Region After Dark: At a beer-can museum


NORTHAMPTON -- Our recent spell of gorgeous weather has lured me out of hibernation, floating on the floral breeze like a Loony Tunes hobo pulled through the air by the scent of a cooling pie on a windowsill.

Last weekend. I made the drive, a mere podcast's length, to Northampton's Ye Ol' Watering Hole & Beer Can Museum for some social invigoration.

On this mild spring evening the hootin' and hollerin' scene on Pleasant Street revved like an offbeat hot rod, built of this bit of counterculture and that; a trendy update of Johnny Cash's psychobilly Cadillac. Given the town's five-college foundation and progressive reputation, though, any accurate metaphor would have the dragster run on a bio-diesel engine or fixed-gear pedal power.

The saloon's hanging street sign, a relic of washed-out 1970s design, displays the simple images of a television, dartboard and a frothing pint glass; a clear message that this institution won't be handing out any reading assignments.

I'd been anticipating this night eagerly. I'm considering a move to Northampton in the coming months and came to spend some relaxed time getting to know my potential housemates. They'd chosen our rendezvous point, and the tavern's personality, aesthetic, amenities, and clientele struck me as a harbinger of domestic comity by appealing to my retro Americana sensibilities.

I encountered a hotbed of activity in the bar's tight entryway. The Hole (the business' preferred sobriquet, for better or worse) flurried with a confluence of earthy undergrads, microbrew connoisseurs, trendy young professionals, and neighborhood regulars. The narrow front room was brimming with vocal Celtics fans rising and falling on their stools with each reversal of fortune displayed on three HD TVs.

Once through this bottleneck I turned the corner to find a spacious second room, lined along one wall with soft, high-backed bench seating and containing enough tables and chairs to comfortably accommodate a sizable crowd.

Three pool tables (free to play Monday through Wednesday), dartboards, a jukebox and a colorful collection of vintage bar memorabilia and lighting fixtures establish an ambiance reminiscent more of the pool halls and roadhouses I've encountered in the South and Midwest than of small-town New England pubs.

The "museum" is an assortment of 4,000 beer cans from throughout the 20th century, a collection started in 1970 by a previous owner, neatly lined along the ceiling's dark wooden beams.

The effect is hokey, but winning, presenting a visual story of earnest American saloon culture announcing itself throughout the decades.

My group of friends, all around 30 and hailing from four countries, encircled one pool table while a sharply dressed young couple dueled it out over another. A group of younger women dressed for a sorority party chatted energetically at a longer table in the room's center.

The bar, which wraps around to face both rooms, was surrounded from every angle with boisterous patrons. Several twosomes found privacy at circular corner tables, and a few individuals occupied quiet nooks where they typed away on tablets, taking advantage of the bar's free Wi-Fi. Underneath the Hole's anachronistic novelty lies the unobtrusive comfort of an easygoing neighborhood bar. Within minutes I was shooting pool with my new friends, lost in the social flow of a constraint-free setting.

A glass of Farmer Brown Ale concocted by The People's Pint, a small brewery in nearby Greenfield, cost a fair $4.50. That the same vintage price tag buys a glass of Knob Creek, served neat, came as a generous surprise.

Equally impressive was the efficiency of just two bartenders who provided consistently swift service and friendly rapport to a clientele growing in size and thirst.

A selection of liquors is available, but the Hole emphasizes its 12 lines of draft and laundry list of bottled beers, including local specialties as well as domestic and imported standards.

Other regional offerings currently on tap come from Worcester's Wormtown Brewery and South Deer field's Berkshire Brewing Co.

Small snacks like roasted peanuts are available, as is fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juice.

I'm interested to see how the scene changes once school lets out and North ampton's year-round culture becomes more visible.

Perhaps the Hole is more of a gimmick than a relic, capitalizing on the nostalgic quest for authenticity, but its inclusive air is genuine.

And a round of pool with new friends over $4.50 whiskeys requires no trimmings beside an "Open" sign.

If you go ...

Ye Ol' Watering Hole & Beer Can Museum, 287 Pleasant St, Northampton, 01060. (413) 585-0990.

Style: Retro pool bar with extensive beer selection and sports on the television.

Dress: Casual.

Cover: None.

Food: A few small snacks including peanuts and chips.

Entertainment: Pool, darts, board games, sports on TV, and a jukebox.

Our rating: 4 mugs, "I'll be back"


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