with.").

"Now here's a song for anyone having an acid flashback at the moment," continued Erikson as he launched into Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home." Olya and I laughed out loud as our neighbors -- on this night averaging around retirement age, though I've seen the Den host all sorts of performers and audiences -- conversed away while blithely tapping their feet to the music.

Erikson led into a Billy Joel song with a raconteur's anecdote. A man to my right said, "Good song" as the first chord sounded, and a woman to the left echoed, "Nice number" once the lyrics were underway. This homey atmosphere was amplified by the relaxed and capable waitstaff calmly striding the floor and the periodic sound of the heavy door swinging open as another pair of heavy coats scurried in from the chill. Every passing plate of food left a vanishing contrail of steam.

The Lion's Den serves lunch and dinner seven nights a week, with live music every night from 8 to 11 p.m. This turns the tavern's unique situation -- the only place I know of between Pittsfield and Great Barrington where one can reliably find dinner and a show on a midweek whim -- into an asset. At summer's peak, downtown Stockbridge swells to alarming capacity and I relinquish its amenities to the people who don't mind the hurry, crowding, long waits and parking struggles.

But during this slim time of year the Inn's captive destination audience housed above the Den provides a steady and breezy crowd, and on a desolate November night you can join in on their holiday. There are no nearby bars letting out, no crowds on the street formulating more exciting plans, nor much cell coverage permitting the world's other possibilities from intruding on this satisfying scene.

After a visit to the vibrant white tile and ceramic Art Deco restroom, returning through a narrow hall lined with framed photos of musical luminaries who have prowled the den over the decades and local heroes such as Norman Rockwell and prominent Fitzpatricks, I was surprised to find our dear friend Ralph at the table.

One of Olya's messages had escaped the vortex, it seems, and now one more had joined our toasty underground faux-Christmas Eve of charcuterie, Lennon covers and LSD humor. I like the Lion's Den better this way, during the cold months, when it waits as a hidden holiday for those willing to step beneath the surface of Stockbridge.


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