Relighting The Lantern: New owner keeping old tradition alive
PITTSFIELD — The sign on the outside of the building is the same. So are the tables and seating arrangements. The bar is new, the grill is no longer in the front, and the food and beverage offerings have been tweaked a little bit.
But if you really want to know what new owner Bjorn Somlo was striving for when he decided to reopen the iconic Lantern Bar & Grill on North Street, the answer can be found on the menu. The phrase, "Nothing More Contemporary Than a Classic" is written across the front.
"That was his catchphrase," said Somlo, referring to The Lantern's former owner Mark Papas, whose family had been involved in the operation of the business since 1916. "From the moment we saw it we were like, 'That's perfect. That's what we're trying to do.' "
Somlo, who also owns Nudel restaurant in Lenox, re-opened The Lantern last month after taking on the daunting task of trying to replace what was arguably downtown Pittsfield's most iconic eatery.
"My intention was not to see The Lantern go, and carry some of its spirit and soul forward," Somlo said. "It came out of one of those incredible eras in Pittsfield's history, and I think history is important. And, I always loved the place."So I did everything that I could with the guest experience to change it as little as possible," he said. "But then again changes to the business that opened in 2019 had to happen. It's a different world."
Papas closed The Lantern for good in August 2017 after a recently installed cooking system was found not to be in compliance with the city's fire regulations. Papas told The Eagle then that the cost of bringing the system back into compliance would be considerable.
A Tyler Street restaurant facing a similar situation closed in 2013 rather than pay the estimated $28,000 to $30,000 in upgrade costs.
Closing The Lantern was like shutting a page on the city's history. The Lantern's origins date back to a lunch cart on Summer Street that Papas' grandfather, Gus Papas, and his business partner, William Yerazunis, started in 1916. In the 1930s, the two men opened a restaurant known as "The Puritan" on the corner of North and Linden streets. Gus Papas died in 1949, and the eatery was re-named The Lantern after Papas's father, William G. Papas, bought out Yerazunis in 1952.
Somlo, 38, who grew up in and around the Berkshires and has been in the restaurant business since he was 16, became a patron of The Lantern a few years ago and had become friendly with Mark Papas. Familiar with the situation involving The Lantern's fire code regulations, Solmo asked Papas to contact him if he decided to make any changes to the business.
"After he made the decision to close he gave me a call and asked me if I wanted to do something to keep it going," Somlo said. "Since then it's been quite an extended process."
Somlo actually became involved in the process after the 119-year-old building The Lantern is located in was sold by the Papas family to Mill Town Capital, a Pittsfield-based impact investment fund, for $250,000 last March.
Since forming two years ago, Mill Town has invested in several city ventures, including the co-working space, Frameworks, which is located on the same North Street block as The Lantern. Mill Town's managing director, Pittsfield native Tim Burke, had been discussing ideas for downtown Pittsfield with Somlo before The Lantern closed.
"We were exploring different concepts for Pittsfield and kicking different ideas around when we heard The Lantern was closing," said Burke, who formed Mill Town Capital after returning to Pittsfield following seven years in the biotech industry in Cambridge. "We were both very interested. We bought the building and worked out a lease."
"We looked at it as an historic but also a high potential downtown asset," Burke said. "It was interesting for us to have an asset like The Lantern."
Having someone with Somlo's experience on board also made the project more viable.
"Without Bjorn, we still would have been able to pull it off," Burke said, referring to the reopening of The Lantern. "But we're not restaurant operators. We needed a strong partner to make it a success."
"They were instrumental in making this a possibility," Somlo said of Mill Town Capital.
Somlo replaced The Lantern's original bar — the new one is in the same place — and moved the grill that Papas used from the front window into the back. Somlo won't say how much he spent on renovations.
"[The numbers] are mixed in with the building and other stuff," he said. "We can say the budget far exceeded the expectations."
The menu consists of what The Lantern's new chef, Ray Stalker, refers to as "approachable food," items like fried chicken, chicken wings, burgers, sandwiches and salads made with fresh ingredients. "We're using grass-fed beef and natural chicken," Stalker said.
They're mixed in with some more esoteric choices.
"We have pate on the menu," he said. "I didn't know how well it would sell, but it sells pretty well."
Stalker, who is originally from Kinderhook, N.Y., worked as a chef at Nudel before coming to The Lantern.
"In the past decade or so I've worked in restaurants where my family and friends wouldn't really come because the place wasn't really their style," Stalker said. "So the concept was to do approachable food that I grew up eating with better technique."
The original Lantern was known for its burgers. The new Lantern's burger is actually two little bacon cheeseburgers, an item that Somlo refers to as "an awesome rendition of a fast-food burger."
It would have been foolish for the new Lantern to try and replicate what Papas had done, he said.
"The big thing is we're not trying to touch Mark's char-grilled burger," Somlo said. "You can't replicate someone's memory of something they love when it's changed. Even if Mark was back there cooking and said it's the same burger, there'd still be an audience that says it's not. That's also why we also didn't start lunch right away."
The Lantern is currently open from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but expects to extend its hours to 11 p.m. in the spring. The eatery currently has a mixture of 12 full and part-time employees, but expects to have between 15 and 18 when it eventually opens for lunch.
"When everything is going well we'll add lunch when we can," Somlo said.
"We've worked really hard to get this place open, and we want to know who's coming in and how best to serve them," he said. "One of the expressions we had when we were going through this is, 'we've tried to relight the Lantern and take it from there.' The people have been phenomenal. I think they really get it."
Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at email@example.com or 413-496-6224.
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