LENOX - The formerly quiet downtown off-season scene, described by some as a near-wasteland just a few years ago, is showing new vibrancy as more businesses stay open year-round. The goal is to lure area residents after warm-weather tourism wanes.
The newest convert to the revival of night life in the historic district is Cafe Lucia, which has been open longer under the same ownership than any other restaurant in town. A pickup in year-round activity also is driven by the Lenox Merchants Group, formed several years ago to enhance slow-season retail traffic.
After adding a spiffy, all-wood bar, owner Jim Lucie and his partner, Nadine Atalla, will welcome patrons all winter for the first time since the Great Recession began eight years ago.
The restaurant on Church Street, continuing to offer high-end Italian cuisine in the summer, was opened by Jim Lucie 33 years ago, and has recently catered primarily to the New York and Boston summer crowd.
But now, Cafe Lucia, with a simplified, lower-price winter menu, joins other dining spots attracting locals such as the recently renovated Firefly, across the street, offering $5 hamburgers on Wednesdays; Frankie's Ristorante on Main Street, with a $20, three-course menu Sundays through Thursdays; Brava on Housatonic Street, featuring small plates and wine, and the historic Olde Heritage Tavern, which boasts "great homemade food in a casual atmosphere at non-Lenox prices."
Lucie said he and Atalla had long wanted to open a full-service bar serving food to enable a year-round presence.
"Nadine has been the leading force of wanting to stay open in the winter," he said, "and also on making it more available and approachable for the local clientele." They worked together to craft the new menu.
"You hear it over and over again, locals saying they try to avoid the restaurants in the summertime. Therefore, if we weren't open in the wintertime, that made for a bad business model," Lucie said.
"We decided that in order to make it work, we had to recognize that people are looking for something more casual and accessible in the off-season," he said. "Local people want to go out but don't want to commit to a full dinner menu, they want to spend a couple of hours outside the house."
They set their sights on paring down the pricey high-season menu to make it simpler and more casual, a "cafe winterlude" concept that begins on Tuesday.
"I truly believe most people go out for social reasons and food is the medium," Lucie said. "You have to keep up with the times, and even the flagship restaurants in New York and Boston are doing spinoffs with much more casual menus. They recognize that's the direction people want to go in, particularly those who eat out frequently."
The new menu features fewer items, with half-price pasta portions priced at $9.95, and full servings at $18.95, considerably below the cost of the restaurant's summertime menu.
Cafe Lucia also will offer hamburgers, several sandwich choices, soups, salads and a limited selection of chicken, veal and fish dishes.
"You don't want to make the restaurant a `special occasion' destination so the menu and the pricing have to reflect that," Lucie said. On weekdays, diners will be served in the 20-seat bar area, while weekend patrons also will be seated in the main dining room.
The "winterlude" concept, Tuesdays through Saturdays, will be supplanted by a full menu during holiday weeks such as Christmas-New Year's and Presidents Week.
"It's realistic to expect that it will take a few years to build up the off-season business," Lucie said, "but as long as it's moving in the right direction, then we'll stay the course."
Cafe Lucia opened in a portion of the former Honey Sharp Art Gallery and Ganesh Cafe on May 15, 1983, as Lucie, then 38, recalled. At the outset, it served lunch, an "intermezzo" menu and dinner seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. to midnight year-round before segueing to a dinner-only schedule in 1993. After leasing the space, Lucie purchased the building in 1989.
He had started as a school adjustment counselor in Norwood. But, seeking a career change, he learned the restaurant trade as a bartender, prep and line cook and then apprentice chef. He honed his skills as food and beverage director at the Red Lion Inn and during a brief stint as general manager of the Hotel Northampton.
In 2009, affected by the recession and the ebbing of the corporate community from GE, KB Toys and other large employers, Cafe Lucia cut back to a mid-May through late-October schedule. Other Lenox fixtures, such as Alta, Bistro Zinc, Betty's Pizza Shack and Prime Italian Steakhouse and Bar, continued to forge an all-year clientele.
On the longevity, single-owner scale, Lucia approaches stalwarts such as Terry Moore's The Old Mill in South Egremont, which he opened in 1980, and the Champagne family's Mill on the Floss in New Ashford, opened more than 40 years ago.
Lucie, a Teaneck, N.J., native who's about to turn 73, said "being around young people keeps you young and I can't conceive of not working." Interviewed before last weekend's snow burst, he credited last winter's lack of snow for prompting the decision to keep busy since he and his partner are active Nordic skiers.
"There's going to be a learning curve, we'll have to re-educate the dining public that we are year-round," he said. "It's realistic to expect that it's going to take a few years to build up that knowledge, but as long as it's moving in the right direction, then we'll stay the course."
"I remember it was extremely boring to be off for six months," Lucie said. But they'll still have plenty of time to hit the slopes. "We're still only serving dinner, five nights a week," he said.
Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at email@example.com or 413-637-2551.