BECKET -- When heading to the Dream Away Lodge with out-of-town friends, the fun begins on the drive. The 10 minutes before arrival are spent on darkly wooded sharp turns, steep climbs, and largely vacant country roads sprinkled with just a few darkened houses shrouded by evergreens.
Without fail, someone from the back seat will sheepishly ask, "Are are you sure you know where you're taking us?"
It's this period of shadowy disorientation that makes the lodge's appearance all the more like a mirage.
The 18th-century building and its grounds are lit up like a Christmas tree year round, glowing with vintage neon beer signs, flickering candles in mish-mash fixtures, the orange light of indoor fireplaces and an outdoor campfire overlooking a small pond, and the carnival colors of the bar's façade.
The sheepish questioner's eyes grow wide and he asks, "What kind of place is this?"
The answer depends entirely on whom you ask, and I'm far too biased to be trusted.
I used to work behind that bar mixing drinks, explaining the lodge's colorful back story and surrounding lore to newcomers (In short: farmhouse, speakeasy, gypsies, brothel(?), Guthrie-Dylan-Baez-Ginsburg, actor Daniel Osman takes over in 1997) and convincing some of my favorite bands to play in the cozy music room.
I can attest to the fact that the after-dinner scene, both in the bar and the music room, fluctuates wildly from night to night.
Sometimes you'll find a handful or regulars sharing pie and stories as a local folk musician strums peacefully. On other nights college-age camp counselors set the tone as a plugged-in hobo rock band howls away.
And once in a while a formally dressed crowd, having just escaped some stuffy gala, or a full wedding party not quite ready for bed, will flood the bar at midnight looking to dance.
I recently returned to the lodge with nine friends, visiting from Brooklyn, for dinner and music. Two of them, dear chums named Nick Nauman and Joel Stillman, are a surf guitar duo called Haussmann, and they were slated as the evening's entertainment. Given my questionable objectivity, here's how their night went.
As surely as we all idealize what lies out of reach, I heard the city folk express admiration for the lodge's many rural trappings: the warm and casual attitude of the front-of-house staff, ample seating options in the music room, the dog that greeted us in the bar but knew to keep out of the dining room.
The Dream Away's unparalleled aesthetic is also a product of legroom. All the retro signs, framed photos, books, toys, curios, and artifacts that adorn the interior like a scrapbook of 20th -century America's more colorful culture, would be unthinkable in tight urban quarters. Here they can be viewed from five angles.
The menu elicited a round of "Ooooh"s and plenty of scrutiny. Its ethnic breadth suggested a larger kitchen, and the close-by sourcing of many ingredients was a popular detail. Portions were quite large, so our meal blurred into a potluck after the first few bites.
The former bartender in me grew edgy as some larger tables began to leave for the evening. The musicians decide when to start playing, and I recalled that catching the dinner crowd on their way past the music room door was essential for building a larger audience.
Haussmann quickly made their way to the front of the music room, a spacious former living room with bench seating along three walls and assorted stools and ottomans arranged in between. They stood at the back of the room, framed by an upright piano and a sizzling fire.
Their music was hypnotic, appealing to the people of all ages who spent some time silently listening to Haussmann's soothing guitar arrangements built on a skeleton of precise arrangement, but softened by harmony and nostalgic reverb.
After a half-hour set the band thanked the audience and started packing up. Osman rushed in and asked them to continue playing. Nick smiled at me and said,
"This is great. In the city everyone tells us to wrap it up quickly."
A few friends grabbed instruments that live at the lodge and joined Haussmann for an extended improvisation. The audience, most of which stayed throughout, applauded loudly at the end.
During the ride home, even the most sheepish had only praise for the Dream Away.
If you go ...
The Dream Away Lodge: 1325 County Road, Becket, (413) 623-8725, www.thedreamawaylodge.com
Style: Restaurant, bar and music venue set in a timeless roadhouse on sprawlinggrounds in the middle of a state forest
Dress: The lodge draws earth-covered farmers, ostentatious artists and demure sophisticates alike.
Cover: None, though audiences are encouraged to tip the band.
Food: An evolving menu of hearty New England fare and noteworthy nonwestern dishes, all overseen by chef Amy Loveless
Entertainment: Live music every night they're open
Our rating: 5 mugs; Round's on me!