Thursday December 27, 2012

While contributing to the After Dark column over the past year I visited a range of bars and restaurants, throwing myself into the culture of each one.

I ordered house specialties, chatted with bartenders and regulars, and brought along friends who I then pestered into telling me their thoughts so I could grab a quotation.

Now, at the relaxed end of a fun and bustling holiday, I’m poring over all 20 of these column entries to recall my favorite details and discoveries.

These are five that really stuck to my ribs, memories still warm months later.

n Discovering the East Side Café, Pittsfield.

I still can’t figure out how I’d never before been there. They had me at "Seat yourself."

Some of you won’t agree, and that’s understandable, but I found the East Side idyllic in that it’s fluent in the language of my childhood joys and adult tastes.

Its crown is certainly the pizza, which arrives within minutes. It is so beautifully simple that it sheds doubt on the premise of specialty pizzas, and comes at fast-food prices.

But the details that grabbed me are the lost-era diner atmosphere, vintage video games, and the East Side’s modest storefront amidst post-industrial monuments to past decades. Not a frill in sight. It feels plucked from "The Long Goodbye" or a Tom Waits album cover, and I hope no other native is forced to wait 29 years before discovering it.

n The good-humored luxury in Courtyard at the Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge.

The summer influx of tourists can crowd out the idea that posh local restaurants are meant to be enjoyed by locals, too. But I was reminded of this right away when I sat down in the Courtyard at summer’s peak. The country club coloring, lavish flowers, calm respite from the street’s hullaballoo, and easygoing pace made me feel catered to, taken care of.

A look around told me I wasn’t alone. Every table seemed relaxed, content, and enjoying the moment. This is due in no small part to the savvy young staff who ran the place efficiently and attentively but who also cracked jokes and set a fun tone. The experience reminded me exactly why so many people vacation here.

n The frogs’ legs at the Old Mill, Egremont. It was my first time trying frogs’ legs, a delicacy my father had always spoken so fondly of, and they exceeded all expectations.

It’s listed as a $10.50 appetizer on the menu, but this steaming, buttery, succulent dish is larger than most starters and many times as good. The meat was tender, flavorful, and light, springing to fresh life with a squeeze of lemon juice.

How the Old Mill keeps this large fried dish feeling light seems like an act of wizardry to me, and illustrates why the restaurant has earned a shining reputation.

These frogs’ legs left quite an impression on my palate; I honestly think about them all the time. If the Old Mill offered midnight delivery of these magical morsels then I would be a broke man with a larger belt.

n The moonlit atmosphere of the Bell & Anchor, Great Barrington. There’s something entrancing about a comfortably intimate bar that glows like a pine forest on a bright night.

A dim ambiance cultivates a sense of elegance, romance, and a world of separation from life’s bothers. I associate such a setting with the underground trip hop and avant-jazz lounges found in hip yuppie neighborhoods in coastal cities.

The Bell & Anchor has a significantly more folksy feeling, and instead of a lounge it is a locavore restaurant serving lunch and dinner in a creaky antique house.

But the lighting and floor arrangement are such that a few moments spent seated at the bar lull me into that cool, calm, and introspective mindspace in which I can gaze at the flickering wood stove or muted bar lights as if they were swirling constellations.

n The impressive switchover from Fin to Brava, Lenox.

I’d adored Fin Sushi & Sake for years. It was my go-to Lenox joint, a neon nightspot filled with raucous rock music where the diligent chefs prepared such a rewarding menu that it was always a challenge to order.

When I learned that Fin was to be replaced I prepared to give the space’s new inhabitant a bitter stare with each passing. All my friends agreed.

But Brava knocked me off my high horse and onto a wooden stool at its beautiful bar.

The tapas, wine, mise-en-scenes, and even the owner are so authentically those of a Northern California enoteca that Brava is, in a sense, a California tapas and wine bar that just happens to be hanging out in Lenox for awhile.

The owner, who was also our bartender and waiter, guided us through a complex menu of wine, charcuterie, and other delights from the Mediterranean as well as the United States.

In the end we got a fabulous meal and a lesson in cheese making and French varietals.

Brava is the breath of fresh West Coast air that I never realized Lenox needed.

All my friends agreed.