Perch for a Nighthawk

Thursday May 10, 2012

LENOX -- It's been a dreary day. The air is not quite cold enough to justify bumping up the heat, but you'll quickly chill if seated near a window. Everything is damp to the touch and your hands will dry out if not tucked snugly into coat pockets. Pedestrians all glance downward to avoid catching drizzle in their eyes.

Such days call for two antidotes: plates of steaming food and solitary rumination. That isn't a common combination, at least at the dinner hour.

No one bats an eye at the lone bundle of scarves and glowing cheeks that blusters into a morning greasy spoon seeking a hot sandwich and some time with his thoughts. But it's 8 p.m. on a Tuesday and the Southern Berkshires sadly lacks its version of a Nighthawks-esque diner.

Sloane's Tavern came to mind because this chilly hunger and leave-me-alone-I'm-brooding temper might describe a chunk of its public. It is, after all, situated on the grounds of Cranwell, and dusk at the edge of a golf course sounds like a magnet for browbeaten lone wolves. Anyone who'd spent the afternoon struggling for a stroke of hand-eye luck as his or her socks grew soggier was in my same boat.

This brings me to the point where I admit that I've never before sat at a table for one. I grabbed a book and braced for the presumed awkwardness of dining alone.

The tavern's booths of chitchatting couples and barstools topped by retirees bantering over a Red Sox game were cause for relief. They were far too distracted to pay me any mind. There were even two solitary men occupying individual tables, tapping away on iPhones without ever looking up.

"Sit anywhere you want," the bartender said quickly, but warmly before some obligation whisked him out of sight. I settled at a small table in the back corner where only the waitress would think to catch my eyes.

The menu is full of New England comfort food -- pub appetizers, meaty salads, hearty soups, and a "build your own burger" option. Starters and smaller plates hover between $9 and $15, with entrees running as high as $29.

Years ago a friend and I debated the qualities of a good diner. I said I could judge a place by its French onion soup. He claimed the same skill, but with a Reuben sandwich.

When I saw both items on the tavern's short menu I cracked a reminiscent grin and knew instantly what to order. I was looking for my Nighthawks, after all, and these were long ago established as the two dishes best suited to test such a kitchen.

The soup arrived in less than five minutes, as if they'd seen me coming a mile off. The cheese was browned, but plenty stretchy, with broth erring on the salty side, which is just how I like it, and flavorful rye bread lurking on the crock's floor. Portioned generously, this was a very good bowl of my favorite soup. The $6.95 price tag was steep, however, given the peasant soup's traditional cheapness on all but gold-plated menus.

The Rueben satisfied as well. It arrived the instant I took the final sip of soup, betraying either an eagle-eyed waitress or a kitchen pushing for a quick turnover. Regardless of intentions, the service was consistently friendly.

This sandwich wasn't drenched in Russian dressing, the downfall of many Reubens. The sauerkraut possessed a real zing, bouncing happily off the soft sweetness of corned beef. Despite a few dry bites, this was a satisfying Rueben.

But as with the soup, its $11.25 cost wasn't justified. For this money I'd expect something more -- corned beef cooked to breathtaking tenderness, some impressively nontraditional ingredient, or at least a mammoth portion accompanied by a less rushed pace of service.

All told, I barely had time to crack my book and left with a full belly. This would be ideal were I rushing off to work. But for a $19 check on a diner-style meal I'd expect indulgence. More time to indulge in the evening's mood, perhaps, by dwelling on the world's political machinations or simply gazing out at the foggy golf course. Or food with a bit more flare and inventiveness, a meal worthy of occasional indulgence.


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