LEE -- It was very late on a Monday night when my perennial After Dark cohort Ralph and I circled Stockbridge and then Great Barrington and Lee. It was early, actually. We sought warm food for our tired and empty bellies and wouldn't have minded a pint along with it. The latter request was negotiable. End of wish list.
As prospects looked grim I faintly recalled that the Mass Turnpike McDonald's Lee Eastbound, which is both indeed named that and is located between exits 1 and 2 on the Pike, doesn't close. The plaza, which includes gas pumps, a convenience store, restrooms and some retro video games and pinball machines in addition to several take-out restaurants, was designed to service interstate travelers but is easily accessible from this side of the fence.
Take care not to confuse this establishment with McDonald's Lee West, situated in a nearly identical plaza immediately across the interstate and only open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. It's the eastbound plaza you want. Or don't want, if you find the sound of interstate plazas and Midnight McSnacks repellent. But it's open right now, and that places this destination in a highly elite class around these parts.
As we approached the dining room that perhaps sees a higher volume of new customers than any other in the Berkshires, Ralph and I considered the intended clientele for an all-night fast food window in a road side plaza and its possible relation to the incentive driving the nightlife industry -- a desire to encounter new people. Could the Eastbound Travel Plaza be a secret or untapped hotspot for locals and out-of-towners to meet?
Probably not. There's an unkempt but secure parking lot with fencing permitting the passage of bodies, but not vehicles. Found at the end of Turnpike Service Road (a colonial-era name selected by Israel Bissell himself) in Lee, which is accessible from Stockbridge Road in Lee and Lee Road in Stockbridge, right where the towns meet. This prohibits you from driving through the back of the lot and onto the highway, or vice versa.
The plaza houses D'Angelo Grilled Sandwiches, Papa Gino Pizzeria and a sandwich, wrap and smoothie counter called Fresh City carefully decorated to read like the alternative for the health-conscious passenger in the car. Across from them a massive dining room lined with rows and rows of tables and booths, enough to house the whole traffic jam and all 10 field trips was vacant except for one man who silently occupied a table in the darkened expanse of the main dining room.
Only McDonald's and the adjacent convenient store were open, the rest gated.
"This place was meant to hold a lot of people," said Ralph while gazing at the muted, corporate-art toned interior that we agreed reminded us of airports and mall food courts built in the 1990s.
"I think it's because this place caters to travelers. But I wonder why there aren't any other locals here," I said. "This is the only food within a 20-minute drive. You'd think there'd be more degenerates like us, willing to eat crappy food at a truck stop just because it's all we've got. And the music's pretty good."
"Yeah!" said Ralph, who'd been nodding his head to the last few 1970s R&B numbers. "This place isn't so bad. Comfortable, plenty of space. Too bad there aren't a lot of people hanging out here."
"We used to come and meet up at these types of places when we were younger," I said.
"At 3 or 4 in the morning," Ralph said, finishing my though. "It was the only place the was open. I guess kids don't do that anymore."
"Think they have a BYOB policy?" I asked, pipe dreaming a potential for this enormous venue as some sort of gather place for the 21 and up crowd.
"No," he wisely responded to my question. "This is a highway service station."
As we walked back behind the shiny building lit by neon advertising signs, and through the gate that's too small for a vehicle, just as we approached Ralph's car, a jeep came barreling up the road and into the spot next to us. Out jumped four people in their late teens or early 20s. Two men and two women, their spirits seemed high and as they bantered and trotted through the fence to the plaza made for people just passing through.